Tuesday, June 05, 2018

To Pundits Who Proclaim That College Isn’t Worth It

Dear Pundits,

Yet another piece came out yesterday showing the dramatic gains in lifetime income and employability for men who went to college, as opposed to those who don’t.  The short version is that men aged 25-54 with college degrees are as active in the workforce as they were in the 1950’s, but that men in that age group without college degrees have seen their participation drop by double digits.  Further digging indicates that decreasing wages for the non-college group are the main factor.

We also know that the real student loan crisis is among students who drop out, not among graduates.  Graduates do quite well with paying off loans. That’s not an argument against attending college; it’s an argument for finishing.  

But I’ve seen enough studies like that to know that they won’t persuade you.  If they did, we wouldn’t still be having this “controversy.” I hesitate to call it a controversy, because that implies decent arguments on both sides, but the word will do until someone comes up with a better one.

My counterargument, if that’s the word, really boils down to two questions.  First, as opposed to what? And second, what do you do with your own kids?

My grandfather was able to get a good, unionized blue collar job as a ninth grade dropout.  He was able to send his daughter, my mom, to the University of Michigan on his electrical lineman’s salary.  (He caught some flak for that from some of his coworkers. This was in the early 60’s. Mom had to convince him that it wouldn’t be a waste of money to send a girl to the University.  She came up with a bulletproof argument: “I want to marry a doctor. Where am I going to meet one?” She still cackles about that from time to time.) That was possible because well-paying blue collar jobs were relatively plentiful, and good public higher education was cheap.  

Ninth grade dropouts now, or even high school graduates now, don’t have as many good options in most of the country.  Some choose the military, which is great. In a few parts of the country, where the oil industry is hot, some can get good-paying jobs there.  And there are always the conspicuous, high-glamour, longshot fields, like acting or professional sports. But in much of the country, if you don’t have a thriving family business or independent wealth and the military isn’t for you, college is far and away the best option.  Even the skilled trades often require connections and/or post-secondary credentials now.

I sometimes hear references to “trade schools” as alternatives, but I have trouble making sense of that.  The roles that many people imagine “trade schools” occupying are now filled either by public vo-tech high schools or by community colleges.  Yes, there are for-profit trade schools, but they cost so much more, and have such spotty quality as a sector, that they hardly constitute a meaningful alternative at scale.  A year in the Automotive Tech program at Brookdale costs about $6,000, including fees. A year at the local proprietary offering automotive training costs about $30,000. If you pride yourself on “tough choices” and “fiscal conservatism,” community colleges are the obvious choice.  

I’d like to know where critics of college as college send their own kids at age 18.  And here I’ll stipulate that I’m referring to people who could afford college, and whose kids could do college.  If you actually mean it, are you walking the walk?

If not, well, I know what I need to know.