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Secrets of the workhouse revealed

By Michael J. Smith on Tuesday August 3, 2010 09:44 AM

A rather surprising piece in the credentialling-sector house organ, Inside Higher Education:

Higher Education's Big Lie

The notion that education, particularly a college degree, is the key to career success is a particularly American idea. It is what the sociologists W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson have called "the education gospel," a national ethos of hard work in school paying off and of equal opportunity for all. ...

And workers have responded to the call. As The New York Times reported recently, there are now more students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education than ever before.... With millions more students attending college, it makes sense to ask whether their degrees will pay off.

First of all, it is debatable whether a majority of future job openings will require a college degree. ... According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most job growth in the next decade will be in labor markets where a bachelor's degree is not necessary. Furthermore, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically in recent years. Conflicting claims about the economic value of a degree along with skyrocketing tuition raise a question about whether college is a good investment for all students, especially those low-income students who can least afford to spend money and years on a higher education venture that may not produce rewards.

Secondly, the issue of college payoff becomes even more complicated when we consider that many students who begin college will not complete degrees. While the U.S. leads the world in college attendance, it is ranked near the bottom in the number of students who actually graduate.... According to education researcher Peter Sacks, the chance that a low-income child will earn a bachelor's degree is no higher today than it was in 1970, a grave contradiction in the meritocratic narrative of the education gospel.

In fact... the qualities that lead to academic success are not linked to college access, effort, or intelligence, but to accidents of birth. For the most part, the children of affluent parents attend the best colleges and get the best jobs....

These days it is more likely that a student's first tuition bill will be paid with money from a loan. What looks like an investment in the future, however, can often turn into an economic disaster. For example, Valerie, an immigrant from Haiti... After high school in Harlem, Valerie spent six years at a private, nonprofit, open-door college in New York City accumulating credits for a psychology degree that she finally completed in 2006.

One year after graduation, the only job she could find was working as a teacher's aide (a position that did not require a bachelor's) for $14,000 per year. She also had to work as a salesperson in a clothing store to make ends meet.... [A]fter years of student loans, Valerie owed almost $60,000, a sum she could never hope to repay. After returning to the same college to earn a M.A. degree, Valerie found a job as a social worker earning a $33,000 annual salary [but] Valerie was still unable to meet her financial obligations, and she had begun to question whether her six-year investment of time and money had been worth it....

The whole thing is well worth reading; and the credentialling sector's most implacable enemies -- among whom I number myself -- could hardly find anything to add. It's really quite damning.

Comments (15)


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The comment thread over there is a real horror show.

One of the better points raised is the effect of class on the outcome. 3rd basers tend to conveniently miss those effects.

Low income students
- often have to work part-time during the year in order to afford a half-decent living standard, even after loans and/or scholarships & grants
- cannot game the system by dropping tons of courses where they do badly and avoiding the hit to their GPA
- cannot game the GPA by doing 5 years of school or summer school so that they have lower workloads
- do not have professor/helicopter parents who will proofread their essays and intervene on their behalf
- cannot afford tutors
- cannot afford to pay people to write their essays for them
- lack the social know-how/class signalling resources to get in their prof's good books
- cannot afford to take unpaid internships in the summer/after graduation
- cannot afford to sit around after graduation and wait for the right job opening

For upper class students, college is just studying vs. partying, with all those pesky real-life problems being handled by the parents. They have a tendency to think that that everyone in college was in the same situation. If you didn't study enough, then obviously you must have partied too much, right? Work? Living costs? Debt? Not part of the equation for them, so they continue to believe that credentialing is always a great idea.

The system is undoubtedly in very big trouble. The main trend right now is not only rising enrollments, but also down-shifting into the state schools by the second basers.

My own formerly working-class commuter "university," erstwhile flunk-out locale for Courtney Love, just jacked its in-state tuition by 13% to nearly $7,000. Job prospects at the other end? Worse than ever. Nonetheless, enrollment is at a record high.

Faculty attitudes toward the approaching implosion make Chamberlain's trip to Munich look hardcore. Of course.

If the society had enough real wealth left, it might all just be another advance in the process of warehousing the structurally unemployed, as predicted by Harry Braverman circa 1974. But the K-12 part of that phenomenon is free to the warehousees, not financed through banks and Sallie Mae.

Y'know, in principle, I have to agree with Smiff on the current status of this country's colleges and universities as credentialing factories. Still, there's something vaguely alarming and depressing about the fact that so many jobs requiring a modicum of higher education have been lost and those remaining won't require a degree, and that high-school kids who want to do something with their lives more important than shit-shoveling for a living are being priced out of any opportunity for a decent college education.

Granted, I was largely self-taught and already had a fair amount of talent and inspiration before I went off to art school; and, yes, I wouldn't have been alone had I chosen to be a self-taught artist, but, still -- it would've been far more difficult, and taken much longer to become as good as I am at what I do had I not been able to obtain a college-level education in art and design.

Oh, and for the record, I spent my first year after finishing art school working in an electronic components plant, assembling keyboards for computerized cash registers and IBM PC Jr's (back when this country manufactured something besides terrorist threats, war news and the consent of the governed). That's right, nearly a full year before I actually scored my first graphic design job. That's where I think the Inside Higher Education article gets a bit whiny -- they obviously seem to be reporting on all those kids with a ridiculously inflated sense of entitlement who thought they were going to walk straight out of their MBA program or law school and into the cushy gig, the spiffy condo and the BMW.


"back when this country manufactured something besides terrorist threats, war news and the consent of the governed"

hitting way way above your weight
with that phrase lugnock
but comparing art school to liberal arts college is like comparing cooking to eating
obviously you aquired a marketable skill
and yet i suspect art programs over produce
credentials too
just like all the rest of the hoprses
in mr higher eds stable


merit challenged in the halls of merit

i guess that and the local tavern
are both safe places
to strip off the robes
for a moment
god forbid a politician try spouting this stuff on the hustings

close state u its a scam turn it into
a casino/prison


Mike F -- There's a useful distinction between learning and schooling. Not to mention credentialling.

Like you, I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had to learn stuff. There's been lots of it over the years, and I've been fortunate enough to enjoy most of it -- at least, after I escaped from high school; that's when I no longer had to study anything I didn't want to study.

Some of my learning was in school, some of it wasn't. Some of it was remunerative, some of it probably made me less employable than I was before.

It's not hard to imagine ways of making it possible for people to learn about stuff they like, or learn about stuff that will be useful to them, without all this bloated top-heavy apparatus of grading and selecting and testing and degree-ing.

And we certainly don't think the problem starts in college, do we? K-12 is just as fucked up, though for mostly different mid-level reasons.

The overarching big reason, though, and the one that makes me less than enthusiastic about the Illichian school-bashing tradition on the left, is that our overclass hates and fears and labors tirelessly to stymie true education. Have schools been given a full and fair chance to show what they could do? I think not.

Personally speaking, I think the entire school system ought to be radically re-launched, and that farming, building, and ecology ought to be right at the core of it all.


farming, building, and ecology ought to be right at the core of it all.

Wackford Squeers applauds this suggestion.


Thus MD:

Have schools been given a full and fair chance to show what they could do?
I'm taking unfair advantage here, but the temptation is too strong: Haven't they done quite enough? Do we really need to see what further horrors they're capable of?
our overclass hates and fears and labors tirelessly to stymie true education.
Dead on target, MD. And I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that the existing organization of the schools is dedicated precisely to that end.

I know you've spent a lot of time and effort trying to stem that tide, and I honor you for it, and I agree that if they could be re-founded on some altogether different basis, then....

But as matters stand it sounds to me like a project to reform the CIA. Our actually existing educational institutions have at their core an unshakable commitment to a deeply destructive project, and if I had to sum that project up in one word, it would be "meritocracy."


As a mid70's suburban grad of a public high school I found out in the Army that I had not a clue about the world and the people inhabiting it. My three years of military service, no war time duty, taught much more than my k-12 or subsequent college and law school experience.

Seems to me that the last few decades have increased the number of jobs that somehow cannot be done without paying out the bucks for college; that the endless mantra of back to school, back to school for youuuuu... is just a not-very-sophisticated scam in which employers can readily thin their pool of applicants with minimal effort while placing as much of the burden for actual job training squarely on the shoulders of employees themselves.

I especially love that there are college courses in medical billing. Great. Learn to aid and abet insurance companies while they relentlessly treating people of one's own class like shit and pocket billions in the process-- between their gigs of buying yachts and Congresscritters. (I met a sister temp not long ago who was trying to pay off her college debt from one of these job mills. According to her, the nice White ladies at StarMedBillingBucks, LTD didn't like her funny skin color and funny accent and made it their business to undermine her constantly until she got canned. Hey, I wouldn't be surprised if that were at least partially true. I knew some pretty nasty characters in my bureaucrat days. To be fair, they did come in a rainbow of colors.)

I think I'd sooner work in a fucking slaughterhouse mopping blood off the floor, but these days you probably need at least a two-year degree for that shit, too.


haunch hacking 101

mop the glop 202
---blood and guts--

if only the ivy league taught
such useful stuff

Bill Jones:

Schiff gets it about right.


Al Schumann:

Schiff?! He's pitching a crude hack's understanding of Austrian economics. He's a moron, if he's sincere, and a charlatan whether he's sincere or not. To say he get it about right on education is like saying Mussolini brought a good understanding of labor issues to his work as Il Duce.

That said, I hope he wins the election. I feel more comfortable when liberals are in a constant state of panic.

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