Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pattern Recognition, or, The World at 16

A quick description of the world that appears before local sixteen year olds now:

- Paths to jobs that pay enough to actually want are less legible than they’ve been in generations, but to the extent that they are legible and you aren’t a standout athlete, they tend to go through college.

- Starting July 1, colleges that want to be eligible for Federal financial aid -- which is to say, just about all of them, including all of the public ones -- have to stop admitting students on an “ability to benefit” basis.  That means that students will have to have either a high school diploma or a GED to be admitted.

- The GED is about to become markedly more expensive.

- High school diplomas now are contingent on passing a high-stakes statewide standardized test.  If you fail the test -- even with good grades -- you get a “certificate of completion,” rather than a diploma.  As of July 1, that certificate won’t be enough to get into college.

- So now if you finish high school but don’t do well on the test -- say, your district is struggling and you didn’t learn English at home -- you need to find your way to another standardized test that’s about to become more difficult and more expensive just to get into community college.  

- Or you could try your luck with the local job market for workers without degrees, certificates, or specialized skills.  Jobs exist, but moving beyond single digits per hour requires the next tier of credential.  The middle-class unionized blue collar jobs of yesteryear are gone now.

- You can’t blast your way through college as quickly anymore, either, since summer Pell went away.  And if you don’t get full Pell, you’ll probably notice that tuition and fees are increasing at a rapid clip, even as the minimum wage just sits there, assuming you can find a job at all.

We can argue about what people “deserve,” or about how much of this was a function of deliberate choice and how much just sort of happened, but ultimately those arguments miss the point.  For a host of reasons, the landscape confronting today’s lower-income 16 year old as a found fact is pretty forbidding.  

And that will matter for the rest of us.

A market economy, even a mixed market economy, will have winners and losers.  Some of that will be luck of the draw, and some of it will be the results of untoward shenanigans, but as long as people perceive that there’s a generally fair method of winning that’s somewhat under their control -- such as hard work -- then they’re pretty willing to tolerate some shenanigans on the side.  I might be a little annoyed at some of what investment bankers have been allowed to pull, but as long as my family and I are doing fine, it won’t rise above the level of annoying.

But if legitimate avenues up start all closing at the same time, a certain fatalism starts to make sense.  That fatalism can be politically passive, as in drug addiction and small-time crime, or politically active in ways I prefer not to think about.  

If we want to maintain a mixed market economy, we need to maintain some perceived level of basic fairness.  That means realistic and ethical ways for a kid whose parents don’t make much money to climb by his own effort.  Piece by unthought piece, we’re blocking those ways.  Some of that may be outside of our conscious control, but much of it isn’t.  Before we send a message to an entire generation that there’s just no point in bothering, let’s at least stop blocking constructive effort.  Kids can read patterns, and if the pattern says that they needn’t bother, they’ll draw some pretty awful conclusions.