Higher ed, lower pay? (Serious Sunday – well, now Monday – Blogging)

I wrote most of this a couple of days before the election when, like most, I was pretty sure we’d be seeing a President Clinton. Obviously that’s not how things turned out. What was expected to be a time of post-election Republican-party soul-searching and regrouping has turned into the opposite, as people begin to take seriously the question of how the Democratic Party has lost the support of working class voters (a nice piece on this here). This post isn’t directly diagnostic in that regard, but it does resonate with that problem, and so I offer it as my own small contribution to thinking about what direction progressive ideas should be moving in as we figure out how to operate in Trumpworld.


In the Bill Clinton years, as George Packer describes in a piece last month on Hillary in the New Yorker, the idea took root in the Democratic Party that being progressive meant getting people out of the working class, rather than simply making the conditions of the working class better (through better pay, safer workplaces, protection of collective bargaining rights, etc.). In other words, Democrats came to believe that the mission of social policy should be to give non-elites access to what elites have, and so in effect to transform them into elites. And they thought the primary way to do this was to educate them more. This has been the reigning ideology of the Obama administration too. College is for career; the future is one for educated workers. This is not the same as, but it resonates with, the conservative drive to purge the “liberal” from the liberal arts and see higher ed in purely careerist, job-oriented terms. The mission of the university has thus come to be very widely seen as the economic transformation of the working class.

As a professor at a regional state university, my job is basically to carry out this mission. And every day I question it.

Not that there aren’t many students for whom I feel I am genuinely providing part of a meaningful and sometimes life-changing experience. That’s what keeps me going most days. For these students, college is great. And I don’t think only the children of elites should have the opportunity to have such experiences. Everyone should be able to go to college if they want to, and nobody should be unable to because they are too poor (nor should massive debt have to be a condition of doing so).

But there are two issues that make me skeptical about the now mainstream, higher ed-focused, form of progressivism, as well as its conservative cousin. One has to do with the way in which it devalues non-academically inclined people. I’ll talk about that in another post. The other, main issue is a structural one.

Suppose the policy of universal higher ed were successful and everyone in the nation received a college degree. What would the effect be? Well, if you erase the distinction between those with college degrees and those without, without changing what jobs actually exist and how much they pay, you’ll just see a repeat of more-or-less the same pattern of unequal distribution of income emerge, only now with everyone having a college degree. For the much vaunted salary advantages conferred by going to college depend on the fact that only some do so. They stand out in the job market, even if in ways that aren’t, strictly speaking, relevant to the jobs they have an advantage in getting. So, it may be that right now it’s not terrible advice to those lower down in the economic ranks that they should get a college degree, but as a general long-term plan for boosting those in the working class, universal higher ed is doomed to fail.

To illustrate, think about this in the context of the food and agricultural industries, which provide huge numbers of jobs in our country, most of which have low pay, and many of which combine low pay with long or unpredictable hours and difficult working conditions. There are, of course, a few people who manage to rise above the rest and make a decent living. Those are the ones who end up getting interviewed on podcasts and written about in the glossy magazines – which I love as much as the next food person. And since I love them and consume them avidly, I’ve started to notice a pattern, namely, that a great many of these success stories have key chapters in which the heroes and heroines are raised in affluent environments and get an elite college education, only then to find their way into and up the ladders of the food world.

Now, in some cases (e.g., food science guy Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats, who went to MIT), that education has played a key role in the distinctive things they’re able to do in the food world. Doesn’t that give proof that education is the key to success, and so that everyone should have the same access to it?

Well, no. This is where we see the structural problem: there can only be so many people who stand out. For every chef there have to be many servers, cooks, and dishwashers. For every farm owner, there has to be hired help (or unpaid family). The idea that you could send all these folks at the lower ranks to college and then they could become the chefs and farm owners neglects this fact. All our well-paying jobs depend on money that is generated through the work of people in less well-paid jobs. Changing the people in the jobs doesn’t change what jobs there are.

Related to this is the fact that many of those who are successful had more than good higher education: they had capital, both financial and cultural. They had successful parents who gave them a lifetime of preparation before they were sent off to their higher ed institutions, and so they were in a position to succeed in them. And they had families with enough money so that they could afford to do an unpaid internship at a magazine or spend a few months traveling in Italy or secure a loan to get their business going. Let me be clear: I have no beef with them doing any of this. Choices are situational, and these are people who made good choices given the opportunities they had. The point is that even if you managed to get a lot more people through college, that wouldn’t be enough to create the kind of opportunities that the capitalized folks have, and so you’d still see patterns of inequality that mirror those we now have.

The broad lesson I think we should draw from all this is that the primary problem we face is not with the fact that some have access to education and others don’t, but rather with the fact that the jobs in the economy we have. Higher-educating people for what are now better-paying jobs won’t help those who actually fill these low-paying ones.

Higher education, however good it might be for some, thus can’t be the solution to poverty and inequality, because it’s a tide that can only ever lift some boats relative to others. What we need, then, are economic mechanisms that make the jobs we have – jobs which we can’t eliminate (dishwashers, cooks, servers, farmworkers, etc.) – ones that people can actually live from. What those mechanisms might be is a huge and complicated issue (minimum wage laws, collective bargaining, childcare support, healthcare, etc.), but those are what traditional labor Democrats focused on. To pretend that education is among these mechanisms or could be the primary one, as more recent Democrats have come to believe, serves to justify the sense of entitlement to wealth and opportunity that the elites have, for it makes it seem that those without wealth are failures, people who didn’t make the right choices to advance themselves.

As we enter our new political world over the coming weeks and months, universal higher ed won’t even be on the table for discussion. That means that it’s actually a good time for rethinking the importance we’ve been giving it in an effort to help those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. I think it’s been distracting us from what’s really needed, and probably feeding into the class resentment brought to light in this election in the process.

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