Every time a representative of the government goes on the television or radio to talk about higher education, my blood boils a little at my recognition of the simple-mindedness that governs policy in that area. On last night’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart’s guest was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. At the very end of the portion of the interview that went to air (the entire thing is available in three parts on the web), Duncan made the most indefensibly black-and-white assessment of the outcomes of education that I have yet encountered.
First, though, he pointed out that the United States is now ranked 16th in number of college graduates, whereas a generation ago it was in first place. He further explained that our rate of graduation hasn’t fallen, but has leveled off, allowing fifteen other countries to surpass us. Now, after a good deal of research, I’ve found that different reports come to different conclusions on the exact ranking, and they base those rankings on different criteria applied to different countries, so I can’t pin down exactly which countries beat out the US on this subject, or even whether Duncan is quite correct with his statistics. But it’s certainly the case that we’re far from the top, and some countries can be pretty conclusively identified as exceeding us in provision of tertiary education.
Duncan’s point is apparently that our achievement of benchmark standards for secondary education is insufficient to prepare students for college and university. I’ll eagerly agree that that’s true, but it is unhelpfully presumptuous to assume that that’s the only important factor contributing to low levels of higher education attainment. What of the steadily climbing costs of college tuition and the dearth of public funds to compensate for the out-of-pocket expense for students and parents? Might that not hold back some perfectly capable students from actually obtaining the education that they’re intellectually, but not financially, suited for?
Among countries in the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development, the United States is 29th out of 34 in terms of how much funding for educational institutions comes from public funds. Not only is this situation accepted by US society, it is lauded by some elements thereof. Private institutional dominance of tertiary education, and indeed of all segments of society, increases competition and improves outcomes, they say. But with the US ranking somewhere around 16th in educational attainment, it’s clearly not working that way. In fact, among the nations that are fairly reliably ranked well ahead of the US on this point, many are classed as those nations that conservative Americans tend to envision as socialist hellscapes.
Several Northern European countries are variously placed in lead positions on the list, including Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands. What’s more, an Economic Policy Institute study of the affordability and accessibility of higher education in various countries concludes that “Finland and the Netherlands should be models for the international community” when it comes to both of these factors.
The correlation between cost and completion rates is not overwhelming, but it is sufficient that it needs to be explored as a factor, rather than being discounted among the ongoing repetition of the claim that if kids are smarter, they’ll always do better. There are other factors, and to deny that is to accept such unforgivably single-minded approaches to solving our problems as will only worsen some aspects of the situation. It’s not just that we’re failing at educating our children, though certainly we are doing that. It’s also that we’re failing to provide our children with suitable opportunities, access, and incentives.
Duncan seems to be under the mistaken impression that the problem underlying our trend of slipping behind the rest of the post-industrial world is just that students are failing at an alarming rate. But it’s not just dropouts that account for the low completion rate; the US ranks behind most of the OECD countries in terms of actual enrollment in higher education. And that fact is specifically ascribed in part to rising costs. That should be fairly obvious, especially to a Harvard-trained economist like Arne Duncan. As opportunity costs rise, the rational motivation for people to invest in something goes down.
The response to this would probably – nay, certainly – be that the opportunity costs of not attending college are unquantifiably higher than the material costs of attending. To that I would offer the simple challenge: prove it. The claim is repeated in the media constantly, always asserted, always assumed, but never adequately proven. And it would be one thing if the assertion was just that, on average, people with higher education backgrounds tend to do better than those without them. But that’s not what representatives of the administration say. Instead, they spread the hideously uncritical idea that if you get a college degree you are guaranteed success, and if you don’t get one you are guaranteed failure.
Do you think I’m mischaracterizing their claims? Arne Duncan said it on the Daily Show: “We have a million young people dropping out of school every year. A million. There are no jobs. None. They are guaranteed poverty and social failure.”
Guaranteed, he says. That there are any guarantees in life is an odious and socially detrimental lie. Virtually nobody would argue that people aren’t better off overall if they’re educated. For my part, I think that education is the most important thing that a person can pursue in life, though I am careful to emphasize that there are different ways of pursuing education, some far less expensive than others, and that education can serve a variety of ends, from vocational training to living a richer, fuller life of poverty. But the universal economic benefit of higher education is a baseless assertion so long as there are other explanations for a portion of the correlation between education and earnings, and other alternatives as to how hiring and job training might take place.
Now, Arne Duncan wasn’t very specific when he said “a million students dropping out.” If he was referring to students who drop out of high school, sure, they have their work seriously cut out for them if they want to be materially or socially successful. However, I’d still consider it irresponsibly closed-minded to say that both poverty and social failure are absolute guarantees for every child who has dropped out of high school in recent years.
Even working at a fast food restaurant can eventually allow a person to make a living wage, as long as he or she doesn’t rush to have children or otherwise climb into a hole that can’t be escaped through years of earnest work and eagerly sought promotions. What’s more, I’ve known people who’ve dropped out of high school and then obtained GEDs earlier than when they would have theoretically graduated. Hell, my ex-girlfriend never finished high school, and she leapt easily from job to job, quitting without notice and being hired for positions with higher pay, more responsibilities, and better titles, all at a time when I, with my fancy NYU degree, couldn’t so much as secure an interview for anything more than an eight dollar per hour retail job. Some people are just lucky; some just aren’t.
Regardless, I don’t think Duncan was referring to high school dropouts. The only statistics that I could find on short notice were from the 2004-05 school year, at which time 540,382 students dropped out of school between grades nine and twelve. Unless that number has doubled in seven years, I think Duncan was referring to any student who has dropped out at any level, primary, secondary, or tertiary. If so, some of the Americans who have been guaranteed poverty and social failure according to Arne Duncan include billionaires Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Ralph Lauren, Dean Kamen, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as a pretty extensive list of other highly successful individuals in a variety of fields.
This repetition of a shockingly simplistic set of talking points about higher education has got to stop. Is learning good? Chirst, yes! That part is perfectly simple. But it’s not a purely economic good, and to whatever extent it does improve your income potential, that’s not the only factor. There is something to be said for the influence of social connections, environment, work ethic, opportunity, investment capital, employer bias, and plain old luck. Amidst all of that, what I want to see happen is that kids start going to school not because they want to make money, but because they want to learn. Is it really too much to ask that we encourage education on those grounds, rather than trying to deceive every young person into pursuing something that he’s not interested in and at which he’s no good?