I’ve already weighed in on America’s magical thinking about the cure-all powers of education.
It is this touching faith in the powers of education—any education, regardless of actual content—that makes President Obama’s call for free community college plausible to some.
We have historically seen education as a way to raise ourselves. Ironically, in many cases the quest for an education has become not the solution but a problem. Ron Meyer writes today in the New York Post:
America’s quickest way out of poverty is no longer education — at least not higher education. In many ways, our unreformed higher-ed system is the quickest way to debt and poverty for millions of young Americans.
Meyer argues that it is hard to convincingly make the case that free community college is the solution when more than half of recent four-year college graduates either are unemployed are have jobs that do not require a college degree. So what’s wrong?:
The real problems are the quality of that education and the abysmal entry-level job market.
Starting with the job market, Meyer observes that there are fewer entry-level jobs today, while the percentage of part-time jobs has skyrocketed to the point that nearly 20 percent of jobs are now part-time. These trends will be exacerbated by hikes in the minimum wage.
At the same time, there are 750,000 full-time tech jobs vacant. The reason that these jobs are going begging: we don’t produce enough people with the necessary skills. As a fan of the classical education, I don’t have an entirely utilitarian view of education, but I can’t argue with this:
We should measure the quality of a college degree by outcomes, by how many graduates succeed and find careers. By that standard, the value has been plummeting while the price has shot up.
While the cost of a college education has gone up—tuition is up more than 30 percent since President Obama took office—the economic benefits of a degree have declined. Many institutions of higher learning claim that a college grad makes more than a million dollars in her lifetime than a non-degreed worker. But the Federal Reserve puts the lifetime difference at $275,000.
It can take years to pay off a $30,000 college loan debt and indeed one in three defaults in the first three years of payment. Meyer writes:
Let’s treat the higher-ed industry the same as any other industry. Would investment firms stay in business if half their customers lost money? If one in seven lost so badly that they couldn’t pay their debts?
If Wall Street were failing that badly, President Obama would demand reform or even legal retribution. Instead, he’s asking for a multibillion-dollar tax hike to fund free higher education.
Before “two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” as Obama said, we need to make sure that two years of college actually produce results: fully employed graduates, not debt-engulfed adult children.
To do this, we need to ensure the system is offering more and better STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and health-IT programs — and guiding incoming freshmen toward majors likely to pay off.
Engineering and math graduates make more than $40 per hour; philosophy, psychology and music graduates earn roughly half that. That adds up to more than a $1 million difference over a working lifetime.
Ironically, the president's proposal will make things worse. “Free” community college is likely to turn community college into just two more years of high school. The plan will encourage community colleges to promote students in order to look like attractive places to sit in class for two free years. It should also be noted that community college is relatively inexpensive and people who want to attend one might do better to work their way through college, something that it no longer possible with four-year colleges.
Let me reiterate my faith in a liberal education and even in the value of an English major (something Silicon Valley is beginning to grasp). But the problem is as Meyer states it: college costs too much and delivers too little.