Wednesday, August 13, 2008

College: A Liberaltarian Take

(via Memeorandum)

If you ask me, I will deny to my grave that I am a "left-libertarian." But that doesn't mean that I think modern liberalism and libertarianism are fully incompatible as prospective coalition partners, as I've pointed out far too many times.

In any event, Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) has a piece today that argues that, "For Most People, College Is A Waste of Time." Murray opens his column thusly:

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

"First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA.""

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place."

This gets at a point that I've long tried to make - our current assumption that college is a necessity is an assumption that not only ignores the irrelevance of college to most careers, but also generates enormous entry barriers to those careers for low-income people. Unfortunately, Murray then proposes a solution that is as bad or worse than the problem: certification exams in just about every field, aka, licensing. (Rather than reading me explain all that is wrong with this proposal, just pretend like the standard libertarian diatribe against licensing has been inserted here). But ignoring for the moment Murray's problematic solution, the basic point about the value of a college education (or lack thereof) is one that ought to accord beautifully with standard liberal critiques of capitalism and corporate America, as I point out below.

Unfortunately, in response to Murray's article, one of the folks at the Lefty blog Pandagon goes on a rant about how Murray's diagnosis and solution just reinforce the notion that he is a racist whose sole aim is to privatize education in order to prevent minorities from receiving government grants and loans for the education. Alas, in obsessing over attacking the caricature of Murray, the Pandagon blogger misses how the first part of Murray's argument, pertaining to the lack of value in a college education, accords shockingly well with modern liberal criticisms of corporate America, racism, and classism. As a result, I wrote:

"Murray gets the diagnosis right, but his proposal is far from an improvement. I'm not going to rehash all the problems with his proposal which have been made above, which amount to pointing out the inherent bias in any certification/licensing scheme (something which most libertarians find far worse than employer emphases on BA's).

But on the issue of the value of college, I think he is right in principle, though perhaps wrong in application. The problem is that for the vast majority of people college does little to enhance their career prospects and, for that matter, does little to teach them "how to think." Obviously, people who major or minor in the liberal arts (including the "hard" sciences) learn plenty about how to think critically, but four years of learning how to do so is overkill for most people (hence the reason most people don't
major in the liberal arts). Moreover, as I said, most people do not major or minor in the liberal arts but instead major in more "practical" things - majors that largely didn't exist until relatively recently. This is not good - at best people in these majors learn a percentage of what they would learn by gaining four years of experience in their preferred field. To the extent they do learn some of what they otherwise would have, they are paying a huge amount for it. And guess what? Their future employer gets to reap the benefits without having to pay a red cent, since there is virtually no
premium paid for the college-educated employee in these fields. Indeed, the employer actually gets to save the salary they would have paid the prospective employee to provide the employee with training - in this way, college in these fields amounts to employee-subsidized training. There's probably no better way to demonstrate this fact than to point out that [according to liberal critics] real wages have effectively stagnated during a period where the percentage of people with college degrees has exploded. Frankly, this makes sense as well - as an employer, would you really be willing to pay more money to someone fresh out of college, with no "real world" track record, than you would to someone with four to six years experience who is demonstrably reliable? Probably not.

Put another way - the current assumption that everyone should have a college degree is an assumption that (1) almost entirely benefits employers, who receive any benefits of the employee's education free of charge, and (2) places extreme financial burdens on future employees in pursuit of obtaining unnecessary qualifications. To be sure, there are still some professions where a liberal arts degree provides a significant benefit (law and research science, for example), and certainly a liberal arts education can be marginally useful in creating a more critical citizenry. But for the vast majority of people, the assumption that they need to incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt while forgoing any meaningful income for four to six years is an assumption that provides little benefit in exchange for tremendous cost.

As I indicated at the top of this post, a critique of our social emphasis on higher education is a critique that can closely agree with many standard liberal critiques of capitalism. To the extent that Progressives/modern liberals seek to defend the assumption that higher education is inherently a desirable thing, the effect of doing so is to defend a state in which employers (aka, "corporate America") receive benefits at no cost to them, but at great cost to the employee. Of course, many Progressives would respond by arguing that costs of higher education should be borne by expanding grant programs and the like. But all that does is shift the costs from the individual student to taxpayers as a whole - "corporate America" still gets its subsidy.