Thursday, July 08, 2010


This piece, and its attendant comments, stuck in my craw a little. It’s a discussion with an author of a book about the obstacles to low-income students’ success in college.

The author obviously means well, and wants to see students succeed. And there isn’t much arguing with much of what he mentions: complicated family lives, shaky academic preparation, and finances all pose real obstacles. Yup, they do. In the cc world, we see that every day. And I absolutely agree with him that community colleges have a key role to play, especially when the K-12 system in some areas just isn’t getting the job done.

All of that said, though, sometimes I wonder if we’re asking higher ed to do too much.

It’s great when we’re able to help students become truly competitive for the good jobs out there. But when the economy just isn’t producing those jobs in sufficient number, getting even more students prepared is of limited short-term value.

Of course, economic mobility isn’t the only ‘good’ that education serves. I like to think that, say, a literate and numerate electorate will generally make better choices; a literate and numerate population will make for better jury pools; and that the very real expansion of mental horizons that good education can foster is a good in itself, in addition to whatever eventual economic payoff it may generate.

But to the extent that ‘income polarization’ is the problem and ‘higher education’ is the solution, I suspect we’re outgunned.

To see that, we don’t have to go much farther than higher education itself. For a putatively liberal population, we have a markedly inegalitarian reward structure. That’s true within institutions -- compare the salary per course of senior tenured faculty to the pay adjuncts receive for the same courses -- and between them; the salary scale at the typical cc is far below that of a state university, even with higher teaching loads. (One of my recurring fantasies has Gail Mellow achieving high political office and actually enacting the per-student funding parity between sectors of higher ed that she has advocated for years.)

Outside of higher ed, the trend is actually somewhat less pronounced, but it’s still there. Routes into the middle class from below are fewer and slipperier than they once were. More education can help with that to some degree, but at some level, if the demand for employees just isn’t there, it just isn’t there.

Put differently, student loans don’t seem so burdensome when you have a well-paying job upon graduation. When the job isn’t there, the loans suddenly loom large, but they’re really more a symptom than a cause. The lack of the job is the cause.

This is probably obvious at some level, but political discourse sometimes skips important steps. I’d hate to see higher education punished for the sins of the broader economy. Assuming that Achieving the Dream and the Gates-funded projects bear fruit, and colleges do a better job of helping struggling students brush up their skills and complete degree programs, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the jobs to follow. Over time, I’d guess that an educated workforce would be more productive than an uneducated one, but there could be a delay long enough to obscure the connection. And in the meantime, those student loan payments don’t win many friends.