Has a college degree become a bad investment? Better question: is conservative rhetoric the worst investment in history?

Yesterday over at Future Majority, Kevin Bondelli responded to Jack Hough’s New York Post column “Don’t Get That College Degree!” Bondelli’s take led with one of the more terrifying titles I’ve seen lately: “Has College Become a Bad Investment?” Yow. When you dig the hole so deep that you can even use that kind of question as a rhetorical device, you know you’re in some deep, deep kim-chee. Seriously. That one ranks right up there with “Is breathing really a good idea?” and “What are the lasting benefits of a howitzer shot to the balls?”

Snark aside, Bondelli does a nice job of addressing Hough, who “argues that the increase in lifetime wages for graduates no longer makes up for the financial burden of university education and the ensuing student loan burden.” He also takes on one of the GOP’s most successful and devastating canards, explaining that

In 2003 when I was lobbying against tuition increases in Arizona, a Republican state legislator argued that a college degree is a personal investment that the students are paying for their own future financial prosperity.

I second Kevin’s thoughts (and encourage you to click over and read the whole post). However, I also think the response needs to run even deeper. In truth, as stupid as that Repub legislator’s argument was (and in all likelihood, as stupid as the legislator was), it’s an argument that wins over a lot of people if you let its underlying assumption go unchallenged.

Bondelli touches on the point in quoting University of Rhode IslandVice President for Administration and Finance Robert Weygand, who explains that

Public colleges need to promote and publicize the work they do for the community and their contributions to economic development. Well-publicized proof that they make a difference to the state, and not just the earning potential of individual graduates, is meaningful to lawmakers, even in tough times.

The underlying issue that must be dragged out into the light and stomped is that somehow a nation’s education policy is all about individual investment. This is “ownership society”-style bullshit and it traces its “intellectual” roots back through the eight-year lie that was the Reagan administration and into the conservative academic framework laid in the 1960s by the likes of Daniel Bell. It culminated in rhetorical low-water marks like “government isn’t the solution to your problems – it is the problem,” and unfortunately the Newspeak linguistic cross-patch that this crowd inflicted on an easily-duped public is still working its corrosive magic today.

The answer we give when faced with this kind of cynical forked-tonguery must make clear that it’s not about Little Billy choosing whether or not to invest in his future. Instead, the question is about what’s best for the nation. In a society where only the top 5% of economic elites can afford a quality education – and we’re heading in that direction at a rapid pace – that means that 95% of the nation’s intelligence, 95% of its genius, 95% of its creativity and insight and inventiveness and problem solving capacity, 95% of its scientific potential – 95% of that nation’s possibility is at risk. It’s likely doomed to go unrealized.

Imagine that nation engaged in a highly competitive global marketplace with countries that make refining their intelligence, regardless of class or station of birth, a top priority. Imagine a nation that’s much like America in size and socioeconomic structure and overall potential. And imagine that while we’re keeping 95% of our brighest and best away from learning as best we can, they’re moving heaven and earth to get their brightest and best all the education possible.

Let’s go a step further and make this a math question. The US has a population of around 300 million. Statistically speaking, “genius” is a term that (as flawed as it may be) refers to the top 2% intellectually. So that means that America is home to roughly 6 million geniuses. Now, say we only provide quality educational opportunities to the richest 5%. That leaves us with 300,000 of our best minds honest to their sharpest potential.

Now consider that other hypothetical country, call it AltAmerica. Same numbers, only this time you educate all your geniuses. Our 300,000 is now up against their 6 million.

Which nation do you think innovates the best products? (I start with that example, because obviously nothing matters besides feeding the consumerist beast, right?) Who more quickly comes up with cures for diseases? Who creates solutions to pressing social challenges? Who is best able to provide for the common weal while preserving the environment?

Over time, which nation comes to dominate and which one fades?

A nation that adopts a “let Billy decide whether to invest in his future” policy will be, in short order, at the mercy of a nation that makes educating Billy a top priority.

If you don’t like my math, fine, adjust to your liking. But the dynamic remains (and I’m framing the discussion in a restrictive fashion, as well, because you don’t have to be a rated genius to be smart enough to change the world). And by the way, I do have a couple of specific nations in mind. Neither of them has a population of 300 million, either. Both have over a billion people, and they have more honor students than we have students.

That politician that Kevin references is either stupid or corrupt, or maybe both. But whether he’s acting out of class-based malice or simple butt-ignorance, the policy he espouses would, over time, reduce the US to the equivalent if a slobbering backwater surrounded by thrumming, intellect-powered New Atlantises. No doubt he’d like to keep the rabble in its place, educated only enough to provide unquestioning labor for the power elite’s enterprises, but the dangerous fact is that he hasn’t thought this thing all the way through.

Which also demonstrates, by the way, that not everybody in that 5% elite is exactly rocket surgeon material. So maybe my scenario above was actually a little … conservative, if you will.

Thanks to Kevin for taking this issue head-on. I hope he won’t mind me adding my two cents…

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10 thoughts on “Has a college degree become a bad investment? Better question: is conservative rhetoric the worst investment in history?”

  1. While I agree with your thesis, you make some specious arguments to support it. The notion that only 5% of the country’s geniuses will go to higher education ignores the level of meritocracy that exists. Sure, many will slip through the cracks, but to say that only 5% of the countries genius and creativity will ever be fully cultivated is intellectually dishonest since the best and brightest don’t usually pay for school.

    Just sayin.

  2. Dan: As I say, feel free to run the scenario with whatever numbers strike you as more reasonable. At present I’m not sure the numbers we’d need to run it with extreme accuracy exist, and the last thing I’m trying to do is suggest that I’m doing anything more than situating the analysis in a more or less plausible ballpark.

    Whether the gap is 5% or 30% or 90%, though, the dynamic I’m describing is real. And the observation at the end about China and India ought to terrify anybody who cares about our place as a world leader.

    1. Jeff: the section at the top of p22 is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of is its accordance with what the neo-Marxist Althusser has to say about “Ideological State Apparatuses.”

      Not everyday JW lines up with the Marxists, huh? 🙂

  3. Hmmm. A few comments.

    College is not something just for geniuses, generally held by psychometricians to be those with an IQ of approximately 140. As you probably noticed, most college students are not genius material – frankly most of their professors outside of theoretical physics are not geniuses either. The accepted minimum IQ figure for completing a 4 year college degree is 115, a little under a standard deviation above average intelligence. In practice there are a lot of college degrees in not terribly rigorous fields/schools where you can make it with less brainpower.

    There’s nothing morally or socially wrong with vocational training or 2 year technical degrees. A number of what really constitute vocational programs for socially prestigious occupations masquerade as “grad school” but they are no harder or broader intellectually than becoming an electrician or computer programer.

    The real purpose of an undergraduate university degree was (and should be) liberal education and the acquisition of critical, reflective, independent thinking and lifelong intellectual inquiry. It isn’t supposed to be a career-specific process or indocrination in empty, politicized, fluff – a liberal education is as beneficial to a plumber as it is to a podiatrist. It also benefits the nation by cultivating an informed and critical citizenry. We need to get back to that.

    The rising costs of higher education, which are pricing middle class (never mind working class) students out the decent schools is not a market driven phenomena. The rates of tuition increases are largely political and bureaucratic-administrative in nature and are not caused by evil Republicans, Ronald Reagan or capitalism but because most universities operate like public utilities do when the corporate officers ( presidents, provosts, trustees) lack any real accountability to anyone. They squeeze workers (professors) and customers (students) alike to maximize the resources under their institutional discretionary control while minimizing the quality of the service provided. They hire part timers instead of tenure track, string 4 year degrees out to 6 years, use TA’s wherever possible, and so on.

  4. Sam,

    I don’t agree with everything Nock has to say(and Nock is certainly not a Marxist), but I do find his ideas well thought out, well constructed, and rigorous.

    For a good read, you would find entertaining, I find it compelling, check out Nock’s “Our Enemy the State” Here’s a link to the whole book.

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig3/nock1.html

    If you want to understand the gestalt of the pure Conservative mind, a complete read of Nock is essential. I have about 8 or 9 of his books for download over on my blog for anybody that’s interested. I urge any liberal to fully read Nock and challenge his beliefs.

    I might further add that I have 45 classics that everyone should have read in college for anyone that might be interested, and I also have 26 full books for download that are market related. My blog isn’t just right wing rants or boring market stuff. A friend of mine has a great take on education that is never brought up here as homeschooling is an anathema to many liberals.
    Since she doesn’t want her works linked on other blogs, PM me and I will send a link to her good article.

    Jeff

  5. Eloquent post, Dr. S. Are we really content to let China and India zoom past us? It was only a generation ago that both the GI Bill and City College in New York City educated students for free.

    Thanks to Mark (ZP) too for your perspective on how college administrations bear much of the blame for driving up costs.

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