Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When Narratives Collide

As regular readers know, I’m a colossal nerd. One of my nerdier habits involves listening to Marketplace podcasts on a daily basis, and even the weekly wrap-up show on weekends. (Livin’ la vida loca!) Over the past few days, I’ve heard variations on these two themes, and I’m having a hard time believing them simultaneously:

1. New college grads are having a terrible time finding jobs. To the extent that many can find jobs, they’re often in positions that don’t really require college degrees.

2. America is falling behind other countries in educational attainment, and the only hope for lasting prosperity is to increase dramatically the educational level of our young people.

I find each of these plausible separately, but I’m having an awful time believing them together. We need more chronically underemployed people who can’t pay back their student loans? It’s not obvious why that would be true.

It may be a short term/long term issue. In the short term we don’t really have enough jobs to go around, but over the long term we’re likelier to prosper with an educated workforce than an uneducated one. Well, okay, but if that’s true, shouldn’t we somehow help tide over the current grads until things turn around?

If the argument for massively increased higher education isn’t individual gain but instead improved odds of larger social gain, then we’re implicitly treating higher education as a public good. If it’s truly a public good, it should be funded accordingly.

In the popular press, point 1 is usually painted as an individual failing, and point 2 is usually treated as structural. But they’re really both structural. If good jobs go begging but new grads would rather smoke pot in Mom’s basement, then okay, that’s individual failing. But that seems to be the exception. More often, new grads are hitting their heads against walls looking for serious employment, and having a terrible time finding it.

Wise and worldly readers, I need your guidance. Is there a reasonable and coherent way to believe both 1 and 2 at the same time?