Sunday, December 26, 2010

Education as the boogeyman

Last week Jack Kelly claimed everyone hates "Obamacare" (well a majority of right thinking people hate it) and that it costs too much and takes away our freedom. This week Kelly is going after education; it costs too much and yields to little reward for people who study humanities or social sciences. This is an issue that strikes close to home, as my Dad is a retired math professor and I work at a local University. Now, I will say that in some respects I agree with him, but mostly Mr Kelly is full of ... well, you know.

There are funny meta-aspects to Kelly's argument, which I will get to after saying far too much. He says that since 1981 the cost of colleges/Universities has increased "sixfold", while the Consumer Price Index has only increased 2 and a half fold. What's interesting to me about that is that since 1981 a Republican has been in the White House for twenty of the last twenty nine years. Now Jack Kelly writes an essentially political column, so one would assume Kelly thinks this is a political problem, with political solutions. So why have the Republicans been so mean to college students (or allowed colleges to be so greedy)? Of course, indeed if the government stopped providing (or insuring or whatever) college grants and loans and tax credits, undoubtedly only the rich would go to college. And many colleges would cut back and many would close up shop all together. This apparently would suit Kelly just fine.

Now, for myself, the job I do could absolutely be done by someone who does not have a college degree. But they hired someone with a degree over all other applicants (me), which is the trend these days in a number of jobs. I suspect (although I do not know) that many of my work colleagues who have been on the job for twenty years or more do not have degrees, but all the more recent hires do seem to have them.

Part of my job involves verifying receipts and insuring that purchases are legitimate ones, following accounting rules. I am only part of that mechanism, and if I wanted to cheat the University (and the taxpayers and students and donors), I would have to enlist the help of several people, some who I know only barely. I would like to think that my college degree also makes me a more conscientious employee, one who is better able to see the big pictures as I perform smaller tasks. But I am probably not working all the way up to my potential, so I might be the poster child for Kelly's argument.

Except that I am working at a University, where we are supposed to be fleecing the public. Well, I have good hours, good benefits, a comfortable office, a gym I can workout at, good (but not great) vacation benefits. If I take classes, the tuition is free, but at the graduate level the taxes on that tuition are literally supposed to be crushing. And to be clear, my pay does not reflect the fleecing part. My dad, the math professor, received what one might call comfortable wages. I suspect he made as much as a plumber or an electrician, maybe a tad more, maybe a tad less.

It is true that the costs of Colleges, Universities and technical schools such as the Art Institute, Kaplan/ITT something or other and Rosedale Tech have all increased. There are two aspects to the increase, in my opinion. One is the commitment the government and sometimes the nation made to helping level the playing field for minorities, and the other is Bill Clinton.

During the seventies I think that there was an increase in both minority scholarships and assistance for low income people in general, which might well
disproportionately benefit minorities (who have higher rates of poverty). And Bill Clinton greatly subsidized higher education through new tax credits for attending school. And since the seventies, I think the government system of guaranteeing student loans has also increased the number of people attending higher ed of one form or another.

This is all related to what Kelly was getting at, that everyone has to admit higher ed costs have gone up. I will say he is wrong that educators and administrators are making out like bandits. But schools have gone on a property buying spree (probably more expensive during the bubble), and tried to sock money into endowments (consisting of investments ... uh oh).

But here's the thing. I think Kelly's argument that people with non science degrees are not getting the benefit of their degree by taking lower skilled jobs overlooks the fact that many companies are choosing to hire college in preference to high school grads, even if the job doesn't require the degree. And the college grads can advance, where the high school grad might not be able to (unless they use Clinton type tax credits to get the degree @ night). So although it is not an ideal situation, the reality on the ground is that if a person takes Kelly's apparent advice, saves money and does not have a degree, (s)he may lose in the competition even for the jobs that ostensibly don't require a degree.

But there are two further issues. As I have mentioned before, the unemployment rate for people without a high school degree is 15%, for those who have only a high school degree the rate is 10%, while for those with a college degree the rate is 4.5% (I am not sure for those with an associates or "some college/university"). Having a degree means that it should be easier to get at least some job, if you try, while not having a degree makes that much more problematic.

And of course we know that the unemployment rates for young African-Americans are often much higher, although I suspect having the degree makes an even bigger difference there. I wonder if that is something Kelly has taken into consideration when seeming to recommend young people not get degrees. His suggestion could set one or even two generations back, considering how little progress has really been made in achieving equal rights for the vast majority of African Americans.

Now, anyone who reads this blog knows I have linked Kelly to the Tea Party movement. Unfortunately, the semi-racist narrative I described above fits with the views of at least some Tea Partiers. But there is an additional ominous element here. The Tea Party "declaration of independence", which presumably some number, possibly a majority or even all Tea Partiers agree with, includes a line complaining that the government is trying to bankrupt the country using socialist schemes so that the peasants will have to beg for sustenance from self styled "educated classes" and so-called "experts". There is also an line about the Tea Party rejecting "transformational change" performed on the nation by (as they put it) smug elites who call them "educated classes".

I believe the Tea Party has made it's position clear on intellectualism and education. So why should I not believe Kelly is subtly advancing the Tea Party position even while claiming to look out for the interests of young people. And as side consequence, out and out torpedoing the chances for employment of young African Americans and other disadvantaged minorities. Which is the final meta-aspect to Kelly's column for me.

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