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Transformation of Higher Ed: The Problematic Victory of College Education

The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Ed
Transformation of Higher Ed: The Problematic Victory of College Education
By Clay Shirky • Issue #10 • View online

Last fall, headlines from a Georgetown report on the financial returns to various levels of education received wide coverage. 
These stories bring good news: despite all the worry about the weak job market for high school grads, there are well-paid jobs out there that don’t require a college degree. After all, as Georgetown points out, 16% of high school grads make more money than half of Bachelor’s degree holders. This suggests that all it will take to lessen the education wage gap is improved advice for job seekers. This is huge if true. Also, it is not true.
Here is Georgetown’s data on the distribution of lifetime earnings by level of education. It covers from the 25th percentile of earners to the 75th in each category—the bubble of the bell curve:
Lifetime earnings by educational attainment, 25th-75th percentile
Lifetime earnings by educational attainment, 25th-75th percentile
Look at that chart. Is the lesson you’d draw that in America, it’s fine to only have a high school degree? The only economic outcomes worse than only graduating from high school come from not graduating from high school. And do you see where the 75th percentile of high school grads makes just a bit more than the median Bachelor’s holder? That tiny overlap is the source of the 16% of the time, it works half the time! coverage. 
National Public Radio in particular leaned into this, quoting one of the study’s authors saying “‘You have to go to college’ isn’t always the best advice for high schoolers”, and going on to list four well-paid jobs – air traffic controllers, construction inspectors, respiratory therapists and cardiovascular technicians. Sounds good, right?
There’s just one problem: the labor statistics page for every job NPR listed except construction inspectors say “Typical Entry-Level Education: Associate’s degree”. It’s certainly easier to get an Associate’s than a Bachelor’s, but it’s still a college degree. The best advice for any high school student who wants to be an air traffic controller, respiratory therapist, or cardiovascular technician is in fact “You have to go to college.” (Surprise.) 
NPR didn’t run this story for the high school grads in their audience; they hardly have any. (Really. They brag to their sponsors about how educated their listeners are.) They ran it for us, the college grads that make up their actual audience. The good news stories about the labor market are not journalism, they are wish fulfillment, designed to make the educated reader feel better about our having monopolized nearly every workplace opportunity there is.
What the Georgetown data demonstrates, as if more evidence were needed, is that college has won. We, the college educated, run almost every institution of consequence in American society. Even the old bargain, where the college-educated founded or ran businesses that employed high school grads, has been torn in two. Your iPhone may have been designed by Apple in California, but it was assembled by Foxconn in Guangdong. 
Many jobs that used to be open to people with high school degrees, from bond trader to undertaker to journalist, have been professionalized, now requiring a college education. Even places that advertise not needing a college degree, like Google, mostly employ college graduates. Our capture of nearly every important aspect of American culture in a single lifetime has been so swift and total we were not ready for it. Yet here we are. 
As college graduates have become more common, we’ve suffered what might be called a skills inversion, where a particular skill goes from being rare through specialized to ordinary. As the prevalence of the skill grows, the economic effects start out benefiting the rare few who have it, but end up punishing the people who don’t, once it becomes widespread. 
The most obvious recent example is the personal computer. Anyone who owned their own computer in the 1970s was a hobbyist, without getting much economic payback. The 1980s saw the spread of the computer into the workplace, and knowing how to use one—not program it, just use it—became a marketable skill. In the 90s, demand for computer-savviness grew; high schools added classes just called “Computer”, while colleges offered extension courses in things like Word and Excel. 
By the 2000s, knowing the basics of computer use started to become the default. Meanwhile, not being familiar with computers started to become a deficit. The 2010s really sealed the shift as the computers slipped into our pockets, disguised as phones. Today, a 20-year-old who does not know how to use a computer isn’t a credible candidate for many jobs (and a 15-year-old who does not have a $700 phone in their pocket is pitiable.) 
The greatest such inversion in modern history was literacy. Since writing appeared five millennia ago, complex societies maintained a small cadre of scribes, but in Europe, it took the falling cost of written material and the rising complexity of long-distance trading in the 1500s to drive real increases in the number of people who could read and write.
By the 1800s, literacy was becoming widespread, and the rationale changed. Politicians in industrializing nations started to advocate for government support of education, on grounds of national rather than personal advantage. In 1870, an advocate for universal elementary education told the British parliament
It is of no use trying to give technical teaching to our citizens without elementary education; uneducated labourers—and many of our labourers are utterly uneducated—are, for the most part, unskilled labourers, and if we leave our work–folk any longer unskilled, notwithstanding their strong sinews and determined energy, they will become overmatched in the competition of the world.
Expansion of literacy was presented as valuable for the nation as a whole. The successful spread of elementary education meant that literacy gradually stopped being special. This in turn meant that illiteracy – a word no one even needed until the victory of the literate – stopped being normal, and became undesirable. The paradox of new skills is that they start out benefiting the people who have them, but if a capability becomes so important nearly everyone needs it, the effect shifts to increasing punishment for the people who don’t. This is happening with college education. 
Having any sort of middle-class existence practically requires a college degree. Nobody likes this. The terrible reporting around the Georgetown report was driven by a nostalgia for an America where most high school degree holders could get good jobs, but that country no longer exists. (The Georgetown data itself makes the economic catastrophe for high school grads clear, but that was not enough to stop news outlets from hyping comforting edge cases.)
At the same time, Americans of all stripes are mad that college cannot do what it used to do—help the degree holder get ahead—because so many of the people the college graduates would need to get ahead of are also college grads. Just having a college degree can’t deliver above-average outcomes in any industry where the average worker has one. 
In the good old days (which is to say post-war America), an increasing number of students could attend college every year, and it benefited them personally and professionally, while also making the country richer and more powerful. People wrongly ascribed these happy effects to the work colleges themselves were doing (a mistake college administrators were happy to encourage) when much of the value was a scarcity premium. 
I am old enough to remember when “college educated” was still used to describe a certain kind of person. In central Missouri in the 1970s, the label was not always a positive, carrying a whiff of ‘never worked a day in his life’, but it was still considered an unusual enough characteristic to talk about. That scarcity was a wasting asset, however. Between the end of World War II and the end of the Vietnam war, college attendance of high school grads grew from 5% to 25%, an increase whose proportion can never be repeated, for the obvious reason. 
In the same way “illiterate” went from describing everyone save a few monks and scribes, to becoming the label for a terrible condition that shut you out of polite society, being college educated is increasingly less special, but lacking a college degree is increasingly a sort of purgatory.
We have too many college graduates for an undergraduate degree on it’s own to retain much of its specialness, but too few for it to be a universal condition. There are two ways out of this middling state: step on the gas, or step on the brakes. 
Stepping on the gas would mean accepting that college is the new high school, something we should make available, and eventually require, for nearly everyone. This is the current administration’s direction, in proposals like erasing some student loans, or making community college free nationwide. The logic of free community college is the same as the argument that the British government should invest in elementary schooling to drive industrialization: the country as a whole benefits from an educated populace, so the country as a whole should fund it. 
The thing stepping on the gas has going for it is America’s long history of growing educational attainment. At the beginning of the 20th century, when high school was the new high school, fewer than 10% of teenagers got an education past the 8th grade. That figure sextupled by 1940 and, after World War II, continued to rise to roughly 90% today. That same shift could happen to the Associate’s degree, which can function as either the last two years of high school or the first two years of college, depending on whether the students getting Associate’s are headed for work or a Bachelors. 
The thing stepping on the gas has going against it is the fact that college itself has become part of the Giant Referendum on Everything, where even apple pie is a signifier in the culture wars. With suspicion of higher education now de facto Republican policy, even massive Federal subsidy for a benefit mostly enjoyed by the states is difficult to get bi-partisan agreement on.
Stepping on the brakes would mean investing in more apprenticeships and on-the-job training, more union memberships for service jobs, a shift to bootcamps and certificates rather than colleges and degrees. This would move us closer to the British model of offering post-high school enrollment in either higher education or further education, the latter directed at moving people into trades.
The thing stepping on the brakes has going for it is that it doesn’t require giant Federal programs. Instead, it can proceed piecemeal, and with respect to local conditions. If employers can be re-engaged in on-the-job training, then the systems offered to high school students in Seattle vs. Savannah can vary by local conditions. 
The thing stepping on the brakes has going against it is that the best models we have for providing good jobs for people without college degrees are European social democracies, also anathema to the Republican party. (There is also scant evidence that the country’s businesses want to provide more on the job training.)
This leaves the third option, the typical American option, which is to step on the gas and the brakes at the same time. This option—the worst and likeliest of the three—will see gains to research increasingly clustered in states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California that are already winning in the post-industrial economy, while the legislative weakening of public education will preserve the immiseration of high school degree holders in the states like South Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa. (States with conservative politics but excellent research universities—Indiana, North Carolina, and especially Texas—will be cross-pressured.) 
Colleges and universities, like all institutions, are alert to threats to their viability, but the premature victory of the college educated is an unusually hard problem, not just because it is intractably bound up in increasingly divisive politics, but because it is difficult for those of us in higher education to even see our near-total economic and cultural victory as a problem. It is comparatively easy to convince institutions to take action when they are obviously failing. It is much harder when our problems are a result of our success.
The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Education is a newsletter by Clay Shirky. Feel free to forward. Subscribe here.
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