Friday, January 06, 2012

Why getting a good education and a good job doesn’t necessarily mean going to a four-year college

James Pethokoukis is talking about that issue and is reading a book by Charles Murray called Real Education, a book I have read as well.

A few weeks ago, President Obama made a speech to a bunch of high school students in Osawatomie, Kansas which Pethokoukis quotes:

But we need to meet the moment. We’ve got to up our game. We need to remember that we can only do that together. It starts by making education a national mission — a national mission. Government and businesses, parents and citizens. In this economy, a higher education is the surest route to the middle class. The unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree or more is about half the national average. And their incomes are twice as high as those who don’t have a high school diploma. Which means we shouldn’t be laying off good teachers right now — we should be hiring them. We shouldn’t be expecting less of our schools –- we should be demanding more. We shouldn’t be making it harder to afford college — we should be a country where everyone has a chance to go and doesn’t rack up $100,000 of debt just because they went.

Vice President Biden also made a similar speech in December at a high school in Jacksonville, Florida where he said,

A college degree “is about dignity, a sense of yourself, this notion of self worth, your standing in the community … it’s about becoming a better man and better woman,” Biden said. It’s about a person’s “social acceptability … the sense of your self worth and accomplishment. … Folks, it unlocks the mind and it serves as a tool to increasing civilization and progress.”

“A college education is almost a prerequisite to the middle class,” he said.

(Sorry, I forgot to link the original story on my facebook page when I posited this to my friends).

The fact is that, as lots of commentators are talking about, a higher education bubble is about to burst and it is not going to be pretty. Murray and Pethokoukis are arguing that we are sending far too many people to college and the message that we are sending that college is the only way to the middle class is pure bunk. My parents are solidly middle class, even upper middle class, and neither of them finished college. My mother went to a two year nursing school program and my father is retired Navy and I wouldn't not classify my upbringing as anything other than middle class. My sister is getting her degree at age 38, my brother is in the Army and doesn't have a degree, yet they are middle class Americans.

The fact is that the path to middle class success and security has never been about a college degree--it has been about being willing to work hard. Sometimes that work is what we traditionally consider blue collar work and that blue collar work can be incredibly lucrative. Skilled labor, such as welding, plumbing, steel working, etc. is in huge demand and the pay is incredible since there are so few people with the skills to do things like highway welding or steel work for bridges and other infrastructure that such workers might make $150,000 a year with over time. Sure they have to work in the elements, but really, that makes them so much more valuable.

This might be funny to say as a lawyer sitting behind a desk most of the day, but there is nothing wrong with sweating at work. There is nothing wrong with a man or woman who works hard, takes care of themselves and their family, who works honestly and who pursues their own happiness without a college degree. They are honorable men and women. The fact that our President and Vice President demean (whether intentional or not) the millions of Americans (including most of our military) who don't have college degrees as not being middle class or somehow worth less as humans and as Americans is insulting in the extreme. To tell our children that people without college degrees (including some of those kids' own parents) have no standing in the community, have no social acceptability because they don't have a college degree (meaning my parents) is the worst kind of elitism.

President Obama is right, we shouldn't be expecting kids and families to rack up $100,000 of debt to go to college. But at the same time, we shouldn't be expecting every kid to go to college. College is not a guaranteed path to the middle class.  However, our nation has spent the past two decades touting the importance and necessity of "going to college" that it has probably affected the economy in the short term.

The only legitimate message about education that should be preached is that kids should finish high school, then they should work hard at what they do to earn a paycheck.  Success comes from hard work, not a piece of paper.

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