Why “Higher” Education Isn’t the “Solution”…

… or not nearly what those who endorse it claim. Far too many social theorists, educators, and politicians push more education, especially higher education, as a solution to the problem of too many people who are poor or economically disadvantaged. The President’s latest initiative of wanting to provide free community college education is certainly well-intentioned, but, even if enacted, which frankly appears doubtful, would at best only provide marginal improvement. From what I can tell, the push for more higher education is based on two undeniable facts. First, in general, people with more education make more money. Second, more and more of the highest-paid salaried jobs demand higher education as a prerequisite for entry and employment.

Unhappily, very few people seem to be looking at the other side of the equation – jobs. There are only so many high-level, high paying jobs in any society, and American business has been quite busy reducing the number of decent-paying mid-level jobs. If we as a society continue to produce more and more graduates of traditional higher education every year, what is the likely result? More competition for those jobs, more unemployed or underemployed graduates, and most likely an eventual reduction in pay.

In my wife’s field, which is classical voice and opera, the United States produces more graduate singers, especially sopranos, in a year than jobs for them are created in roughly more than five years… and does so every year. The result is that competition for those jobs is absolutely brutal, and that the pay, until a singer reaches the very top tier, which only a fraction of a percent do, ranges from abysmal to modest. The other day I was talking to the conductor of a fairly well-known Russian symphony, and he observed that the United States has, overall, the best training and education for singers of any nation… and that even some of the very best end up taking jobs in Europe because there are so few openings in the United States.

Despite or perhaps because of all the MFA programs that profess to teach writers, the same thing is true in the field of writing, except since the U.S. is effectively the largest single market for fiction, there are few alternatives.

Now, the lack of remuneration in the arts, except for a comparatively small percentage of success stories, has always been a fact of life, but it’s even more noticeable now.

What’s different is that we’re also beginning to see gluts in other fields. The number of moderate and high-paying jobs for lawyers has decreased even as law schools produce more graduates. There are more job seekers in health care than there are jobs, with the possible exception of doctors, and most of the openings for physicians are in small towns, inner cities, or rural areas. There is far higher unemployment, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, among scientists and engineers than is recognized, far higher than in professions such as physicians, dentists, and registered nurses, and surprisingly high unemployment exists for recent graduates even in fields with alleged serious “shortages” such as engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent).

Half the twenty-two year old college graduates over the past three years are working in jobs not requiring a degree. Only 27% of all U.S. jobs require a college degree, but now some 47% of the workforce has a college degree, and the number of jobs requiring such a degree is forecast to grow by less than one percent per year.

The problem isn’t just one of education, and, in fact, education may be making the problem even worse for those with only a high school diploma – or less – as over-educated graduates continue to push the less educated into less and less remunerative fields.

10 thoughts on “Why “Higher” Education Isn’t the “Solution”…”

  1. Kristina says:

    I agree that higher education is not going to provide the solution to this problem. The push for higher education is so strong, statistics like you share illustrate the current situation. I see the problem in my own family, where finding a job in the field of the college degree is very difficult.

    What do you propose as something that would help the problem of not having sufficient decent-paying jobs for people?

  2. Ron Nelson says:

    I was not very enthused about the proposal either. Perhaps if the scope was changed to something that included trade crafts? The mikeroweWORKS at http://profoundlydisconnected.com/ makes a number of good points.

    But I suspect that this will instead be manipulated/abused just like the loosening of the student loan requirement strings, and end up as another way to funnel government funds to a special interest group without providing nearly the promised society benefits.

  3. Joe says:

    Surgery is better performed by robots since they have sensors to see through the patient, and they don’t get jitters or tired.

    Paralegal work and Medical diagnoses are better done by software such as Watson since it it can find relevant documentation in research paralegals and doctors don’t have the time to read, or forgot. Most managerial jobs should prove as easy to automate away as secretarial jobs were previously.

    3D printing will make a lot of manufacturing unnecessary. In China they are already 3D printing 6 story buildings. So manufacturing and construction will provide fewer jobs too.

    If technological capitalism isn’t already incompatible with climate change it will soon be incompatible with full-employment, and by extension democracy: we’re rushing towards a painful point, which those who are being educated right now are going to find hits them within the next 10 years.

    Hopefully we will solve these problems, but I expect the solution will the dreaded, to Americans at least, word “redistribution”. It will be hard to argue against if current trends continue increasing wealth disparity. As it is, today 50% of world wealth belongs to 80 people.


  4. Plovdiv says:

    Oh well, won’t be long before A.I> and smart robots take all the rest of the jobs anyway.

  5. CalStewy says:

    I disagree with a lot of you’re conclusions in your blog posts, part of why I read them, but I do agree with you here. I would much prefer that the work that is going to go into this issue, which I don’t really see passing, go into improving the US primary to high school education which is pretty horrible compared to other modern states. Improving access to trade schools would also be more beneficial I think, although I don’t know much about that area of the job market and education as well.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    @ joe:

    Exactly what sensors are those that see through patients during surgery? I’m dying to hear about this new medical wonder. Intraoperative fluoroscopy is strictly limited and definitely adds to a person’s total radiation dose. I think you have real life mixed up with Grey’s Anatomy meets Star Trek (pick your flavor of Star Trek… medically, they’re all equally improbable at this point).

    Exactly what arguments are these computers coming up with to create these legal arguments? Routine work that never sees the inside of a court room is easy enough but once you get a jury involved or try to sway a judge about which opinion is more applicable to THIS particular situation …. nope. I don’t see automated anything doing that any time soon – if ever.

    1. Joe says:

      I said paralegals, not lawyers.

      MRIs for one. Ultrasound for a second. And for X-rays, compressed sensing means you can radically reduce the amount of radiation required.

  7. Brian Marshall says:

    I agree with your statement that Higher Education is not the answer for our employment issues. Personally a rough idea would be to train students differently in High School. Allow the students and there parents choose a college path or a “practical” path. College path would have the same as high is now pretty much. “Practical” path would be training for the work place in needed manufacturing, service or other dirty jobs. This would bring back shop, but less emphasis on the prime subjects for academia.

    Changing our Society to stop looking down on the blue-collared worker would be the first step.

  8. Nic says:

    (I know I’m committing necromancy, but…)

    The President’s proposal for community college isn’t bad for the way secondary eduction currently exists, because in California, at least, most of the vocational and technical education takes place at the community college level.

    One of the unintended consequences of NCLB was the removal of many vo/tech/ed pathways from the secondary level because suddenly every student needed to score brilliantly on the standardized tests so the school’s funding didn’t get cut. Even a high scoring school could improve their scores every single year and still get funding cuts because their scores didn’t improve enough as their improvement curve was flattening out when it approached the maximum, so schools added more and more extra academic intervention classes and requirements to get even minor marginal improvements in their test scores and had to remove their vo/tech/ed classes because they could only employ so many teachers. Local area employers then started to partner with the community colleges to start training programs for their future employees who were no longer getting training at the secondary level.

    (my master’s thesis was on vo/tech/ed at the secondary level, so your post hit a bit of a hobby-horse for me)

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