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College For Everyone

David Adesnik asks an interesting question -- what if we did something good and liberal and made obtaining a college degree near-universal? By and large, I think this would be an excellent thing for many of the reasons David cites. This would have a dynamic effect on the sort of jobs that exist in America and allow a larger proportion of the population to have better jobs. Still, it's worth noting that there are certain sorts of non-tradable unskilled jobs that would have to get done anyway. You can't outsource janitors or construction workers or landscaping, etc. Now in the context of a workforce that was, on the whole, extremely well-educated and productive these jobs might just become higher paying. On the other hand, you might have a replay of the European situation where rising productivity (and a robust welfare state) made it hard to find people willing to do these jobs for the customary low wages, and instead of paying higher wages the governments chose to simply import unskilled labor.

That would be okay, too, from my perspective. It's often not realized, but allowing immigrants into the developed world to work for what are low waged by developed standards but high ones by developing world standards is one of the more effective ways to ameliorate global poverty. But if immigration to the US were to rise substantially in this way, there might be increasing pressure to do what Europe did and turn the immigrants into a helot class of "guest workers" rather than full-fledged citizens-to-be. That, in turn, could have many of the bad consequences we've seen from Europe's illiberal immigration regime.

The other thing to note about education, of course, is that while upgrading the workforce does excellent things to improve the economic outlook for future people it does almost nothing -- indeed, can in some ways be harmful -- to current adults. When Bush answersed outsourcing questions during the debates with reference to the need for better education, he was sketching an appropriate policy response for the long term, but being completely insensitive to the problems these dislocations cause for people who face economic distress right now. To some extent, there's less you can do for currently-existing people than for hypothetical future-people, but that's not an appropriate excuse for doing nothing.

December 21, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

More or less everyone who wants to go to college in the US can go to college. Perhaps not at Harvard, perhaps not for free, certainly not without some effort. But it can be done. I work with blue-collar high school dropouts who are motivating themselves through community college at age 40 all the time.

The real problem is this: higher education and the "knowledge economy" careers it leads to are not for everyone. There is a substantial percent of the population who are essentially allergic to the whole process of classroom learning. They are not stupid or lazy (necessarily, or any more so than their college-attending peers) - they just DON'T GET classroom learning and the kinds of abstraction-based jobs that follow from it.

Up to 30 years ago there were plenty of rewarding and satisfying jobs and careers for people like this. Now, thanks in large part to Matt's previous outsourcing post, most of those jobs are gone. What are we going to DO with this segement of the population?

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 21, 2004 10:50:52 AM

College for everyone will only end up debasing college (... even further). There are some perfectly smart, competent people who are just utterly non-academic, and forcing these people to go to college so they can become mechanics or whatever strikes me as a huge waste of time and resources.

Is that an elitist point of view? Or is it more elitist to assume that what's good for the typical pol-blog reader is good for everyone?

(Hm ... political blog ... pollyblog? written & read by pollybloggers? but I digress.)

My impression, from 3 years of teaching freshman comp, has been that too many people are going to college as it is.

Posted by: Anderson | Dec 21, 2004 10:51:44 AM

College is not for everyone. In fact, most of the people getting "business degrees" or engineering degrees as undergraduates couldn't care less about the humanities or social sciences, the classes that help inform you about the wider world (or prepare you for driving a cab, waiting tables, teaching English as a second language or blog). The rest are vocational/technical studies that could just as easily be taught outside of universities.

Posted by: Jeff I | Dec 21, 2004 10:55:37 AM

> engineering degrees as undergraduates
> couldn't care less about the humanities or
> social sciences, the classes that help
> inform you about the wider world

Admittedly, over on the engineering side of the campus you will find plenty of well-read and well-educated people who will tell you that the inability of the average humanities student to solve a simple math problem or pass a watered-down science class might also be considered a lack of understanding of the "wider world".

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 21, 2004 11:04:49 AM

Alternate suggestion: Make high school less of a day care center. It seems foolish to just warehouse children during the years they're neurologically best equipped for rapid learning, and then start teaching them only after learning becomes more difficult.

Another important point is that, regrettably, a substantial portion of the population isn't capable of benefiting from a real college education, and there's no point in pretending otherwise. Make college universal, and rather than accept failure rates in excess of 50%, we'll probably end up turning THAT into a daycare center, too, and anybody who wants to learn something will have to go for a graduate degree, delaying still further productive work.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 21, 2004 11:07:11 AM

I think this is two separate issues:

1) the one I support - making going to college easier for those who want to go via a variety of financial incentives (many of the presidential candidates had ideas along this line - Edwards' "College for Everyone" springs to mind) and

2) the one I don't support - striving for universality of college degrees. As other commenter have pointed out, there is a sizable portion of the population (and in my opinion, a sizable portion of the college population) who should not be in college. Again, as other commenters have pointed out, an answer is a strengthened vocational education program etc.


Posted by: Scott Pauls | Dec 21, 2004 11:07:45 AM

> gain, as other commenters have pointed out,
> an answer is a strengthened vocational
> education program etc.

Um, we HAD strong vocational programs. People came from hundreds of miles around to attend the Chicago Public Schools' advanced vo-tech programs, something that certainly could not have been said about its academic programs.

Those vocational programs are mostly gone now because there are /no jobs for their graduates/. As of 2004 we more-or-less have the dumbbell economy that Walter Mondale talked about: flipping hamburgers and sweeping up around the Toyotas.

The problem is the lack of decent, family-supporting jobs - not a lack of vocational programs.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 21, 2004 11:14:48 AM

This is, of course, assuming that college actually does increase productivity and not simply serve as a mechanism for separating between high, medium, and low productivity people. In some cases, this may be true (such as more technical degrees in the sciences), but on the whole the value of a college education is in separating you from others. Andrew Weiss puts forward a similar explanation in "Human Capital vs. Signalling Explanations of Wages" in JEP 1995.

On the margin, I doubt that all those meta-ethics courses you took made you more productive in any meaningful sense. More knowledgeable about meta-ethics, certainly, but hardly more productive.

If college were made mandatory, then people would have to spend many more years beyond college getting a variety of other degrees in order to adequately signal employers.

Instead, why not focus on improving the quality of high school education?

Posted by: DS | Dec 21, 2004 11:16:51 AM

Now, now, I can assure you that there are still plenty of jobs for machinists, for people who are willing to work with their hands AND their brains, and are willing to move to where the work is. And it doesn't take a four year degree, either.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 21, 2004 11:20:32 AM

If you want to see the economy that you described, you should come to San Diego. Lots of high end jobs and a well educated workforce along with illegal and legal immigrants to do the low wage jobs nobody wants.

Posted by: surfk9 | Dec 21, 2004 11:22:29 AM

I have to say I agree with Brent B. My mother taught journalism for years at a middling catholic school in the midwest, and she ended up giving it up mainly because in any given year 3/4 of the class just didn't give a shit (her class was a requirement for a degree in "Communications")

Posted by: Goldberg | Dec 21, 2004 11:23:20 AM

Yeah, lower the bar even more. College SAT scores peaked in 1963. Require more math and memorization in grade school. College students of today have access to more information than ever before but they are not knowledgeable and are not capable or comfortable making decisions. College or University should not be easily attainable but should be difficult which creates an achievable goal for those who wish to improve themselves. Calculus has been one of the most influential ideas in human history and should be required of all college freshman. Calculus is a fascinating intellectual adventure that helps to explain many of the unexplainable things in our world. Social sciences are important but don’t throw out all the good that comes from Math and Science just because they are more difficult subjects. Challenge students-don’t give them all As and Bs just for showing up and paying their fees like they do at Harvard.

Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 21, 2004 11:23:37 AM

Fair enough cranky.

I will point out that there are several sectors where the supply just doesn't meet demand in many areas of the country. For example, nurses and midlevel health care practitioners. Statewide voc-ed that leads to various nursing/health care degrees - LPN, PA, etc - without spending four years in college to prepare to get an RN would be a huge boon to many hospitals that are currently forced to recruit at substantial cost such mid-level providers.

This type of educational structure is not present in many areas of the country and the jobs are certainly there.

Posted by: Scott Pauls | Dec 21, 2004 11:24:08 AM

Physical therapists; According to my mother's, they're in such great demand that he's touring the world, (He's Australian.) and when he wants to visit another country, he just looks up a hospital there, gives 'em a call, and soon enough he's got a job.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 21, 2004 11:29:25 AM

Making college universal is a surefire way to dumb down its educational and economic worth.

The other thing is that not everyone wants to go to college, and many of those who have gone would have been better served by temporarily or permanently delaying entry until they got their shit together. As others have said, it is more important to ensure that those who *want* to go but cannot afford it get to go.

A college education is better when the school is not filled by folks whose only reason for attending is that their parents wanted them there, or that they can think of nothing better to do. Or worse, that they are forced to be there by the government.

And regarding the landscaping, construction, and janitor jobs you mention, I dunno about your neck of the woods but where I'm at they already are well filled by immigrants.

Posted by: Timothy | Dec 21, 2004 11:30:49 AM

If we are to continue to outsource manufacturing jobs, telecommunication jobs, technical support jobs, etc., all that is left for those who just aren't into higher education is service jobs. What kind of economy will we have with the majority of jobs available to over half of the population being low paid service jobs? And, doesn't that give the answer right there? Don't we need to raise the pay levels of typical service jobs? Or would that simply be incentive to find ways to outsource them too?

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Dec 21, 2004 11:34:08 AM

Cranky:
“Um, we HAD strong vocational programs. People came from hundreds of miles around to attend the Chicago Public Schools' advanced vo-tech programs, something that certainly could not have been said about its academic programs”

Our school district did away with virtually all the vo-tech programs in high school because the insurance premiums and liability became to large to continue. One fire in and auto mechanics class can wipe out a school district or one kid slicing off a finger in wood shop and the lawyers descend like locusts. So the non-college bound suffer because of the elite legal sector. The alternative was to start Cisco and Microsoft certification training but these classes were filled by the achievers who were/are college bound anyway.

Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 21, 2004 11:37:30 AM

Challenge students-don’t give them all As and Bs just for showing up and paying their fees like they do at Harvard.

Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war....

Posted by: digamma | Dec 21, 2004 11:40:06 AM

You can't outsource janitors or construction workers or landscaping, etc.

In the short-term, no; in the long term, effectively, you could, if not outsource, replace some of them through increasingly capital-intensive techniques (robotics eventually, building facilities with integrated waste removal and cleaning systems, etc.).

The other thing to note about education, of course, is that while upgrading the workforce does excellent things to improve the economic outlook for future people it does almost nothing -- indeed, can in some ways be harmful -- to current adults.

That's entirely a product of how you "upgrade the workforce"; except for people near retirement -- who probably aren't hurt much under any reasonable scenario -- the problem can be alleviated by providing the opportunity for current working adults to benefit from increased educational opportunity as well as making continuation through college more nearly universal for the younger generation.

That having been said, I think that making college (at least of the four-year variety) universal is probably undesirable; making it universally available -- and effectively free -- to all those qualified for and interested in it is probably a better goal.

OTOH, even for those not seeking college, some better business and practical economics oriented education as part of the universal high-school curriculum -- would be desirable; "better jobs" aren't the answer to distributional problems in the economy so much as supporting better capital distribution. Part of that will need to be done through tax policy and other policy, part through skill development.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 21, 2004 11:41:07 AM

> Our school district did away with virtually
> all the vo-tech programs in high school
> because the insurance premiums and liability
> became to large to continue. One fire in
> and auto mechanics class can wipe out a
> school district or one kid slicing off a
> finger in wood shop and the lawyers descend
> like locusts.

I don't question that that has happened in some places, but our typical middle-class suburban school district manages to do a lot of the traditional things that everyone claims have been sued out of existence without being sued out of existence, including shop classes.

However, with 500,000 manufacturing jobs having disappeared out of this metropolitan area over the last 30 years there are very few places for the graduates of that shop program to go.

Matt is all in favor of moving these jobs to India, but he still hasn't weighed in on what those not fortunate enough to be born to rich parents are supposed to do if they don't/can't become metaphysicians.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 21, 2004 11:46:57 AM

I am surprised that you have referred to the work of "...janitors or construction workers or landscaping..." as unskilled.

Your a statement is simply incorrect. And more than snobbery, which would be bad enough, it also indicates little understanding of how the physical world is organized and the amount of knowledge & skill which is required, at least in construction and landscaping. Do you really think it takes little skill or judgment to frame or plumb or wire a house?

I hope that attitude is merely an early morning slip and also not reflective of the Democrat Party in general because if it is, it shows disrespect for and lack of understanding of the work of many, many Americans.

Posted by: David Sucher | Dec 21, 2004 11:51:21 AM

Um, we HAD strong vocational programs. People came from hundreds of miles around to attend the Chicago Public Schools' advanced vo-tech programs, something that certainly could not have been said about its academic programs...Those vocational programs are mostly gone now because there are /no jobs for their graduates/. As of 2004 we more-or-less have the dumbbell economy that Walter Mondale talked about: flipping hamburgers and sweeping up around the Toyotas.

This simply isn't true, at least around these parts (Eastern Mass.). Regional vocational high schools here train one for certification as a carpenter, electrician, auto mechanic etc. Demand for such workers continues to be high, and wages commensurately so.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Dec 21, 2004 11:55:28 AM

If we are to continue to outsource manufacturing jobs, telecommunication jobs, technical support jobs, etc., all that is left for those who just aren't into higher education is service jobs.

I'd like to see you outsource the renovation of your house or the repair of your car to a firm in Bangalore. Anyway, the death of American manufacturing is, as usualy, highly exaggerated. I believe you'll find the real aggregate value added by manufacturers in the United States is at or near an all time high. It's true that this value-adding doesn't require as high a percentage of the workforce as before (it's true for all the world's rich countries, by the way), but that's partly a by-product of greater automation, and higher productivity, without which Americans would enjoy a lower standard of living.

I think a far greater problem for the American worker than the composition of the jobmarket (ie, manufacturing vs. services) is the greater volatility that accompanies our ability to continually push the productivity envelope. In plain English that's lack of job security and dependable benefits. This problem affects factory workers and office drones alike. Here's an area where government can, and ought to, do a lot more. But enacting policies that encumber American firms in their quest for greater productivity is exactly what you don't want to do if you're at all concerned with prosperity, and living standards, and affording Social Security.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Dec 21, 2004 12:11:19 PM

Matt, I worked as a carpenter on many complex projects, from dams to power plants, to doing fine finish work on corporate offices. Good construction workers are highly skilled, and I am a bit surprised that you made such a comment. I suspect it's based on ignorance, not prejudice, so you are forgiven. Union apprentiship courses are usually four years in duration, and I can tell you from experience, that this is just barely enough time to learn the basics of the trade. Modern buildings are highly complex structures, and assembling them is far from unskilled labor.

Posted by: Roger Amick | Dec 21, 2004 12:12:29 PM

David,

The terms "skilled" and "unskilled" jobs have a long history in labor history and economics. They have been used by employers, union organizers, and those who study them for over 100 years. You are right to point out that the terms themselves seem to imply a lack of respect for the difficulty involved in jobs like landscaping. Also, what gets defined as "skilled" and "unskilled" _has_ often been a function of politics and/or historically contingent developments in particular industries. However, there is something to the distinction, and some sort of terminology is needed. Many difficult jobs can be learned in less than 6 months on the job. These would be termed "unskilled," and there would be low barriers to entry. The pay would, thus, be low.

In short, despite the unfortunate terminology, I don't think that people were trying to be dismissive of manual work. They were just using standard terms.

Posted by: catfish | Dec 21, 2004 12:12:31 PM

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