Joe Biden was right to propose free Pre-K education for 3- and 4-year-olds and free community college in his initial legislative package, rather than pushing for free public university education and the cancellation of college debt. All four progressive education initiatives would serve the public good by making education more available to millions. However, policies that promote university education do little to help the working class. They also feed into the false and damaging narrative that college is the right path to upward mobility for most people.
While free public universities could be transformative in the very long term, most of the benefits of this policy would go to higher-income families. They are more likely to live in areas with high-quality K-12 schools, and their children also are more likely to have the kinds of social and cultural capital that are especially advantageous for getting into and succeeding in college.
Similarly, while forgiving all or some portion of existing student loan debt would likely benefit low- and middle-income young people, who are more likely to have higher levels of debt than their more affluent contemporaries, this too has limited benefit for the working class, because it only helps those who have gone to college. That’s a large group, but forgiving their debts does nothing for the many others who aren’t in debt because they didn’t go to college at all or for very long.
Free public Pre-K and free community college, on the other hand, disproportionately benefit working-class children and adults. Free Pre-K will not only improve the educational prospects of children, but it also saves families money. For those currently using the cheapest day care, this would save some $10,000 to $15,000 a year – a significant increase in spending power for all income classes, but transformative for low- and middle-income family budgets. What’s more, for low-income parents who currently can’t afford day care and thus can’t work full time or at all, free Pre-K would allow them to work and earn more in the paid workforce.
Likewise, free community college would disproportionately benefit low-income adults and young people who cannot go to college full time because they need to work. Community college education includes apprenticeships and other pre-training that is needed for entry into many middle-wage jobs, including in the soon-to-be-expanding building trades. Free public university would mostly benefit those young people who have more time to take the long road, while free community college is more valuable for working adults who already have work and family responsibilities.
The class-skewed benefits of these initiatives are relatively complicated, but we should also pay attention to the messages they reinforce. Prioritizing free college and student debt forgiveness plays into a toxic narrative that has deep roots in our public discourse: that college-educated people are more valuable, more worthy of public subsidy, than the so-called “poorly educated.” This narrative accepts that college graduates deserve to be paid more, but it also offers a false promise: that the primary way to increase wages and living standards – or more grandly, to restore the American Dream of upward mobility — is for more and more people to get college degrees. Both these messages are false. The first reflects a nearly impregnable professional-middle-class prejudice, but the second is an intellectual error that, if corrected, could burst a professional-class bubble.
College education cannot be a path for widespread upward mobility because a large majority of jobs in our economy do not require a college education or anything like it. 61% require high school or less and another 11% require an associate’s degree, some college, or other postsecondary education – but not a bachelor’s degree. Only 28% of jobs in 2020 required a bachelor’s, a far lower percentage than the nearly 40% of workers over 25 who had that degree.
That is why we find so many men and women with bachelor’s degrees as fast food workers; retail salespersons or cashiers; waiters, waitresses or cooks; freight, stock and material movers; janitors and cleaners; and home health care or child care workers. These occupations are among those with the largest annual job openings , and all of them have median annual wages ranging from $22,740 to $29,510 (that is, less than $15 an hour).
This is a tragedy for college graduates who were told that becoming part of the exam-passing classes would lead to better lives. But for most people doing those jobs, it probably never crossed their minds that they could go to college. Still, that work needs to be done, no matter the educational attainment of the people who do it. The work they do is socially valuable, some of it even “essential,” and those jobs need to be paid a living wage. To be told that the only way to improve your life conditions is through more (and more) education is demoralizing and, especially for those who work alongside college graduates doing the same work, palpably false.
Higher education is a circuitous route to improving one’s economic prospects, a route that will not work for at least a third of those who can afford to take it, and a route that is not realistically available for the majority of our population. If we want to improve wages and conditions, we need to improve them directly, not by producing more college grads.
President Biden’s initial transformative legislative package that got whittled down to Build Back Better (BBB) embodied the understanding that education was neither the answer nor even an important part of the answer for achieving upward mobility. That initial package included a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the union-empowering Pro-Act that were quickly jettisoned because they could not avoid a Republican filibuster the way budget bills can. But, equally or even more important, many elements of Build Back Better provided for a series of enhanced social wages that together would have dramatically improved life prospects across the board – none more important than the package of child care subsidies that included universal free Pre-K.
Social wages explicitly recognize that even with better minimum wages and stronger unions, most wages will not come close to reflecting the collective social value workers provide. Nor are wages going to be sufficient to provide decent incomes for most people most of the time. Reducing the cost of health care, housing, transportation, and child care (all of which BBB would have addressed) increases the real incomes of all workers, and it has the most dramatic effect on low-wage workers.
By prioritizing those workers, most of whom do not have college degrees, the Biden package had the potential to pierce the professional-class prejudice that has dominated public policy. Both Presidents Bush and Obama proclaimed that more and better education was the only way to address our savage inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity. Biden, by contrast, is the first president in memory to actually brag about creating well-paying jobs that do not require any college.
Alas, Build Back Better – let alone the initial, larger version of itself – is dead for now, and the possibility of a truly transformational package becoming law is probably gone for the immediate future. But a healthy majority of the public and more than 90% of Congressional Democrats supported the core idea of increasing taxes on corporations and the rich in order to transfer money to workers and citizens in ways that could dramatically increase working-class people’s chances for creating better lives. Hopefully, that support shows a shift away from the idea that education is the only path to improved life prospects. A public consensus may be developing that even the poorly educated deserve to earn a good living.
Jack Metzgar is author of the recent Cornell ILR Press book, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.