the legislation would for the first time ever require universities to pay taxes on their endowment income. Universities have traditionally received tax exemptions on those assets in part because they are viewed as contributing to the public good. In addition, the House bill includes provisions to end graduate-student tax breaks, leading professors and graduate students at top universities to worry that studying for a Ph.D. will become unaffordable for all but the wealthy. (The Senate bill doesn’t include the latter provision; the two pieces of legislation head to conference committee shortly.) With tax analysts identifying corporations as the Republican plan’s biggest winners, a politics of factionalism seems implicit in the bill: Private corporations deserve even greater assets, while America’s universities merit higher levels of taxation.
Well, honestly, I'm not really seeing why I have to decide that universities are the good guys just because a journalist writing for The Atlantic implicitly assumes that private corporations are the bad guys. They could all be bad, you know.
There's also this, a piece asking point blank what contemporary college education is actually good for and whether or not we might be better off pouring more into stuff like vocational training from someone who has a tenured job.
Thanks to tenure, I have a dream job for life. Personally, I have no reason to lash out at our system of higher education. Yet a lifetime of experience, plus a quarter century of reading and reflection, has convinced me that it is a big waste of time and money. When politicians vow to send more Americans to college, I can’t help gasping, “Why? You want us to waste even more?”
How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent—that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.
The disconnect between college curricula and the job market has a banal explanation: Educators teach what they know—and most have as little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace as I do. Yet this merely complicates the puzzle. If schools aim to boost students’ future income by teaching job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world? Because, despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity.
Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker—and what employer isn’t?—you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.
Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.
The problem is not so much that education is bad in principle, it's that in practice higher education amounts to credential signaling more than genuine education. This doesn't have to be reduced to a dismissal of the point by saying neoliberalism is obsessed with business applicability. Think about it in class terms. Why should someone take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a liberal arts degree that confers almost no benefit in terms of getting work within the liberal arts if someone's going to work at the local Starbucks or end up doing years of temp work doing clerical activities that could be done by someone with a high school education or even, frankly, a high school drop out?
I don't know that I'd say I'm particularly left about anything but even among associates and friends of mine who do lean left we sometimes have conversations about how the higher education system in the United States can seem like some kind of prestige racket.
Which, in a way, is what Caplan tackles talking about the nature of college education as a credentialing process in which provable educational merit is not always so easily established.
Normal human beings make a solid point: We can and should investigate education’s broad social implications. When humanists consider my calculations of education’s returns, they assume I’m being a typical cynical economist, oblivious to the ideals so many educators hold dear. I am an economist and I am a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist. I’m a cynical idealist. I embrace the ideal of transformative education. I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people.
Those who search their memory will find noble exceptions to these sad rules. I have known plenty of eager students and passionate educators, and a few wise deciders. Still, my 40 years in the education industry leave no doubt that they are hopelessly outnumbered. Meritorious education survives but does not thrive.
What does this mean for the individual student? Would I advise an academically well-prepared 18-year-old to skip college because she won’t learn much of value? Absolutely not. Studying irrelevancies for the next four years will impress future employers and raise her income potential. If she tried to leap straight into her first white-collar job, insisting, “I have the right stuff to graduate, I just choose not to,” employers wouldn’t believe her. To unilaterally curtail your education is to relegate yourself to a lower-quality pool of workers. For the individual, college pays.
This does not mean, however, that higher education paves the way to general prosperity or social justice. When we look at countries around the world, a year of education appears to raise an individual’s income by 8 to 11 percent. By contrast, increasing education across a country’s population by an average of one year per person raises the national income by only 1 to 3 percent. In other words, education enriches individuals much more than it enriches nations.
How is this possible? Credential inflation: As the average level of education rises, you need more education to convince employers you’re worthy of any specific job. One research team found that from the early 1970s through the mid‑1990s, the average education level within 500 occupational categories rose by 1.2 years. But most of the jobs didn’t change much over that span—there’s no reason, except credential inflation, why people should have needed more education to do them in 1995 than in 1975. What’s more, all American workers’ education rose by 1.5 years in that same span—which is to say that a great majority of the extra education workers received was deployed not to get better jobs, but to get jobs that had recently been held by people with less education.
As credentials proliferate, so do failed efforts to acquire them. Students can and do pay tuition, kill a year, and flunk their finals. Any respectable verdict on the value of education must account for these academic bankruptcies. Failure rates are high, particularly for students with low high-school grades and test scores; all told, about 60 percent of full-time college students fail to finish in four years. Simply put, the push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.
Those bankruptcies can often be more than just academic bankruptcies. If you wash out of college or for whatever reason fail to graduate that expense is still on you or whoever agreed to pay for it. Back when I was in college one of the pragmatic music professors told me that by then (the 1990s!) all an undergraduate degree proved beyond all doubt was that you could finish projects you committed to rather than opening doors for you in the job market.
This polemic doesn't have to read as being anti-intellectual or anti life of the mind, but it could be read as an argument that there should be room for vocational training as an alternative to imploring everyone to get a college degree because if credential inflation continues as it has then the priesthood of all college-educated people will not be any more gainfully employed.
The top one percent may well be hoarding all of the monopoly money, but this doesn't exempt the upper 20 percent. No doubt there are those who disagree with where Richard Reeves lands, but I admit I find the polemic interesting--given the ways in which the top 20 percent can hold on to privilege in the form of access to higher education and economic advantages in sending their kids to schools, what is often popularly understood among some academics and fans of liberal arts educational programs could be construed less as anti-intellectualism and more as something that could be identified by a more blunt term, class resentment.
Trump’s success among middle-class whites might seem surprising, given his own wealth. But his supporters have no problem with the rich. In fact, they admire them. His movement was about class, not money, and he exuded the blue-collar culture. For his supporters, the enemy is upper middle-class professionals: journalists, scholars, technocrats, managers, bureaucrats, the people with letters after their names. You and me.
And here is the difficult part. The popular obsession with the top 1 percent allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true. However messily it is expressed, much of the criticism of our class is true. We proclaim the “net” benefits of free trade, technological advances, and immigration, safe in the knowledge that we will be among the beneficiaries. Equipped with high levels of human capital, we can flourish in a global economy. The cities we live in are zoned to protect our wealth, but deter the unskilled from sharing in it. Professional licensing and an immigration policy tilted toward the low-skilled shield us from the intense market competition faced by those in nonprofessional occupations. We proclaim the benefits of free markets but are largely insulated from the risks they can pose. Small wonder other folks can get angry.
I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. There are lots of reasons I have made America my home, but one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.
Indeed, the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the dust. The top fifth of U.S. households saw a $4 trillion increase in pretax income in the years between 1979 and 2013. The combined rise for the bottom 80 percent, by comparison, was just over $3 trillion. The gap between the bottom fifth and the middle fifth has not widened at all. In fact, there has been no increase in inequality below the eightieth percentile. All the inequality action is above that line.
I've mentioned this here and there at the blog before but some of the lament about how artists will be hurt by tax code changes has me thinking that liberal arts advocates and those who have gained liberal arts higher education degrees may sincerely think that the moment is about anti-intellectualism, but class resentment at resource-hoarding might also be a plausible explanation. If the pie is only so big and you have to choose between artists on the one hand and veterans or people of color on the other is it "bad" to decide the artists had their chance? It's not about wanting to stick it to artists, I love the arts, but if the game is always as zero-sum as people keep reminding us that it is, favoring college-educated artists when people of color and veterans could get help might force some arts advocates to ask themselves if they are for minorities, after all, or if when push comes to shove they're for college graduates and aspiring artists. Journalists, too, and academics, may want to have a moment of reckoning to find out whether what they support is really for the common good or if it redounds primarily to the benefit of Anglo-American liberal arts priestcraft.
I'm not sure I'm on board with "representation" if the end game for "representation" is merely that more people of color and sexual orientations and identifications populate the ruling castes that are running things now, because all that would mean is that the venal plutocracy calling the shots has more "representation", that's just modifying the existing Western art religion with a patina of diversity. But if there are opportunities for people of color and low-income families or disabled veterans to get more help from people who can help them I'm fine with that. If liberal arts advocates get upset when subsidies may shift from artists to veterans or families then there's not much of a basis for lamenting injustice if, as we've been noting this weekend, some authors have pointed out that giving white artists tax breaks that are different in nature and kind from working-class people of color does seem a little racist.
I don't think what we should want is a new wave of college educated artists. We'd be better off cultivating regional folk art, so to speak. I'm in favor of forms of arts education where you shouldn't have to go to college to learn about sonata forms and possibilities for amalgamating ragtime, blues, country and jazz into the art music traditions and vice versa. I'm all for the idea that you can love Hank Williams Sr. and Haydn in fairly equal measures. I'm interesting in an approach to the arts that consciously obliterates the kinds of class divides that institutional education in the arts since the 19th century seems to revel in clarifying and then calcifying. So in that sense I guess I've always been a populist.
I have my doubts the system is going to survive very effectively through the next two to four generations, and a lot of the battles going on now seem like battles to figure out how to carve up the pie without considering whether the pie itself is past its sell-by date.