The Education Bubble Revisited I

At the risk of saying “I told you so,” I was writing about this issue three years ago (see ) and worrying about it long before that. It’s a multi-faceted problem, so I’ll try to deal with it one post at a time.

Let’s start with why everybody is expected to go to college in the first place. College used to be a perk of the upper classes and/or the certified geniuses. The former were expected to pay the freight for the latter. It was a fairly functional arrangement, except that for a long time it excluded women, non-whites, and most poor people. But that was okay, because those excluded could go all the way through high school in a free public system. That system would turn them out able to read, write, calculate, speak coherently, and use the facilities of the public realm, such as libraries and museums, for further self-education. And get, and competently perform, a decent job.

There were other places for learning to do a job—apprenticeships, trade schools, and various kinds of on-the-job training which offered education and mobility in exchange for a few years of hard work and low pay. Even the “learned professions” of law, medicine, and teaching started out using apprenticeships to bring in new people. Some vocations began as volunteer work and gradually turned into professions—most notably nursing and social work. Only later did they create educational institutions, and later still call them colleges and universities.

And many of the vocations that developed in the 1960s started out requiring no college degree, simply because there were no college degrees in, for instance, information technology. My husband was in the first generation of computer programmers. His colleagues either had no college degrees, or degrees in such fields as philosophy, Near Eastern studies, Russian, and art history. Now, of course, the people who created the field of information technology couldn’t get hired in it, because they don’t have degrees in it.

My guess is that the move toward universal college started with the World War II GI Bill, which sent an entire generation of young men (and a few young women) into college who could never have afforded it otherwise. They, and their employers, decided this was a good idea. The Sputnik scare at the beginning of the 1960s brought in more government money, and more interest in research in science, technology, and foreign languages.

The colleges decided this was a very good idea indeed. This sudden increase in student numbers meant lots more money for faculty and administrators and buildings. Ultimately it created a demand for more faculty, including a whole new layer of junior faculty to do the basic classroom work without being on the track toward tenure. At first they were called “lecturers” or “instructors.” They worked full-time and got most of the faculty benefits, but they were contracted from year to year, or sometimes from term to term. They got paid roughly two-thirds of the salaries of tenure-track junior faculty. Most of them were still pursuing advanced degrees themselves, and would eventually work themselves onto the tenure track.

Then, sometime in the early 1980s, another subclass of faculty was created, paralleling the growth of the “contingent” work force in other parts of the economy—“adjuncts,” or part-time instructors, who were contracted from term to term, got no benefits whatever, and were paid roughly one-half of the salary per hour of tenure-track junior faculty, which of course totaled approximately one-fourth of the total salary of their betters. To add insult to injury, most adjuncts would never get onto the tenure track. They would spend their lives putting together an income from multiple adjunct jobs in various schools, and call themselves “Road Scholars.” But they were and are the enlisted ranks in the academic army, and they will never make it to officer rank. “Part-time,” in academia as elsewhere, is no longer a work schedule, it is a caste.

Most college classes today are taught by adjuncts working for one-fourth the pay of their tenured colleagues. Yet college administrators, in explaining the rise in the cost of college education, universally blame salaries. Obviously they aren’t talking about the salaries of the people who teach most of the courses taken by a typical undergraduate. They’re talking about the stars, the big names, the guys who do the widely-published research and spend most of their time flying from one conference to another while their students on the ground are mostly taught by adjuncts. The highest-level administrators are also stars, and paid accordingly. Their salaries are the subject of bidding wars. And those salaries, and the bidding wars, are made possible because most of the actual work of teaching is done by adjuncts, and an increasing proportion of the actual work of administration is done by part-timers and temps.

So academia has become not merely a business, but a lucrative business, second only to health care and pharmaceuticals in its profitability. All three have in common an increasing disproportion between the highest and lowest salaries, and the intense marketing of their wares to a public which has been increasingly convinced that those wares are essential, not merely to the good life, but to any kind of life. We have decided that everybody has to go to college because the marketers of academia have decided that they can maximize their profit that way.

Those marketers have made their impact on guidance counselors and personnel offices. Guidance counselors, in fact, have nothing much to offer most of the students they are supposed to be guiding except college and the military. Businesses now require college degrees, or at least “some college,” for jobs that high school graduates were routinely hired for before 1980. When asked, they say it proves that the applicant can make a plan and stick to it. Which is not exactly consistent with the college path that most working-class students take, moving from one college to another, taking courses as long as the money holds out and then quitting for a while. It is routine to take 5 years to finish a bachelor’s degree, and not uncommon to take 10 years. But even those who are lucky enough to be able to go straight through in 4 years have proved, by doing so, only that they can sit still, follow orders, and stay in good with either their parents or the Financial Aid system. Maybe these qualities are valuable to employers, but surely there are cheaper ways to demonstrate them.

In fact, completing high school used to be considered adequate proof of docility and diligence. And literacy. Now, to the extent that college really is necessary for a white-collar job, that necessity arises from the fact that high school graduates can no longer be expected to know anything they hadn’t already learned in the 6th grade. The first two years of college are mainly a review of the last two years of high school. The difference between “good” colleges and “mediocre” colleges is that the first two years of a “good” college are a review of the last two years of a “good” high school, and the first two years of a “mediocre” college are a review of the last two years of a “mediocre” high school.

So what, if anything, is high school good for? It keeps adolescents off the streets, more or less, and out of the full-time workforce. The science of cryogenics has not yet evolved to the point where a deep freeze would accomplish the same thing more reliably and cheaply, so for now, high school is a technological stopgap. It is popularly believed to teach various social skills, which in real life include unsafe sex, binge drinking, bullying, and submission to bullying. It is expected to teach, in addition, punctuality, diligence, and docility. As a practical matter, the best places for an urban adolescent who is not on an athletic team or Junior ROTC to learn that set of skills is in a street gang, but high schools are often the locus of such organizations. As Woody Allen says, 80% of life is just showing up, and perhaps it doesn’t matter much whether one learns to show up at football practice, drill, or a drive-by shooting.

I hate bad-mouthing high school like this. My brother, brother-in-law, and nephew are all high school teachers, and I love and respect them enormously. But there is no way in the world I could bring myself to teach high school under current conditions. It would seem too much like drawing the Mona Lisa on sand. So anyway, to recap, the reason everybody is now expected to go to college is (a) nobody learns any of the things they need to know for adulthood in high school, and (b) college is a good racket, economically speaking. Tune in next week for Revisited II.

Jane Grey


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