Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Krugman's Challenge

Regular readers know that I'm consistently disappointed in the New York Times' coverage of higher ed, since it mostly boils down to Stanley Fish and Mark Taylor. But this week, just to be contrary, it decided to throw a curveball and publish something intelligent.

Paul Krugman, of whom I am a fan, noted correctly this week that the “education leads to good jobs” storyline – which he introduced with a nice riff on Jane Austen – is true enough on the individual level, but not on a societal level. The argument that an educated workforce will necessarily generate good jobs is getting harder to sustain in light of the experience of the last twenty years or so. The direction of the economy over the last few decades has been towards greater income polarization, with a small group at the top raking it in and a great many on the bottom struggling badly; the middle is hollowing out.

Those of us who got Ph.D.'s in evergreen disciplines over the last few decades have seen this firsthand. A surge in doctorates did not bring with it a surge in full-time faculty positions; to the contrary, the availability of well-qualified adjuncts has made it easier to hollow out those jobs. Something similar is happening now throughout the economy, with college graduates struggling to find middle-class work. The latest changes are apparently happening in the legal profession, where software is making the 'discovery' process much faster and much less labor-intensive, thereby requiring fewer attorneys. “Brawn” jobs were the first to fall victim to automation and globalization, but now “brain” jobs are falling, too. To the extent that colleges have been able to sell access to those “brain” jobs and the higher salaries they once brought, college grads are discovering a hole in the narrative.

As a community college administrator, I'm conflicted about this.

On the one hand, Krugman is descriptively correct. Clear and legible pathways to good jobs are fewer than they once were, and many jobs that used to provide a family wage are now either gone altogether or hanging on only by paying new hires much less than their predecessors. (GM and Ford still hire, but new hires get a lower tier of salaries than their seniors. Even as they accrue seniority, they will never catch up.) On my own campus, folks who were hired ten or twenty years ago pay far less toward their pensions than I do; in a few years, it's an open question whether pensions as such will exist at all. The oft-noted trend of college grads living at home, I suspect, is largely driven by the relative lack of good-paying jobs for folks who didn't have the foresight to have been born twenty years earlier than they were.

Krugman's thesis – again,correctly – also suggests that the “colleges will save the economy” narrative is oversold at best. We can prepare students to take advantage of opportunities as they come along, but we can't generate most of those opportunities ourselves. If you graduate into a nasty recession, the fact that you got good grades may not save you.

And that's where the ambivalence comes in. Yes, too many college grads and college dropouts are languishing on the economic sidelines. (So are too many PhD's, for that matter.) And I'm convinced that Krugman is right that a more intelligent set of economic policies could go a long way toward improving matters on the ground. But I'm concerned that in this political climate, people will hear only the diagnosis and ignore the prescription.

One response to Krugman's observation is to say “yup, we need policies that will encourage the growth of middle-class jobs.” Another response would be “yup, college is a colossal waste of money.” Both can take the same observation as a starting point, even as they move in very different directions.

My sense of it is that education is a good in itself, and one that frequently – though not always – leads to economic payoff. Between technological advances and the ramping-up of the former third world, I'm guessing that we can either try to move up the value chain, or we can move down. Staying where we are is not an option. If we move down, incomes will move down, too. If we move up, we have a choice about those incomes. Education gives us the raw material to put ourselves in a position to move up and thereby to have choices, but it doesn't guarantee that we'll make the right ones. We could, for instance, train a few wildly successful innovators and then let them hoard the wealth, thereby largely defeating the purpose.

My fear is that as the population of underemployed graduates grows, so too will resentment towards higher education. Certain of our politicians are very, very good at exploiting resentment – Gov. Walker actually used the language of “haves and have-nots” – and will not miss the chance to do it. The resentment misses the point, of course – the real issue is jobs, not education – but people can take a long, long time to figure that out. In the meantime, the damage done can be irreparable.

So yes, Krugman has a point. I'm just concerned that folks with very different agendas will use that point to do once-in-a-generation damage.