If Even Krugman Says It...

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize economist and fixture of the New York Times op-ed page, has been a steadfast supporter of President Obama’s efforts to improve the U.S. economy through massive deficit spending. His only criticisms have been in the direction that the stimulus packages have not been large enough. In his March 7 op-ed, however, Krugman hits an astonishing new note. In effect, he discovers his inner Richard Vedder: He expresses doubt that “education is the key to economic success.”

Krugman’s key observation is that as more and more white-collar, middle-class jobs fall victim to automation, the value of a college education as a means of securing a middle-class income has begun to fade. In addition to automation, Krugman says that telecommunications have “made it possible to provide many services at long range,” and that work performed by highly educated workers is increasingly “offshorable.”

These are hardly new discoveries, but what is news is that Krugman registers what this actually means for higher education—something that public intellectuals on the left have been very reluctant to acknowledge.

Krugman is someone I seldom agree with. He was among the first to blame the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on “a climate of hate” supposedly created by “the rhetoric of Beck, Limbaugh, etc.,” and even after it became clear that the shooter was a madman with no connection to politics, he repeated and expanded his outrageous blame-Palin-first pseudo-analysis. When social psychologist Jonathan Haidt presented a noteworthy lecture analyzing why conservatives are nearly entirely absent from his field, Krugman rushed in with a dismissive sneer explaining why Professor Haidt’s findings should be ignored. When the revolution that toppled Mubarak in Egypt got underway, Krugman was on hand to explain that its underlying cause was….global warming. There are bloggers who devote themselves to “Krugman Watch” explications of this man’s often wayward relationship with reality.

It is thus a little disconcerting to see him offering a basically accurate assessment of popular error about the role of higher education in the American economy. I take the risk that, by pointing this out, I may move him to modify his views. But I’ll start with the optimistic assumption that what Krugman says is a pretty good bellwether of where conventional leftist opinion is headed. Krugman begins by bowing in the obligatory liberal direction of saying that to fix American education we have to address “the inequalities” between the children of the poor and the children of the affluent, which “aren’t just an outrage” but also a “waste of the nation’s human potential.” Those inequalities are surely not a good thing, but whether you see them as an “outrage” depends on your vision of the country. No nation has more personal and class mobility than the United States, and as for wasting “human potential,” that’s not a not a problem that gets solved merely by spending more public money. The affluent are far more profligate than the poor. But never mind; what comes next in Krugman’s essay is far more interesting:

But there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It is no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

This declaration puts Krugman squarely at odds with President Obama, which he forthrightly acknowledges. Since his first months in office, Obama has continued to call for a massive increase in the percentage of Americans who receive college degrees—an increase of 5 million additional graduates by 2020—and he repeated his call for new “investments” in higher education last week, where he linked the expansion of higher education to “good news on the job front.” The idea that American “competitiveness” can be improved by granting college credentials to millions more students each year, of course, has been endorsed by virtually the whole of the American higher-education establishment. The Lumina Foundation has taken a conspicuous lead by demanding an expansion beyond even the doubling of enrollments called for by Obama, but the College Board and the Carnegie Corporation, among others, aren’t far behind.

What does it mean when someone like Krugman jumps ship from the ideological consensus that usually rules in these matters? It means essentially that the jig is up. Even stalwarts of the left can no longer pretend with a straight face that “college for everyone” is a practical answer to our economic difficulties, or even a constructive step in that direction. Higher education as we know it currently produces a large surplus of “credentialed” graduates who cannot find work in fields for which a college degree is needed. Doubling the number of graduates is not going to change that. Rather, the very effort to jam through college a huge increase in the number of students will mean a lowering of the already derisory standards at many colleges and universities, and will make the college credential even less useful than it already is.

What to do next? Increasingly those who favor continued expansion of higher education sidle away from the “national competitiveness” argument. They have also begun to grow a bit bashful of the “premium in lifetime earnings” argument, though it has the virtue of being true. The problem is that, while college graduates do earn substantially more on average than high-school-diploma-only workers, this pitch has routinely ignored the fate of the large percentage of students who enroll but don’t finish their college programs. As The New York Times reported last year:

While almost 70 percent of high school graduates in the United States enroll in college within two years of graduating, only about 57 percent of students who enroll in a bachelor’s degree program graduate within six years, and fewer than 25 percent of students who begin at a community college graduate with an associate’s degree within three years. 

The students who don’t finish their degrees nonetheless often end up with substantial debt in the form of student loans—which casts the “college is the ticket to personal prosperity” argument in a somewhat different light. Prosperity may come, but the road is risky—potentially a lot riskier than getting a job and sticking to it.

If these justifications for going to college aren’t as convincing as they once were, we can still turn to the idea that a college education is personally rewarding and even liberating. It is better to be educated than ignorant, etc. This is surely right—up to a point. Collegecan be intellectually and culturally rewarding, but for over a third of college graduates, the educational value is nearly zero. That’s the finding that the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reported in their recent book, Academically Adrift, and it matches with what most of us who have spent years in front of the classroom already knew. Four to six years of attending college and acquiring a small mountain of debt is not educationally rewarding to a significant portion of college enrollees, though it is possible to imagine other benefits.

It is also possible to imagine subtractions. The one hundred or so college students at Northwestern University last week who got to witness a live demonstration of a man employing a sex toy on a naked woman is the emblem for the moment of how higher education can debase students in the name of liberating them. This incident may be exceptional in its crudity but is hardly exceptional in its underlying spirit. The idea of “transgression” hauled from the bottom of the bag of pedagogical trickery exhausts the repertoire of all too many professors. But it works. You can mesmerize a sizable fraction of any study group with the illusion that they are breaking through stale social conventions by sacrificing their own dignity.

Those who say ‘never mind the economic picture or the personal financial rewards, a college education is to be valued in its own right’ are thus faced with the additional challenges of making a contemporary college education look better than it is, both intellectually and morally. And indeed they try. The intellectual barrenness can be dismissed in the tone of ‘thus was it ever,’ and the moral objections can be turned aside as Comstockery. It is never all that difficult for a settled elite to find compelling reasons for its own complacency. The question is whether those to whom they appeal to pay their bills find these reasons compelling. This seems inexorably to bring us back to those economic and financial arguments.

Or maybe not quite. College has functions beyond education. It is an initiation that creates a dividing line between those who graduated and those who didn’t. We imagine the dividing line represents some real achievement, but often it is just the line itself: a nearly arbitrary social marker. College also serves Americans as a preliminary for graduate and professional programs. Again, the content may matter less than the mere fact. And college provides a mechanism of social assortment:  the student mixes with others of similar standing and emerges with shared experience, even if it is largely shared experience of trivialities. I don’t want to underrate these factors. They have analogues in hundreds of societies around the world, from village initiation rites to systems of organized warfare. Contemporary America has made college education a tribal initiation rite and that’s important in its own way.

But it isn’t going to solve the problem that Paul Krugman has named. “If we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer.” For Krugman, the answer is unions, collective bargaining, and guaranteed health care. Well, maybe. It isn’t instantly clear to me that these are answers that will repair what amounts to a breakdown in the way our society is managing the stewardship of intellectual and cultural capital in its transmission from generation to generation.

Not that there are any easy or simple answers. But getting the diagnosis right would be a good first step. Krugman surely has part of the diagnosis. He is right that we are learning to digitize and automate many tasks that used to require moderately expert human judgment, and as we do this, we are eliminating a large sector of jobs for which the college degree was formerly a reliable credential. And he is right that many of the surviving college-credentialed jobs are vulnerable to the forces of globalization.  They can be done just as well and less expensively in India or elsewhere.

What’s missing from this picture, however, is a crowd of factors that bear on how young men and women approach and make use of the opportunities at hand. Why is it that so many students enroll in college only to treat it as a four (or more) year vacation from responsibility? A college degree in the right subject pursued with the right level of intensity can still open the door to a good and prosperous career. But a very large number—an actual preponderance—of college graduates de-select that approach to undergraduate education. Some do so because they lack the motivation to begin with, and it is a fair question to put to social scientists, “Why?” Patterns of motivation (or its lack) are not arbitrary. They have something to do with the family, and a great deal to do with matters like religion, culture, and emotional maturity.

No one is “in charge” of factors like these and they are difficult if not impossible to reach by policy prescription. We can’t simply undo high divorce rates and single-parent families—although these are major risk factors for academic under-performance and social anomie. The trend of our culture towards mass banality is likewise something can’t be ameliorated by mere policy. Yet it isn’t entirely beyond reach. Higher education did its part in creating it and may have some capacity, if it chose, to push past it. At the moment our system of collegiate study is shot through with antagonism to the principles of the American republic, the free market, aspiration to high culture, traditional religious faith, and so on; and it is often aglow with admiration for the imagined alternatives:  international institutions, economies built on economic redistribution, sustainatopia, etc.

We stand in need of the kind of analysis Max Weber might have brought. In an age of expressive individualism, college provides a majority of students the occasion to define themselves against their own civilization or cultural inheritance. The basic emotional stance written into today’s curriculum is alienation from the ways of the past coupled with utopian longing for some inexpressible combination of absolute freedom and profound subjection. We want to escape the trammels of ascribed identity but uphold a diversity doctrine that conjures a perpetual cult of ascribed identities based on the legacy of oppression. We want to banish the logic of the relentless marketplace but are eager to try out the even more relentless logic of “global citizenship” and other softly packaged forfeitures of individual rights and liberties.

Only a relative handful become deep adepts of this emancipatory dream but it diffusely influences all. I encounter marketing and advertising majors who confess their sense of guilt that they are not fully living up to the implied mandate to transform their society into a post-national, re-distributionist paradise.

It isn’t hard to see that a system of higher education that cultivates such ambivalence in students isn’t likely to produce large numbers of graduates who are capable of adroitly adapting themselves to the economic realities of our time. The routinized jobs, as Krugman observes, are disappearing into the matrices of artificial intelligence and the comparative advantages of international labor markets. Educating people to live on the cusp of creative change is difficult, but especially so if you approach that world peevishly, as though it isn’t worthy of your efforts.

This may go a considerable distance toward explaining why students from abroad are often better able to take advantage of American higher education than their American-born counterparts. Globalization works in more than one way.   

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