Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Some Speculations about Post-Secondary Education

Public post-secondary education has been much in the news lately in California. Budget shortfalls at the state level have been pinching the allocations to state university and state college systems, causing steep rises in tuition and fees to students, and cut-backs in maintenance and faculty salaries.

Over the last several decades, both the university and state systems have been rapidly expanding, to accommodate growing numbers of applicants. Private institutional tuition has been moving up rapidly too.

The original intent of public post-secondary public educational institutions has been to make undergraduate and advanced degree programs in the arts and sciences available to greater numbers of citizens, under the assumption that a broadening of the educational base has a favorable effect on the quality of society generally, with additional economic benefits, such as pure research, and vocational applications. A healthy society is an educated one, and offering a cheap alternative to expensive private institutional programs has historically been regarded as a self-evidently good investment by government.

Without going too deeply into theories of education, can we ask whether the assumptions about the advantages of a public education are as true as most people seem to have believed them to be? In other words, is it always in society's interest to devote a significant part of its resources in supporting post-secondary institutions, and if so, to what degree?

Most people accept the idea that society has a duty to provide primary and secondary school education to all of its citizens. Though the quality and value of public education differs widely across demographics, there is little doubt that requiring citizens to learn to read and write, to practice rudimentary mathematical skills, and to understand how our government works, are universally good goals. If a society is successful in providing a basic "high school" level of instruction, to achieve a level of competency for all its citizens, for free, does that suffice as a baseline responsibility or obligation, to provide post-secondary programs, on the public's behalf?

Some would argue that it is. As a beneficiary of public post-secondary education, I admit to enjoying the fruits of the broader definition of public education. I graduated from UC Berkeley in the late 1960's, then went on to graduate study elsewhere, eventually receiving two advanced degrees. It's doubtful that I would have been able to attend college at that time, without a publicly supported system, since my parents had made no provision for my anticipated college expenses, and would not have been able (had they been so inclined [alas, they were not]) to assist me in doing so, when the time arrived. Despite the fact that college tuition at that time was comparatively low, I would not have been able to attend without the scholarships and loans that I was granted.

For the first time in its history, this year's student tuition will exceed the amount of public funding to the UC budget. In effect, from a funding point of view, the state system is becoming increasingly "privatized"--with regard to the amount the users of the system are paying for their education. Students are "buying" an education, instead of being "given" one. Is this a bad thing?

As tuition has increased dramatically both in private and public institutions over the last several decades, the burden has shifted increasingly to the "users." Undergraduate and graduate program "clients" have had to take out progressively larger student "loans"--in many cases, so large that it may take decades to pay them off, once they graduate. A whole new loan industry has grown up around rapid college tuition increases, shifting the burden of support away from the government, which has had the effect of driving the increases even more.

This tuition "bubble" is now reaching a crescendo. The UC system announced a 16% annual tuition increase for the coming five year period, through 2016. Under the proposed plan, the less the state gave to the system, the more tuition would rise (to a 16% level). Because of the state's present budgetary quandaries, the 16% level would inevitably apply. Undergraduate in-state tuition at UC presently stands at $12,192/annum. Given the stagnant condition of American middle-class income over the last 40 years, it's difficult to imagine any family--even single-child units--being able to afford that kind of expense. Given the level of deferred obligation this creates, through extensive loan programs, the value of a so-called "public" post-secondary education comes into serious question.

The other side of the equation is a college degree's value to society. As the American economy declines, steadily losing manufacturing production employment to overseas venues, the importance of possessing an advanced degree has been touted as an alternative strategy to financial success in the job market. We hear continually about the value of a college degree in the new age of technology and expertise. But at no time in American history have the numbers of technocratic individuals accounted for more than a small percentage of the total work-force. The economic engine which drove American prosperity in the post-War period was not advanced technology, but assembly-line mass production. America had moved from an agrarian-based economy to a medium- and large-scale factory system in the 20th Century. By the end of the 20th, it was clear that so-called "globalization" would spell the end of that domestic paradigm. And it was clear that it would not only not be competitive in the old factory job model, but it would also not compete in the quasi-technical arena either; China and India have already seized that initiative, making most American-trained and domiciled college-degreed job-seekers irrelevant.

This does not, of course, mean that the inherent value of a college education is less. It does suggest that the value to society of offering free degree programs to the general public has been changed. If graduating seniors and advanced degree programs are turning out numbers which the general economy cannot absorb, those degrees will increasingly be seen as luxuries. There are only so many doctors, lawyers, engineers, MBA-holders, and scientists in the economy as it now exists. The percentage of "professional" class employees is a relative constant. This is true despite the supposed expansion of technical positions created by the information age revolution. It's obvious that the millions of jobs in automobile manufacturing, for instance, aren't going to be converted willy-nilly into high-level technology jobs, especially given the growing automatization of most medium- and large-scale manufacturing positions.

Government's decreasing investment in publicly run post-secondary educational programs may be seen, in the context of the decline in value of most degree-tracks, as an acknowledgement that turning out larger and larger numbers of highly-educated graduates is no longer necessary from a purely utilitarian point of view. We have become accustomed to thinking of college and university programs as de-facto systems of social initiative, in which economic imbalances can be rectified through the entitlement of needy but deserving candidates, pulling poor or disadvantaged students up through quotas and set-asides. But as the system is now becoming squeezed, the ultimate purpose of a college education seems to be more about retaining routes to social mobility, than it is about pursuing knowledge, research and economic prosperity. In other words, if the purpose of a public educational system is the transformation of society from one in which a presumed "elite" derives privileged access to the higher levels of achievement and prosperity, to one in which government facilitates a transfer of its wealth from the society at large, to identified "deserving" classes, then the question of the value to society comes directly into play. If a college degree is, in the context of the decreasing pragmatic utility, becoming a kind of luxury, then the ability to access that luxury should thrive within the private realm, not the public one. Why should society support a system which has become a luxury?

There will always be those whose talent and mastery entitle them to special consideration. Scholarships and grants in aid are usually sufficient to address that class. But the idea that the number of "qualified" applicants should be continually expanded, without limit, to include larger and larger numbers of aspirants, begs the question. What is it for? We've gotten into the habit of thinking that more and more people should be educated for more and more advanced kinds of thinking and performance. But why?

Is a good high school education insufficient to prepare a citizen for participation in a democracy? If Mexicans and Indonesians and Chinese and Indians can do the work Americans once did, for a fraction of the cost, obviously other solutions must be considered. Advanced education isn't the answer to the problem of globalization. Indeed, much of our education dollar goes to educate foreigners, and when American technology makes an innovation, the resulting formula becomes the occasion for the exploitation by foreign labor and industry.

Ultimately, as society grows, in the context of a growing automatization, the percentage of jobs for which one might need or want a college education is shrinking. Nearly every industry in America has shed jobs over the last quarter century. The notion that a new "service-oriented" "industry" is going to fill the vacuum is folly. And even if that were true, certainly the numbers of individuals needing a college education to "compete" is actually smaller in that scenario.

Unless we see a reduction in the growth of population, it seems inevitable that the need for college degree programs will decrease, as a factor of the whole population. But even with a decrease in population, the growth and sophistication of production and exchange lead inevitably to a decline in real employment opportunity.

The UC system will shrink over time. The education bubble is finally bursting, as it was bound to do. The days of cheap public post-secondary education are over, not likely to return. Those who insist that it's simply a matter of public funding priorities--of not acknowledging "the value of public education"--are deluded. The country's now full of computer science graduates but there are few jobs for them. Three generations ago, these same people would have been working in assembly lines, earning a good wage, securing a pension and possessing a premium-free health care policy. They would be dreaming of sending their kids to college to become lawyers and doctors and engineers. But that was 1955. It's now 2011. Welcome to the future.


Anonymous said...

the grocery store up the street used to have 12 check-out lines with 12 REAL PEOPLE as cashiers.

now ? 9 NINE! of those "cashiers" are a computer scanner ... and the REAL cashiers are now lower paid PART TIME people.

so much for our Higher Technology jobs, eh?

as for th auto industry ... now you have to have an advanced degree in pushing the "start the computer" button to get a job ?

A frien'ds son just got his first computer based job after getting his Computer Science Degree ,,, designing
web-sites or some such useless crap for the local newspaper !

he should have gone to plumbing school !

1000 Names of Vishnu said...

Joo-C Berkeley?

The apparatchiks took over sometime in the 60s--there are good professors--allegedly , but a racket nonetheless. Extension classes at UCLA were like 100--200 bucks, just a couple of years ago. Now 5-600. Not to say the conservative, private Swineford--are better. 12 grand at Cal?...about 50 grand at SU or USC. Life in the Feinslimeocracy.

jh said...

pragmatism is in a state of failure
now what do we do
seems like we should be able to come up with something
perhaps start a web course on how to resolve the insufficiencies of pragmatism
it's all do it yourself these days
who needs schools

if you put drugs in the water systems encourage people to phuq a lot and feed them bad food keep the tv(S) going everybody needs an ipad...we'll get it right

the catholics failed when they held out the altruistic belief
that education was of value in and of itself--mine was the last generation that enjoyed the nongoal oriented leisure of great books education as a standard for everything

the more people read and think the greater chance society will make the best of its flaws

ahmurikhun culture holds to the idea (:)

keep 'em stupid

we let the women in en masse
there shoulda been severe tests in place
it's too late



Curtis Faville said...

Dear jh (aka BABBLEHEAD):

I guess the speculation of my post, simply put, is that post-secondary education may not be a privilege, in the same way that grammar and high school surely are.

The second speculation is that the common assertion and belief that we can "educate" our way out of the employment crisis is nonsense. Where's the proof? America's post-warprosperity wasn't built on education; it was built on the factory system, and the expansion of social programs and gains made through unionization.

Conservative interests have been trying to beat back those gains for half a century, with increasing success. Perry wants to eliminate Social Security, the greatest and most successful social program in history.

If college is a form of social engineering, then it's gotten away from its purpose. In England, where class certainly dominates the educational hierarchy, rich kids always have the best educations. But please note, until the middle of the last century, that paradigm was based on classical literature, not utilitarian subject-matter. Is there a lesson there? I'm not sure.

A well-educated society isn't necessarily a prosperous one. Here in America, consumption is routinely used as a yardstick to measure prosperity. But a well-educated majority might not buy into that concept. A prosperous society might not be a well-educated one. The GDP of China is steadily rising, but because it's so vast and populous, poverty still dominates. Was it education that propelled the Chinese? Hardly.

Craig said...

Up until Reagan got elected I owned my education free and clear. I didn't make much progress in school because I tended to go part-time, often just one class per quarter while driving taxi on the night shift. I took short story classes from three or four different instructors, did quite well in an expository writing class, and particularly enjoyed a James Joyce reading group I could take for credit. I found both work and school quite tolerable as long as I could maintain a balance between them. I saw no problem with sitting out for a quarter or two or even a whole school year so I could earn enough to pay for my next class.

When Reagan was elected tuition was jacked up and the restrictions on financial aid were brought down so basically everybody was eligible. But once you received financial aid you were part of a system. Part-time school wasn't an option. Your only choice was full-time and you had to progress toward a degree. You couldn't just take classes because you liked taking classes. And the student loan system was set up so that the bank became majority shareholder in your education and the purpose of your education was to have something you could sell to industry. I had no problem with that. I spent lots of time at the placement center. The problem was that industry considered English Literature not just trivial but frivolous. Interviewers were unanimous. They only wanted to talk with people getting degrees in Business or Computer Science. English had no value unless it was directed toward a degree in Education, which was glutted at the time with students who wanted to become teachers. I had no desire to become a teacher, though I would happily have done so for a few years as a means to get by. I would have been an excellent teacher. All of my aunts and uncles for two generations were teachers, but I wasn't willing to put up with what was being taught in the School of Education. A teaching certificate in English only required three courses in period lit, which was used to weed out the bad apples. I had sixty hours of period lit on my transcript when I graduated. The only Education course I survived was in Women's Lit. It had a reading list and the exams were all essay. Education courses were just like Business courses. Multiple choice. Apparently you were supposed to buy the correct answers.

J said...

the insufficiencies of pragmatism

It's all due to..Wm James, Dewey & Co??

Not sure I agree with you on that, padre jh. Modern education does tend to be efficiency-minded--a premium in placed on James' "cash value of truth". Yet I do not think its Dewey's fault at least. Dewey was a progressive, and anti-capitalist. Humanist, but not quite marxist--and valued a certain holistic approach to education. UC-Co seems quite non-Dewey like. Don't know what the proper term is--bureaucratic techno-capitalism or something.

For that matter, the catholic private schools are hardly an improvement. Like USC--catholic,at least initially I think. That's just pure capitalism-- now Chi-chi capitalism. Catholicism has gone by the wayside. Loyola---well, it's still sort of catholic--and expensive too. Like ...lesbian and g*yboy catholic! An LA tradition of sorts.

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