Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Else Is To Be Done?

Lenin famously asked “what is to be done?” The relevant question now is slightly different.

I’ve taken heart in the Occupy Wall Street movement, even with its inherent vagueness. One of the clear messages coming from it is resentment of the pincer movement of high student loan debt and a lousy job market. If you’re in your twenties, fresh out of college with a five or six figure loan burden and no immediate prospect of a job that will pay enough to spare you from moving in with your parents, you have a right to feel betrayed. You followed the rules and still came up short.

(Generation X academics lived that movie back in the 90’s, but without the broader cultural support. In this, if in nothing else, we academics actually were ahead of the culture!)

My grandfather lived a life that’s almost unimaginable now. He dropped out of the ninth grade to go to work. He worked as a tree trimmer, then got a job as a lineman for the local electric utility. The job was unionized, and it paid enough (and offered good enough benefits) that he was able to own his own home in a decent neighborhood and send both of his kids -- including his daughter, my Mom -- to college. When he retired in his early sixties, he collected a pension and Social Security, and lived a secure existence right up to the end.

He respected education, and made sure his kids got it, but he didn’t have much himself. The world at the time didn’t require it. He was able to live a perfectly fine working-middle class life without it.

That option doesn’t really exist anymore. The kids who once would have signed up for unionized factory work out of high school can’t get it now, and in the rare cases when they can, they get a permanently lower “tier” of salary as a penalty for being born late.

Yes, there are exceptions, but the overall trend is clear: salaries for people without college degrees have taken beatings over the last few decades. Today’s high school grads are basically correct when they identify college as a de facto necessity. The path my grandfather followed is closed.

Since college is a de facto necessity, the students have taken on whatever debt they’re needed to to cover the cost. And between public disinvestment, Baumol’s cost disease, poor market signaling, and the various “arms races” for prestige, the level of debt required has increased far more quickly than the possibility of paying it back.

In their shoes, I’d be protesting, too. They’re really caught between the dog and the fire hydrant. Skip college, and absent family money or a remarkable bit of luck, you’re pretty much consigned to the economic margins. Go to college, and you have to take on debt that presumes a job market that doesn’t exist anymore. Anya Kamenetz can give all the TED talks she wants about DIY education; for the typical 18 year old, the relevant question about college is “what else is to be done?” If not college, then what?

I’m a huge supporter of many reforms within higher ed to make it more sustainable over time, and of a series of economic and political reforms that I think would make the economy both more equitable and more stable. But I hope that as the dialogue unfolds, we don’t make the mistake of missing the economic coercion underlying so much of the anxiety. Not everyone wants to go to college, and it shouldn’t be an ironclad prerequisite for a middle-class life. I’m all in favor of access, but at some level the access should be voluntary. Let colleges be colleges, which involves a certain amount of cost and, inevitably, telling some students that they just aren’t cutting it.

If we have a reasonable answer to “what else is there,” then it’s much easier to hold the line on academic standards. But if we’re the only game in town, then the economic pressures the students and graduates rightly resent will inevitably drag colleges down, too. A serious answer to the Occupy folk involves far more than some student loan relief, as welcome as that is. It involves ensuring that there are other ways to make a living. Colleges were never meant to be the personnel offices for the entire economy, and they’re straining under the task. The answer is not to keep watering college down until it’s cheap and ubiquitous. The answer is to make it genuinely voluntary. Until then, we’ll just keep shouting at each other as the bills pile up.