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Is a College Degree the Sure Bet it Once Was?

The prescription for economic insecurity is more college, but colleges no longer know what work to prepare us for.
 
 
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The U.S. higher education crisis has been well documented. College is overpriced, over-valued, and ripe for disruption (preferably, for some critics, by the outcome-driven private sector). At the same time, many Americans are flailing in the post-recession economy. With rising income inequality, persistent long-term unemployment, and declining real wages, Americans are searching for purchase on shifting ground. Not so long ago, the social contract between workers, government, and employers made college a calculable bet. But when the social contract was broken and policymakers didn’t step in, the only prescription for insecurity was the product that had been built on the assumption of security. We built a university system for the way we worked. What happens to college when we work not just differently but for less? And what if the crisis in higher education is related to the broader failures that have left so many workers struggling?

There is a lot of talk right now about how we will work in the future, but it’s mostly based on the realities of how we work today. Many express concerns about the quality and quantity of “good jobs,” which sociologist Arne Kalleberg has characterized as jobs that pay a living wage, are on a ladder of career opportunity, and provide all the material benefits that make for economic security (such as retirement funds and health care). Beneath the surface of debates about yawning income inequality are empirical arguments about job polarization—the idea that the labor market is being pulled at both ends like taffy by global competition, technological change, and policy. At one end are high-skill, high-paying “good” jobs. At the other end are low-skill, low-paying “bad” jobs. The middle, meanwhile, is getting thinner and thinner. And job creation—as underwhelming as it is—is not evenly distributed among the jobs people want and the jobs people have to take. There are more bad new jobs than good. Economists Nir Jaimovich and Henry Siu argue that in the 1980s jobs with lower skill requirements (and pay) started to increase their share of the labor market. That trend has only picked up after the great recession.

What does this have to do with higher education? That depends on what you think jobs have to do with degrees. Sociologists and economists think the two are inextricably linked, even if they disagree how and to what extent. Historically, the expansion of higher education mapped onto the expansion of the economy, not just in terms of the number of jobs but also their quality. The Second World War is often cited as the backdrop for the great expansion of higher education attainment. The G.I. Bill ramped up college access for men (and, later, women) in historic numbers. Public universities, in particular, responded to meet this demand.

But college wasn’t just expanding to meet increasing demand for college degrees. It was also expanding to keep pace with the expansion of the labor market, and in particular the growth of stable, middle-class jobs. Written in the 1990s, Anthony Sampson’s Company Man chronicles the rise and fall of the middle-class corporate work arrangement forged during the expansion of the economy in the 1950s. The corporate loyalty of this “company man”—and woman—was rooted in the security and identity afforded by the company’s investment in workers. In exchange for curtailed autonomy, the company man received annual bonuses, semi-regular job promotions, a schedule that had him home for dinner most nights, and the promise of a secure retirement. In short, the “good jobs” economists say are increasingly unavailable in our bifurcating labor market were the offspring of a 1950s social contract between workers and corporations. To say things have changed is an understatement.

 
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