Should everyone go to college?

I am a firm believer in the power of education. The mind is a powerful weapon in the fight for peace and justice and I believe it is a fundamental right of all children everywhere to get a good education. But it is a mistake to directly link this to incomes.

President Obama has been going around the country touting the virtues of getting higher education as a pathway to better paying jobs. He is not alone in this. Every politician (except perhaps Rick Santorum, though he seems to be a believer for his own children) urges students to stay in school so as to get ahead in life. They point to statistics that show that people with a college degree, or at least some college education, earn much more over the course of their lifetimes than those without. And this is true. According to Jack Metzgar, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data that shows that “having a bachelor’s degree should yield a person nearly $30,000 a year more in wages than a high school graduate.”

But when president Obama said to applause in his 2010 State of the Union address that “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,” he was talking nonsense.

I am surprised that this notion that higher education is the way to solve the problem of poverty is not more widely challenged. A little common sense, a basic understanding of the law of supply and demand, will tell you that higher education cannot possibly be an anti-poverty strategy because it is designed to benefit just a few and the positive correlation between a college education and income holds true only because a limited number of people get higher education. If hypothetically everyone, or even large numbers, went on to college, then a college degree would fetch a far lower premium.

So why are so many exhorted to pursue higher education when the barriers to entry (such as tests and costs) are so high as to let so few in and even fewer to graduate? It is because the capitalist system needs many more people who are resigned to working at low-wage dead end jobs to produce the relatively inexpensive goods and services that the well-to-do can enjoy. As Voltaire said, “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.”

But it is not enough to simply have lots of people working in low-wage jobs because they can feel aggrieved, think the system is unfair, and get restless. You also need people to be resigned to their lot in life, to think that they are stupid and incapable of higher learning and thus undeserving of a better life. The way you do that is by urging them to aim high and then subjecting them to repeated failures so that they think it is their own fault that they could not succeed.

It used to be the case that the US was #1 in the percentage of its population aged 25-34 that had some college education. But according to Ann Kirschner of the City University of New York, the US has now slipped to #12 among the 36 countries labeled as developed. Metzgar reports that the US census figures reveal that only about 30% of American have bachelor’s degrees.

Metzar adds:

It’s even more surprising, however, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26% of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43% required only a high school diploma or equivalent. And according to the BLS, this isn’t going to change much by 2020, since the overwhelming majority of jobs by then will still require only a high school diploma or less. What’s more, nearly 3/4ths of “job openings due to growth and replacement needs” over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30% paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars).

If you exhort more people to get college degrees when the jobs that require them are not there in commensurate numbers, then we should not be in the least surprised when we hear news reports that half of recent college graduates are unemployed.

So what should we do about poverty? Metzgar has some practical suggestions:

  • “As an individual, get a bachelor’s degree or you are doomed to work hard for a wage that will not provide a decent standard of living for a family. You may not get such a wage even with a bachelor’s degree, but without it your chances are slim and getting slimmer.
  • But as a society, “the best anti-poverty program around” cannot possibly be “a first-class education” when more than 2/3rds of our jobs require nothing like that. The best anti-poverty program around is higher wages for the jobs we actually have and will have.”

Alexander Cockburn concurs with Metzgar.

So what is the best anti-poverty program? Higher wages for the jobs that are out there, currently yielding impossibly low annual incomes. The current American minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour. From time to time senior executives of Wal-Mart call for a rise in the minimum wage since, in the words of one former CEO, Lee Scott, “our customers simply don’t have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks.” The minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, is currently well over $10 per hour, while in France it now stands at nearly $13. Australia recently raised its minimum wage to over $16 per hour, and nonetheless has an unemployment rate of just 5 percent.

So why don’t we have that kind of discussion instead of blathering on about how everyone should get a college education? As Metzgar says:

[B]roadly speaking, about one-third of Americans live in one world, while another two-thirds live in a rather different one, but that public discourse – in the mainstream media, for sure, but even more so in elite media and the academy – is conducted by the one-third who are college-educated and have jobs with a fair amount of autonomy and/or a decent income. This one-third mistakenly takes our world to be typical – or said another way, the educated middle class tends to mistake our part of America for the whole.

Of course, raising the minimum wage to the levels of a living wage will cause a major upheaval in the system. At the very least it will raise the prices of many goods and services and thus reduce the purchasing power, especially of the well-to-do who will likely see a slight reduction in their standard of living.

If we are serious about having an anti-poverty program then that is what we should be talking about rather than urging everyone to get a college education.


  1. Henry Gale says

    Pushing higher education means you’re encouraging debt since most ‘working class’ people would struggle to pay tuition outright. Remember the recent survey that showed most people have less than I think one month savings?

    Once you have people in debt, you force them to have to work off that debt. Now you have a nice large group of people willing to sit in cubicles and do mindless work so a few can get incredibly rich.

  2. Kevin says

    Yes, all of the new job creation is for Walmart check-out people and McDonald’s fry cooks.

    And this is something we’re happy about?

    Shouldn’t the impetus be to start creating jobs in sectors where the issue of minimum wage isn’t an issue?

    I’m all for giving people living wages…but it’s a endless death spiral. Rising wages = rising prices = rising wages = rising prices. It’s an infinite regress. Those at the bottom cannot catch up. Period. Because there will always be a “bottom”. It’s categorical.

    What you’re talking about is trying to raise the “bottom” and the “near bottom” to be equivalent. And the reason that’s not going to work is both market dynamics and human nature. There are “bottom” jobs and “not quite bottom” jobs. And the folks who have graduated to “not quite bottom” jobs don’t want to be paid the same as those with the “bottom” jobs. So, it becomes a big game of “monkey move-up”.

    A better solution is to create jobs which might require either intellectual or technical training that result in “living wages” by virtue of the value of that person’s productivity. Not some endless, mindless, never-quite-enough government-mandated minimum for the high school drop-out who mops the bathroom floor at Costco.

    Just throwing money at the problem (or rather, requiring that employers throw money at the problem) will not fix it.

  3. Sean Boyd says

    From the White House web page on education (link here):

    The President believes that regardless of educational path after high school, all Americans should be prepared to enroll in at least one year of higher education or job training to better prepare our workforce for a 21st century economy.

    So the President doesn’t actually believe everyone, or even most people, need a four-year degree. He uses the term “higher education” to include vocational and technical training, and has done so consistently during this campaign. I suspect Dr. Singham’s basic argument still holds, at least to some degree. But unless I’m misreading his post, he’s arguing a point the President wasn’t trying to make.

  4. Sheila says

    What happened to trades? Plumbers, welders, oil field workers, wind turbine repair, HVAC installation/repair techs, etc. are all high paying necessary jobs. In our area, brick masons and frame carpenters are practically an extinct species, with the median age in the 60’s!

    Not everyone is suited for college; but for those that aren’t, poverty isn’t the only other option out there.

  5. Vincenzo says

    Although I agree with the rest of the post, I am going to take this single statement out of context 🙂

    “the positive correlation between a college education and income holds true only because a limited number of people get higher education”

    This statement assumes a fixed pie. Better education (especially in some fields) typically means higher productivity, and thus a larger pie.

    There is obviously a lot more to say about this. Certain degrees may not improve overall economic productivity. Furthermore, some subjects may have gotten a disproportionate share of the incredible productivity gains of the last 30 years.

  6. oldebabe says

    Yes, exactly. Trade schools used to be around (I remember one named Samuel Gompers locally), now I can’t find any. Not only that training for those jobs you mentioned, but electricians, machinists, etc. etc. etc. I could go on, i.e. people who DO stuff we all need.

    Academic training is fine, and I’m all for it especially and obviously in scientific fields of interest, but for most people, simply not necessary.

  7. Jared A says

    I think that there might be a more greed based reason for encouraging more people to go to school. The plutocrats in this country have already monetized the other pillars of the american middle class – health care, real estate, pensions. Each one went from being a part of the infrastructure to a way to make money. A lot of people would get rich and then once the infrastructure was looted (in an investment sense), the bubble would pop.

    Now the same is happening with education. It is getting more and more expensive in part because of the ways people have found to make money off of it. For example, student loans are very lucrative, so the people who are making money off of them have an incentive to get more people in college/to get colleges to spend more money to increase the costs. Eventually, once the infrastructure is completely looted, the bubble will pop just like the others.

  8. smrnda says

    I’m not sure that the real value of a college education lies in its scarcity. The number of jobs, or even the number of jobs of a certain type don’t necessarily exist in a fixed number. I mean, I’ve worked as a programmer and if twice as many students decided to study computer science, there’s a good chance that it wouldn’t mean half of the graduates would be out of work – to a business employing programmers, there’s a good chance that many of them would gain adequate utility from expanding their number of programmers.

    A major problem is that in the US, we kind of divide “technical” subjects and “liberal arts” type subject and “social sciences.” I’d say all three are necessary, particularly the latter, because people are more than just a worker, they need to be a citizen as well. But our education system is set up that you kind of have to pick just one – I don’t see why someone can’t say, study art, but also get enough of a practical education that they can make a living. I know artist friends who scrape by on minimum wage jobs because they always knew it wasn’t possible for them to make a living off art – they might have been in a better position if they’d been given the option to gain some vocational training.

    As for low wage jobs, there is no reason that so many jobs should pay so low for non-college grads; it’s just the decline in unions and weak minimum wage laws at work there. Part of this is that people don’t have the information to make better political choices, and I think that’s a huge reason why some people don’t want to make college more affordable.

  9. smrnda says

    I’m not sure that we should just give up and throw up are hands and declare the bottom to be ‘the bottom.’

    The real issue is that rich people – shareholders, CEOs, those types – want to always make lots of money. They want to be certain of it. The way to achieve this is to keep wages low. It isn’t like an increase in minimum wage is going to put these people in the red – just they won’t get the massive profits they feel entitled to.

    In Japan wages at the top in a company are more or less scaled with those on the bottom within a single company, so that the income distribution is more equitable.

    The problem with the game of ‘monkey up’ as you call it is that the wealthy are the ones rigging the game – they leave scraps for workers to fight over while keeping most for themselves, guaranteeing that you can’t get ahead. Companies that make record profits tell workers there is no money for pay raises.

    the solution, to me, is that workers need to basically organize and force the companies they work for to be more fair, with those at the top taking a much smaller share and everybody beneath getting a larger one. This is how, in the past, factory workers went from people who lived in shabby tenement housing to people who could own houses – the labor movement resulted in those at the top getting a smaller share and an increase in money available to pay workers.

  10. jamessweet says

    I very much appreciated that Metzgar distinguished between the right solution for an individual vs. the right solution for society. This is a distinction that too often gets lost, and in fact IMO is the genesis of a lot of wrong-headed conservative thinking (not that liberals are typically any more likely to understand this distinction, but I think the failure to grasp that distinction is somewhat foundational to conservative thinking, whereas with liberalism it is a thorn in the side but not a fundamental problem with the worldview).

    A recent example I encountered is the finding that, counter-intuitively, laws mandating bicycle helmets may make cyclists less safer. The reason is twofold: That helmet laws discourage some people from biking altogether, and fewer cyclists means less driver attentiveness for cyclists, which means more fatalities; and there appears to be a phenomenon where riders wearing a helmet are more likely to engage in risky riding than those who are not wearing a helmet.

    Now it’s not entirely clear how robust this phenomenon is, so don’t think I am advocating against helmet laws; I simply don’t know enough about it. However, one thing is clear is that even if helmet laws are a mistake on a societal level, on an individual level the right solution is to wear a helmet and be cautious.

    I know this is way off topic, but I think this failure to distinguish between individual/societal solutions is a common problem in political discourse, and as I said I think it is foundational to some of the most damaging missteps in conservatism. Talk of personal responsibility, for example, is all fine and good when we are discussing how a particular individual ought to live her life; but when talking about how to confront certain problems as a society, concepts like personal responsibility are utterly irrelevant. What matters is, “What will people do under a particular policy regime?” and “What will the consequences of that be?”

  11. jamessweet says

    The number of jobs, or even the number of jobs of a certain type don’t necessarily exist in a fixed number.

    I think this logic works up until a point, but eventually, somebody needs to mop the floors. Well, until all janitorial jobs are done by robots, I guess. But the point is, even though technology might one day change this, there are menial jobs that must be filled by someone. Improving education might somewhat shift the number of people stuck in menial jobs vs. more “interesting” jobs, but eventually you get diminishing returns.

    Of course, it’s worthwhile to offer higher education to those who want it anyway, simply because we’ll have a better society if everybody is better at critical thinking, has more knowledge, etc.

  12. Mano Singham says

    I think you raise a very important point about the crucial difference between policies for individuals and for societies. Thanks.

  13. Paul Boswell says

    In the Presidential debates, both candidates talk about job creation in terms of manufacturing and “infrastructure” jobs. No mention is ever made of high skill, high wage jobs. No one with a college degree wants to drive a steam roller building roads or stand in an assembly line putting on hub caps. Indeed, the argument that says “what’s wrong with a college graduate serving coffee at Starbucks?” is laughable. This kind of outcome is a tragedy on a par with an athlete who has a crippling accident the day before the Olympic event.

    First and foremost, we need our leadership to stop thinking in terms of blue collar jobs. There is no future in those, since companies are already outsourcing manufacturing and clerical work to foreign countries. This isn’t going to change and it’s only going to get worse.

    Apple is the poster child for the best and worst of American corporations. They outsource all manufacturing, but lead the world in true innovation (not copycat products) and create terrific career jobs for highly educated workers, with good pay and benefits — excluding their retail division, of course, which pays poverty wages like any other retail organization.

    Whoever is elected President needs to issue a challenge to business on par with Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon. There is plenty of high skilled, high value work to do. We need better batteries. We need alternatives to fossil fuels. We need a national job bank and streamlined system for matching employees with employers. We need a whole new transportation system (very soon it will be too costly to fuel aircraft for passenger travel). We need a whole new way of working — more telecommuting and teleconferencing with less travel. There will be whole new industries that will have to cater to more people “cocooning” — people working and spending more of their leisure time at home. This would create more jobs in entertainment and home-based gaming, for example.


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