That sounds like an irreverent question. It might even sound like I’m denigrating either working-class people or college. So let me say this from the outset: I think higher education is important and valuable, and I am delighted that so many working-class students are pursuing it. I also know that my view reflects just one part of the very divided public discourse about education these days.
I want people to go to college to develop their ability to think critically and analyze the world around them. As a humanist, I believe in the social, cultural, political, and personal value of spending time reading and talking about ideas. Like Martha Nussbaum and Chris Hedges, I find the shift away from what I think of as “real” education – education for critical thinking and citizenship — not just philosophically problematic but downright scary for the future of this country and the world. We need more people to be more able to read, speak, write, and most important think well.
Discussions about the value of the humanities and the broad social purposes of higher education represent just one part of the public debate. The rest is about economic costs and benefits. John Sherriff collates some of this material on his website exploring whether a college education is a “good investment.” David Evans, a blogger and YouTube video producer, advises people not to go to college, suggesting that other types of training will yield equally-valuable career opportunities. Others question the structure of higher education, suggesting that the four-year BA is itself a problematic model because few occupations really require that type of education. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute even suggests that the idea that everyone should get a BA creates class divides in America.
Two conversations I had last week have me thinking about these two very different discussions. On Friday, I met with a student I’ll call Cherise, who was thinking about changing her major from English to English Education in order to improve her chances of getting a job, even though she admitted that she didn’t really want to work with children. While I encouraged her to view college as an opportunity for learning and developing her abilities as a reader, writer, and thinker, I couldn’t ignore Cherise’s concern about getting a good job. I told her about the panel we recently held with alumni from our department discussing their jobs as writers, editors, and professionals in marketing and public relations. Studying literature, language, and writing can seem self-indulgent and impractical, but as one of my former students explained during the panel discussion, her English degree prepared her well for her job, teaching her how to adapt her writing to different situations, analyze both content and audiences, and figure out how to communicate effectively about technical issues she never studied in school.
The previous afternoon, I talked with a local group of current and retired teachers, and part of our conversation about class in America turned to the high costs and questionable economic payoffs of higher education. I noted a point we have cited several times in Working-Class Perspectives over the last two years: the Bureau of Labor Statistics prediction that in the next two decades the U.S. will see more growth in jobs that don’t require a college degree and that pay low wages than in more professional fields. We also talked about how the message that “everyone” should go to college discourages young people from even thinking about careers in skilled trades.
Worse, I pointed out, the myth that everyone needs a B.A. is creating long-term financial strains for many individuals and their families. Last week, the New York Times reported that Americans now owe more for student loans than for credit cards, and the total debt load for college loans will soon be more than a trillion dollars. Two-thirds of students now graduate with debt, and job prospects and security for college grads are both faltering. According to Paul Krugman, as of December, about 74% of college graduates were finding full-time employment. That’s a slight increase from the year before, but still 9% lower than a decade ago – when students were graduating with significantly less debt. A dramatic report on 60 Minutes last fall highlighted the problem, as Scott Pelley talked with a roomful of people in the Silicon Valley who had reached the end of their 99 weeks of government unemployment benefits, unable to find work despite having B.A.s (or graduate degrees) and years of experience.
College can still be a good investment, but it’s also increasingly expensive. Costs have escalated as universities add facilities, keep technology up-to-date, and provide more services to address the needs of their increasingly diverse populations. Meanwhile, despite plenty of rhetoric about the importance of education, most states are cutting funding to colleges and universities in order to balance tight budgets, choosing tax cuts for the well-off over education for the working class. As taxes go down, tuition goes up. But for many working-class families, the tax cuts that created the states’ budget problems don’t come close to balancing the increased cost of college tuition. Put simply, going to college takes an ever-bigger bite out of the family budgets of working-class people. For them, going to college is a significant financial gamble.
That’s what makes the question of whether working-class people should go to college so difficult. Some healthy skepticism about the value of college is wise. Young people and their parents should pay more attention to alternative forms of job preparation, such as technical schools and apprenticeships. For someone whose primary goal is getting a better job, becoming an electrician may be a smart choice.
Critics like Murray overstate the cost-benefit analysis problem, though. Yes, college can lead to significant debt, but only if students and their families ignore the opportunities available at regional universities and community colleges or get lured into high-cost for-profit programs that don’t yield real job opportunities. Lower-cost options do exist.
The problem is, in part, that the more affordable state institutions are being pressured to offer programs that focus almost entirely on workplace skills, not critical thinking. As CWCS faculty affiliates Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff have argued, “while students at the most prestigious schools are learning broad concepts and acquiring intellectual and ethical frameworks for processing complex, multiple, and shifting realities, too often students at lower ‘tier’ institutions are being trained to perform tasks, with one career or vocation the sole goal of their education. One group will likely become the innovators and the entrepreneurs, the other the workers.”
Along with reinforcing existing class divides, this approach ignores the broader social value of education. Democracy relies on the ability of the people to think critically. As Nussbaum writes, the abilities that are most “crucial to the health of any democracy” are being threatened in the current emphasis on the cost-benefit analysis of education. This pits the pursuit of employment, a key part of the American dream, against the basic conditions for effective democracy, a key American value.
So what should I advise Cherise? Her whole face lit up when I told her that sticking with the English major would not ruin her economic future. It’s clear that what she really wants to do is keep reading, talking about, and critically analyzing literature and language. And why shouldn’t she have the same opportunity to pursue her passions that her more privileged peers enjoy? On the other hand, even as I can point to real professional opportunities for a smart young woman with good writing and research skills, I have to admit that there are no guarantees. The best I can do is present her with the full range of options and obstacles.
Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies