I was a guest on the Arizona at Work radio show yesterday. A good portion of the hour was devoted to the cost of higher education. In the discussion, the point was made that it’s “all about opportunity.”
Sorry, but it really isn’t. I’m all for lowering the cost of higher education, because the current system is absurdly discriminatory and is wreaking havoc in all sorts of ways. I also believe there are other compelling reasons to decrease the cost of higher education, a point to which I’ll return later.
But, first, mass higher education isn’t the answer to the demolition of the middle class. We already have college grads unable to find work. Oh, I know, they didn’t pick the right majors. They all should have majored in engineering or accounting. Which would create a glut of engineers and accountants, resulting in substantially lower incomes in those professions.
Consider this: When I graduated from law school three decades ago, law students were receiving multiple job offers and young lawyer salaries were skyrocketing. Fast forward to today. A friend of mine just lost her job as a law school professor because enrollment was down over 50% from year to year. The decrease in enrollment was far less about the cost of a legal education than it was about the glut of lawyers. So, do we really want more law students? Hardly. Could the same thing happen in the vaunted “STEM” fields? I don’t see why not.
Conservatives, including many Democrats, love to preach how “what matters is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.” In their minds, if everyone has a reasonably equal chance of making it to the top 1%, our absurdly unequal sharing of wealth and income is fair.
Memo to progressives: Stop getting tripped up by this canard. If you’re at a loss to respond when confronted by the “opportunity vs. outcome” argument, remember:
The largest percentage of the population you can squeeze into the top 1% is …..[drumroll]………. 1%. Keep repeating that over and over. It’s really true, I promise. So, no matter how equal opportunities are, if you don’t change the sharing between the 1% and the 99%, life for the 99% won’t improve.
This isn’t hard to figure out. Nobody needs a college education to work at Walmart or McDonalds. Those jobs won’t pay more because a few more kids graduate from college. So, unless the sub-living wages currently paid to Walmart and McDonalds workers are forced to increase through policy changes, life for those workers still will suck no matter how many new engineers we graduate.
Do we need to bring down the cost of higher ed? Absolutely. Is equality of opportunity a worthy goal? Yes, but if we don’t do something about equality of outcome, we’ll never achieve equality of opportunity.
Truth is, even at today’s bloated levels, the cost of higher education still is justified by the increased earning power a college degree represents. But having college graduates saddled with debt is terrible. Among other things, it forces them to choose the highest paying career path, which is not necessarily the one that fits their passion.
What about those other compelling reasons to reduce the cost of college? Consider what happens to the economy as more young people go to college. First, we create demand for college professors and other folks who work in higher education. So, it’s a job creator. More jobs means more people working, and the greater demand for workers translates into higher wages.
But the bigger impact of increased college (and, really, graduate school) attendance is not on the demand side, but on the supply side of labor. When a young person attends college, he or she spends four or more years out of the job market. Add on graduate school, and you’re looking at up to 20% of a person’s working years out of the job market.
That’s huge. We desperately need a reduction in the labor supply. Ultimately, increases in productivity reduce the demand for workers. I recently wrote about this in Productivity: Where Marx Nailed it on Capitalism. Somehow, we need to find a way to reduce the pressure that creates, and it’s going to have to be accomplished on the supply side. A reduced work week sure would help. Denmark is at 33 hours. We could achieve that tomorrow by updating the overtime laws. A return to one-worker households also would help. And keeping people out of the job market in order to attend college and graduate school would help. A lot.
One agenda item of conservatives that wouldn’t help on this front, by the way, would be raising the social security retirement age. But that’s a post for another day.