Paying the Poorly Educated

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

Jack Metzgar is author of the recent Cornell ILR Press book, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

This entry was posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Paying the Poorly Educated

  1. jackmetz1 says:

    Reposting and reprinting of Working-Class Perspectives blogs are always encouraged, not merely allowed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Glen McGhee, Dir., FHEAP says:

    Jack Metzgar deserves credit for putting into words what we’ve all been thinking:

    “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.”

    What gets lost is how, for every system of mobility that has ever been devised, it is also a system of economic immobility for those it excludes. Every system of credentialing also produces its uncredentialed and implicates the drop out and those without a degree. For every job requiring a degree, there are rejected applicants without one. This fundamental dialectic is obscured by the rhetoric of success and status that focuses on upward mobility and ignores the downward escalator happening at the same time. The underlying internal relation between opportunity and social exclusion is rendered invisible by the rhetoric of merit and achievement.

    This is exactly the “toxic narrative” that Jack Metzgar is warning us about.
    Make no mistake — we are being warned. The very dynamic of exclusion that confers benefits and job market advantages on the few also deprives the many of equal access. And they know it — the chief “consumer” of educational script are governments that admit local, state and federal workers to their ranks on the basis of degrees — even academia, the target of the ire of the masses of uncredentialed (not the “uneducated” as Trump noted).

    The “nearly impregnable professional-middle-class prejudice” that favors education as a social panacea, and its history, is well documented in Cristina Groeger’s history of Boston. The explosion in Boston’s commercial growth and businesses that hit 100 years ago coincided with a similar explosion in the proliferation of proprietary schools that was soon followed by public schools offering the same instruction. This is the birthplace of the professional and middle-class prejudice that Jack mentions; but even then, its efficacy was uneven. Those with more, got more, and those with less fell further behind.

    But what gets glossed over is how tenuous this pretension is — it is, after all, the same mechanism of social exclusion used by the medieval Guilds to minimize competition and threats. Professional monopolies are built on the accumulation of political capital in the form of government sponsored licensing requirements and the ability to self-regulate. This is why Jack’s quip about a professional-class bubble bursting is so insightful — without government enforced prohibitions and controls, without the ability to exclude members from professional guilds, the whole edifice collapses and bursts like a bubble. Professions were built up through credentialism and guild-like exclusion.

    Over the past 100 years, however, the competition for credentials has taken on a life of its own — creating a kind of “Red Queen” effect, and creating the need for more and more education to combat job insecurity and status anxiety, and the fear of falling behind economically. Businesses pretend to need more and more education, and schools pretend to offer it. It is called Credential Inflation. But what has been the result of decades and decades of credential inflation, you may ask.

    Right now, an estimated $500 billion dollars in student loan debt will never be paid back, and overall indebtedness stands at a staggering $1.8 trillion dollars. Student loan debt continues to be amassed as never before — even as the benefits it purportedly helps to acquire decline and shrivel. Clearly, none of this is sustainable. So, we need to be asking, What Comes Next?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glen McGhee, Dir., FHEAP says:

      Here’s a review link for Cristina Groeger:
      ghttps://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/urban-history/article/abs/cristina-viviana-groeger-the-education-trap-schools-and-the-remaking-of-inequality-in-boston-cambridge-ma-and-london-harvard-university-press-2021-384pp-24-illustrations-1-map-2895-hbk/126A905584E569F6087ACB87B6A14146

      Like

    • cynthia curran says:

      The problem is Trump didn’t helped Youngstown that much and it has a college. If the engineer majors stayed in Youngstown like they did in Huntsville Alabama a lot more blue collar and white collar jobs would have been created. In fact Trump hurt Ohio, why. Well one college educated job, marketing was moved from Columbus to New York City where cost of living is higher. Trump only supported manufacturing in Ohio not Marketing or other jobs that should have stay in the state instead of going to overprice and tax New York. In fact people that complain the most about Student debt live in places like New York city where buying property is very expensive more so than people that go to College and live in Youngstown or Huntsville Alabama.

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  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Jack, wow. Excellent analysis. Is there any possibility that I could reprint this in the Higher Education Inquirer?

    Like

  4. Pingback: Paying the Poorly Educated | Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News

  5. Tom Smucker says:

    Than you. It can’t be said often enough. Along with the pie chart. Even if it doesn’t make a dent in the received wisdom of the pundit class,

    Like

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