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.

You've nailed it. I would only add, this situation will not change until High Schools start to add more career-oriented programs, and/or allow work/study.
I got through college by working various jobs, getting various scholarships, and going to an inexpensive state school (less than $800 in tuition my first semester, in 1990). My parents helped a bit, but on the order of a few hundred $$ here and there. Is there some reason you're not discussing this path to a debt-free degree? I'm a professor at an inexpensive state school and know of many undergrads who have jobs, so I suspect that this option can still work even if in-state tuition has gone up significantly in the last 20 years.
I think an explanation (or at least a partial one) is that both finding a job and hiring have become much more complex. I bet your grandfather applied for one or two jobs at a time when he was looking for work. Nowadays people apply for dozens, if not hundreds.

There are too many choices, and correspondingly companies are flooded with resumes. Education levels provide valuable (if sometimes inaccurate) signals to help sort through the mess. You see the same pattern in white collar jobs, for which a BA used to be plenty, but now if you want to rise much past entry level you need graduate degrees.

The answer to "what else is to be done?" may be "nothing". In your grandfather's time high school was not for everybody, but over time it became needed for a good job, and now college is too, etc. The only thing to do is what you already mentioned and what we did with high school: namely expand access. This will lead unavoidably to a watering down of minimum requirements in college, so hopefully we will be able to keep enough "honors programs" or whatever to keep strong and ambitious students challenged.

But I think given increasing populations and choices this trend is not reversible.
I should add that "expand access" should also include socializing the cost of college. This is a big challenge because so much money is involved, but just as everybody can afford high school, so too does everybody need to be able to afford college. Probably taxes will need to go up, and not just a little...
Great post all around. I do want to point out this comment:

I think an explanation (or at least a partial one) is that both finding a job and hiring have become much more complex. I bet your grandfather applied for one or two jobs at a time when he was looking for work. Nowadays people apply for dozens, if not hundreds.

This is part of the issue. Employers are getting more picky, bad economy or not. The reason people apply for so many positions is that there's no real guarantee for any of them (trust me, it's not because people like sitting around tweaking resumes all day). A good degree, nicely formatted resume, some hard skills like using office suites and such and a "can-do" attitude aren't enough for a job nowadays. In fact, that's the bare minimum; any less and your resume goes into the NO pile immediately.

Paradox of choice might have something to do with it though. Once employers start to see workers as investments and not costs, things might change.
Very interesting. I think that this item in today's NYTimes is relevant here. It helps to explain why the competition for jobs has become so ferocious:

I was surprised by the unexpected position taken by many liberal commentors.
Thank you for this DD. And while I don't expect you to be out in the streets I do expect you and the people that you can influence for whom protesting is not an option to do everything else they can. Write letters, write emails, tell elected officials, tell the media, convert others, get churches and other institutions involved etc. The people doing the occupying are simply raising awareness, real change is going to take many others doing many other things.

And, if you are so inclined, protect and foster the occupations. Bring them food and other things they need. And when/if there is police brutality condemn it loudly and publicly.

Again, thank you.
John Regehr, I went to school at the same time as you. I also teach at a relatively "cheap" state school now. Here are a couple of differences to consider.

Assumption 1: Supposing that the total cost of school in 1990 was about $3000 (tuition, fees, and books - and assuming you didn't live on campus and somehow you had magically "free" transportation to and from school) and today, it is about $11,000 (cost of tuition + fees + modest textbook allowance at my bargain state school, still supposing free transportation and living at home).

Assumption 2: In 1990, minimum wage in my state was $3.35/hr. Today it is $7.40/hr.

Given the above, if you worked 50 weeks/year, then in 1990 you would have needed to work about 18 hours a week to pay for school. Today you would need to work about 30 hours a week to do the same. That's pre-tax, so in reality you need to work more than that.

Do your students who work nearly full time, and who take a full load of classes typically do well in your classes? That's not my experience. They're exhausted, unable to focus on learning, and often they are just scraping by.

Scholarships are still "out there" and yes, every dollar helps. But many of the scholarships offered by community organizations - the ones that are relatively accessible to most normal kids - haven't kept up with the inflated cost of college. In 1990 a $500 scholarship would have covered 16.7% of the cost of a year of college. Today it would cover 4.5%.

The college finance world is a different place today. Maybe that's why DD isn't discussing your (and my) old paths to a debt-free undergrad degree. Those paths we took aren't widely available anymore. We would do well to recognize the limits of our own experiences.
You followed the rules and still came up short.

I keep hearing this excuse. Under what rules is racking up debt to major in English, social work, or history "following the rules"? That path has been a punchline for as long as I've been alive.
Making it voluntary is hard when it's still so monolithic. Perhaps another dimension involves making smaller and more bendy versions of it so that it's easier to imagine a world in which work and learning can entwine, and education debt isn't managed entirely as hedge against future success. Learn-as-you-go has been a pattern in vocational and trade education, and in some cases military education; but not so much in standard college education, except in innovative cases. Modularisation might also enable collaboration across disciplines so that a student could undertake more than one discrete work-related course program over the time of their enrolment, and at the end would bundle these up as sufficient credit to be called a college degree.
Is there any chance the US could switch to a 3yr BS system, like the UK/Aus does? People headed to normal people jobs would get the credential in 3 years, and spend a year less in tuition/costs. People going on to grad school would do a more rigorous 4 years to get a BShons. Grad school would remain the same.

It would cost less for the people who don't really need in-depth technical skills, remove people from the grad school track that don't want to be here (which, honestly is an issue in my STEM field at an open-admissions 4yr school).
Part of the problem is, I think, people assuming that because having qualification X now means you'll get a good job, all we have to do to end unemployment, raise the standard of living, etc, is to make it possible for everyone to get qualification X.

Back in grandad's day, having a high school diploma was unusual, and so it was the entry ticket to a lot of good jobs. Now everyone's got one, and it means nothing. College is the new high school, and if we run everyone through college it, too, will mean nothing in the end as employers will stop using a college diploma as a sorting tool.
The NYT's response to OWS has been pretty pro-class-war.
Funny, a Colorado junior college is offering a lineman-training program, because the utilities say that their people are nearing retirement age.

Where are the young ones? Oh, someone probably told them that they would make more money if they went to a four-year college.
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