Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Higher Education Bubble

In a very slightly self-congratulatory way, the Washington Post's local section today affirmed what any inside-the-Beltway denizen already knows: we are the most educated region in the nation. Yeah, I know, y'all assume Washington is just a gray and sorrowful land in which soulless bureaucrats sit and fill out endless, pointless paperwork in tiny little offices like extras in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And maybe we are.

But we do so because of our superlative levels of higher edufimicashun.

In the DC environs, 46.8% of residents have undergraduate degrees. 21.9% of us have graduate degrees. That beats every other region or jurisdiction in the country. This surfaces something of a puzzler. On the one hand, Americans who live outside the Beltway are fond of railing on the DC area. We are "those Beltway insiders." We are not "real Americans."

On the other hand, the goal of most Americans is to get what is increasingly viewed as a prerequisite for success: a college degree. That's your ticket to the good life, or so the story goes. It's a sign of attainment, of intelligence, and of stick-to-itiveness. By that standard, DC must be, by definition, the place inhabited by the most successful, driven, and capable Americans.

Only there's a problem with that, one that goes deep into an underlying dysfunction in our culture. There is, to my eyes, a problem with the whole "college as a prerequisite for life as a viable human being" thing. Undergraduate education, at least for me, proved profoundly useful. It was in my Religious Studies program at UVA that I began finding my way into a faith that could engage both my heart and my intellect. Seminary prepared me to go deeper, and to teach, and to preach.

But what my undergrad and graduate studies did not do was prepare me to work. Working prepared me to work. I learned the ethic that makes for successful work as a dishwasher. As a stock clerk. As a forklift-driving warehouseman. As a cabbie. I learned office skills as a fetch-and-carry intern. None of those things...not one of them...tapped into the knowledge I received as a student at Mistah Jeffahson's University. Or, frankly, in seminary.

Yet as our captains of industry offshore the industrial foundation that once provided blue collar workers with gainful, productive, lifelong employment, Americans are increasingly driven to attend college. You can't just work 9 to 5 on the line, and come home to your nice little house. There is no line. You need a degree to succeed. And so that becomes the goal, even if 1) it doesn't meet the broader needs of our society and 2) the number of jobs appropriate for a general college education no longer match the volume of graduates.

That cultural trend is, I'm convinced, is one of the primary reasons college education is growing so damnably expensive. It's a simple matter of supply and demand. With the collapse of our industrial base, the only jobs that can sustain our expected standard of living are for the educated. Knowing this, people are willing to undertake huge debt loads to finance their education.

Fueled by debt-driven spending, the costs of higher-ed soared, in the same way that housing costs soared. That was fine, though. You could pay off your loans over the years when that college degree reaped it's expected rewards.

Only, as anyone who knows anyone under 30 realizes, those rewards are now far from certain. The huge debt burden you undertook to get your English degree or your degree in Anthropology or Women's Studies or Architecture or Automotive Engineering gets you exactly nothing. The jobs for such souls aren't there. Nor, given the broader trends in the global economy, do they appear to be likely to return.

I find myself wondering if, at some point, people will realize this.