Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bachelor of Science Degrees and Other Types of Magic Beans

So, I've been seeing this article, by a Michell Arnold, ricocheting about the internet quite a bit during the last week. It isn't the worst-written piece I've ever read on the subject of post-collegiate poverty and student loan enslavement, but...actually, yes. Yes it is, hands-down.  But, be that as it may, I do agree with the premise that student loan dept is a huge problem, and I'm actually on board with the legislation that's been recently proposed, such as The Student Loan Fairness Act (H.R. 1330). I still have a pretty decent pile of college dept myself, so I share the same basic bias and bitterness as the demographic that the piece supposedly represents.  However.  The resurgence of this discussion reminds me that, as a culture, we're still fundamentally looking at things in a way that is either totally naive or dishonest.

 The author's problem is that he still talks about education with the reverence and hushed tone that one might use for...what? Nothing ever should be talked about with reverence and hushed tones, because nothing is sacred, but, specifically, education is not sacred.  I cannot stress this enough, because this is the shared delusion that exists uniformly from disgruntled humanities majors to esteemed politicians. Central to the language of articles like this (and even in the supposedly more nuanced political discussion) is an  indignant decrying of the "commodification of education." When someone uses this term, you are allowed to casually dismiss anything and everything further they have to say.  This should be pretty straight-forward: You can't call something an investment, and then angrily insist that it is not a commodity in the same sentence.  The entire discussion is built on the supposition that higher education absolutely is a commodity, and the sole reason that folks can be legitimately pissed-off:  namely, that they participated in a very uneven commodity exchange.  In other words, the argument should be one over quantity rather than quality.   What is a given college program worth: not in some abstract sense, wherein we allow vague valuations of increasing "self-actualization" or "societal-involvement" or "giving-a-care," but what value does it actually add in earning potential for someone with your specific antecedence in actual fucking US dollars.  Yes, your higher education is 100% about money. All Educators, if they have any regard for that title and concept, should not be afraid to communicate this to their students at any stage of their academic careers.

A couple years ago, I heard this piece of tape from Marty Nemko; If you have even a passing interest in this subject, I  suggest you at least listen to his opening statement (about 4:30 to 14:30 on the tape).  But to give you a very stripped-down snippet:
"...indeed, as I have written over my 30 years...since I got my Phd. in The Evaluation of Education from Berkeley...the thing I have concluded most...that higher education, when you peek behind the ivy...there is no more over-rated product--and that word is underlined: product...especially for the hundreds of thousands of students who, each year, are admitted from the bottom 40% of their high-school classes...even if given eight and a half years, two-thirds won't graduate...and even if they defy the odds and graduate...odds are good it's from a second or third tier school with a low GPA and an easy this era when employers are downsizing, out-sourcing an part-timing as much as possible, very few employers are going to be excited about somebody with a 2.5 GPA  from Cal State East Bay and a major in Sociology.  So that person is functionally unemployable, with a mountain of debt..."

Now, I don't agree with everything he says in this piece, but it resonated with me immediately (possibly having something to do with the fact that when I heard it, I was using my B.S. degree to deliver cupcakes at 10 bucks an hour, which became something like negative 2.50 an hour with gasoline, insurance, repairs and tickets factored in). But, I feel the same way today, and I think the idea of looking at education with a cold focus on real numbers rather than ideological speculation is ultimately much more beneficial for the well-being of everyone who has yet to find a place in the economy.  Realistically, the process of earning an undergraduate degree will not universally make a positive impact in the life of every student.  We're not all going to be Nobel laureates and...foot doctors or whatever.

Michell Arnold may not like this, but some people are even going to have to work in the service industry.  And it makes perfect sense that he chooses Costco as the epitome of service serfdom, thereby demonstrating his complete ignorance of our broader economy.  It is clear that Arnold, despite his implication, has never actually worked in a Costco (I have).   They are actually one of the only employers of such massive scale to model their operation on worker retention rather than infinite low-wage turnover, giving their employees salaries that put them firmly in the middle-class (About 44k for full-time cashiers and forklift operators).  I occasionally still wonder if working there isn't better than the nebulous promise of a better payout with what I'm doing now.  I mean, Engineering is neat and all--I don't necessarily aspire to be a forklift operator, but I guess I'd like to at least be paid half as well as one?

I'm not even the most catastrophic example, but I ran some rough numbers,  and it will be about 32 years before the increase of earning potential I've actually experienced will add up to balance the combination of lost wages from years occupied by college and student loan debt.  That's assuming everything goes perfectly. I've considered the possibility that my particular college program was a fairly poor investment for me personally.  In fact, I spend a lot of time up at night actively considering just that.  Because, even though there are some neat things about college that are not quantifiable,  it is a commodity.  (Everything is.)  And it is an arms race.  It is the only arms race that my fellow liberals think can be won with further proliferation.

Michell Arnold and myself are not going to get our money or youths back.  I think a better goal to focus on is killing the myth of higher meaning in higher education so that folks potentially entering the system can make clearheaded decisions based on the earning potential they are likely to add in a specific discipline.  That way education might actually function as investment--not speculation.