Duncan Donuts

Ashley Thorne

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, published an article in the Huffington Post this week titled "Campus Protests Should Remind Us All of College's Value." Referring to the angry and in some places violent March 4 protests against state budget cuts for public education, Duncan said the demonstrations were a reminder that “schools...are a treasured investment.”  

It’s ironic that he would describe these protests as a symbol of education’s priority when the utmost priority of protesters on March 4 was to proclaim their own self-importance and entitlement. “Education is a right, not a privilege,” their signs read. Yet many of the March 4 rallies, sit-ins, and road blockades prevented education from taking place. Students skipped class to join the hype and the University of California at Santa Cruz campus was forced to shut down altogether when protesters blocked its entrances. As Debra J. Saunders pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle, “The event showed how little educators and students value education.”  

But what’s even more ironic is his justification of the bill that will enact a government takeover of the student loan industry, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), more commonly called “direct lending.” He quotes a concerned mother who challenged him to explain why she should encourage her students to go to college when it will strap them with terrible debt, "a noose around your neck that you never get out of." His answer: “But a college degree is still absolutely worth it.” 

Is it? For some students, a college degree is worth pursuing, both financially and in terms of personal fulfillment. For others, it’s absolutely not. USA Today tells the story of Brian Crave, a young man in Wisconsin who loves taking care of baby calves and wants to be a farmer.  He enrolled in an apprenticeship program where he can pursue his dream, outside higher education. Many other young people are in similar situations. For various reasons, they know college is not for them, and they work in trades that do not require a college degree. 

These occupations include sought-after jobs such as airline piloting, construction management, dental hygiene, sonography, ship engineering, and air traffic control. The movement to push large numbers of students through college causes credential inflation—meaning that more and more of these positions will require a college degree even when college study is irrelevant to the actual work.  In Saving Higher Education in an Age of Money (2005), James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield write that “the U.S. has become the most rigidly credentialized society in the world. A BA is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years full time training, let alone four.” (p.85) Citing Levy and Murnane’s The New Division of Labor, they continue: 

If high schools produced graduates who knew ninth-grade math, could read well, wrote correct simple sentences, engaged in problem solving, and possessed basic computer skills along with the ability to work in small groups, then a high school education would suffice for middle-income jobs. Yet, collectively, high schools can no longer guarantee these minimum skills. So even if some of their graduates greatly exceed them, they must still obtain the credential of a BA. 

Because of credential inflation, fewer and fewer qualified candidates can get a job without paying forth the time, effort, and back-breaking expense of a college education. 

For many students, the mother’s analogy of a tightening noose of years and years in debt holds true. Duncan is right to exhort colleges and universities to look for ways to cut costs, and he is right to declare tuition too expensive. But his driving idea—that college is for everyone (in line with President Obama’s goal for America to have the most college graduates in the world by 2020)—is parallel to the idea that health insurance is for everyone (what about private co-ops; devotees of alternative medicine, such as  acupuncture, yoga, or prayer and anointing with oil?  Or for that matter the young and healthy who prefer to keep the money they would have to spend on health insurance that they don’t need?). No one-size-fits-all government approach will really be fit for all. 

When Secretary Duncan declares that “a college degree is still absolutely worth it,” he touches on a matter of considerable dispute among economists. There is a factoid often repeated by higher ed apologists that the lifetime earnings of a college graduate are a million dollars greater than someone within merely a high school diploma. According to The Wall Street Journal, the estimate derives from a 2002 Census Bureau report, “The Big Payoff,” that projected that over forty years of work a college grad will accumulate a $780,000 advantage over the non-grad. But that number has more holes than a whole Dunkin Donuts shop. But that hasn’t stopped groups like the College Board from advertising it—though in December, the College Board itself bowed to statistical reality and took the claim off its website. 

The Census used low estimates of the cost of attending college, blurred the differences between attending elite and ordinary colleges, and made numerous implausible assumptions about the careers of both grads and non-grads. Sandy Baum, an economics professor at SkidmoreCollege who drafted part of the College Board’s report, says the real difference is something like $450,000. Mark Schneider, at the American Institutes for Research, calculates the life-time college degree premium as $279,893.   

The premium may be a fraction of the million-dollar fantasy, but it is still a premium.  We can give that to Secretary Duncan, can’t we? Maybe. We should remember that this is a calculation of an average. A great many college graduates aren’t likely to see much of that $279,893 over forty years. Some will see no lifetime gain at all, and some will end up financially worse off than if they had skipped college and gone directly into the workforce. This seems all the more likely as we watch legions of college-degreed people sidelined by the recession or wearing out their days in underemployment.   

The supposed premium for holding a college degree grows ever more doubtful as the supply of college graduates increases. More people chasing the better-paid jobs is not a recipe for wage gains.  Rather, it will mean on average, college grads will earn less than they do now. One effect of the recession, of course, is that many people enroll in college programs in an effort to gain new skills and burnish their credentials. So the supply of college-educated and graduate-degreed individuals is already ramping up even without the Obama administration’s self-defeating goal of making Americans rich by giving them all sheepskins. 

Ultimately the administration is baking up a version of higher education without weight, without substance. If everyone goes to college, a college degree won’t signify any particular level of intellectual attainment.  And to push so many students through college will inevitably mean that college curricula will be more hole, less donut.  Already students of this generation feel that they must get a master’s degree to compete in the working world, whereas a bachelor’s degree was sufficient for our parents. Obama and Duncan seek to leaven higher education so that it expands but loses its texture. That light, fluffy, and perhaps hollow form of education may taste satisfyingly sweet in the mouth: “Look how many kids are going to college today! We’re an educated nation.”  

But a groaning stomach ache will follow: “We have a country full of credentialed people who know little and cannot find jobs commensurate with their degrees.” Is that worth it, Secretary Duncan? 

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