The College-Only Economy

“In this global economy, education beyond high school is not a luxury — it’s a necessity.” – N.C. Governor Beverly Perdue’s State of the State Address, March 9, 2009.

If that statement is true, then we’re screwed.

Yet when politicians deliver such rhetoric, no one bats an eye.

The idea of college as a necessity has become so commonplace, so widely accepted by policymakers and pundits, that the glaring insincerity of it goes largely unnoticed.

A little less than 34% of North Carolina adults have at least an associate’s degree, according to the U.S. Census. So if we take the Governor’s college-as-necessity argument at face value, two out of every 3 state residents are walking around without the basic necessities for life in a global economy.

Indeed, the nation as a whole must be in dire trouble. Only about 35% of adults across the United States have attained an associate’s degree or higher, meaning the vast majority of our fellow citizens are doomed to wander helplessly through the searing wasteland of global competition.

No one doubts the advent of a more globalized economy has put enormous pressure on American business and placed increasing emphasis on the kind of skills and flexibility associated with a college degree. The decline of high-wage employment for high school graduates — the blue-collar work that once underpinned the American middle class — is all too real.

Which is why it’s perfectly inexcusable for politicians to pretend that sending the country to college will solve anything.

For starters, tripling the size of the nation’s post-secondary infrastructure is simply not possible. No matter what creative combination of online education, community colleges or four-year programs one might propose, it is not feasible to push every high school graduate into a degree program.

Nor is it fair. Already, a huge portion of K-12 graduates who enroll in college find themselves struggling to complete the work.

In North Carolina, the state’s 16 public colleges have a combined six-year graduation rate of about 59%. After six years, more than four of every ten students haven’t managed to earn a diploma. And we’re one of the few states considered good at running universities.

When we are graduating barely 6 in ten of the students we enroll now (and far less at community colleges), what sense does it make to call for a massive expansion of enrollment?

There are a number of reasons politicians like to declare college the solution to our economic woes. The empty promise of higher education for all provides hope for every family; study hard enough, and a bachelor’s degree can secure the good life.

And for the average politician, journalist or policy analyst — who went to college, is surrounded by friends who went to college, and interacts with other professionals who went to college — it certainly seems like a sure-fire path to a comfortable life.

But the rhetoric of universal higher education distracts us from actually addressing the problems that have decimated economic security for working class Americans.

How do we create wage growth for the overwhelming majority of workers who don’t go to college? What should replace the lower-skill manufacturing jobs lost to lower-wage countries? How should we address the tremendous rise in income inequality in recent decades?

Sending more people to college is not the answer to any of these issues.

An expansive education is a wonderful thing, and we should make it available to as many people as we reasonably can.

But if we are going to tackle the very real challenge of devising an economy that provides everyone a fair shot at a decent standard of living — an economy that works for the vast majority of the country without post-secondary education — we have to drop the disingenuous notion of college for all.

You don’t need an associate’s degree to be hard-working. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to be a good person. And you shouldn’t need any degree to make a good life for yourself.

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