I am currently working on a book, The Politics of Higher Education, Jobs, and Inequality. One of my main arguments is that there is a bipartisan consensus that higher education is the solution to all of our economic and social problems. There are several problems with this stance: 1) producing more people with college degrees does not create more good jobs; 2) higher education itself magnifies economic and social inequality; 3) political officials focus on higher education so they don’t have to talk about underemployment, exploitive labor practices, globalization, automation, de-unionization, de-professionalization, privatization, poverty, the minimum wage, and social welfare programs; and 4) the belief in higher education as a fair meritocracy serves to justify inequality.
These myths surrounding higher education and the economy were on full display during Arne Duncan’s and Larry Summers' presentations at the Aspen Festival of Ideas this week. Duncan argued that since the value of having a college degree has never been greater, we have to find ways of making colleges and universities more accountable. For Duncan, this means that instead of the government simply giving schools more money with no strings attached, we need to judge higher education institutions on outputs like their graduation rates and number of Pell Grant students. Although these are important issues, they do not address the question of educational quality. Instead, the Obama administration is developing their own method of rating and ranking schools, and this feeds into the logic of the meritocracy and the idea that we know how to judge learning in a quantifiable way.
Duncan argued that while student debt levels are too high for some students, college is still the best investment a person can make. What he did not say is that one reason why college students on average earn so much more than students without college degrees is that the wages for people with only high school degrees or less has gone down so much. Moreover, over 50% of recent college grads are either underemployed or unemployed, and many of these grads are working at jobs that do not traditionally require a college degree. Thus, while earning a degree does increase your odds at earning more, the main reason why is that so many people are earning less.
Duncan and others appear to believe that college degrees produce jobs that require degrees, when in fact, there is very little relation between these two factors. In fact, since wealthy students graduate from college at a much higher rate than anyone else, higher education often serves to increase income inequality. Higher education thus cannot substitute for broader economic public policies, and at a time when public higher education is seeing decreased funding, it is absurd to ask higher education to be the solution to all of our problems. For example, Duncan claimed that higher education is the key to keeping high-pay, high skill jobs in America, but this perspective fails to look at the role of corporations seeking to increase their profits by outsourcing jobs and replacing full-time workers with part-time employees.
In what we can call the narcissism of the meritocracy, political officials believe that since higher education helped them to attain their success, then everyone else should be able to do the same. The flip-side of this myth is that the people who are not successful only have themselves to blame. In discussing President Obama’s own career, Duncan used this example as proof that the system works. However, we know that Obama is a rare exception, and our meritocracy is turning back into an aristocracy.
Duncan also believes that the Obama college ranking system will give consumers more information so that they can make better decisions in picking a school, and this process will create a free market structure where people will vote with their feet. In other terms, the colleges and universities that are not performing well in the ratings will lose students and then they will be forced to change. This whole logic is based on the false ideology of the invisible hand and social Darwinism. In the underlying belief in the rationality of the free market, the idea is that only the fittest will survive, and everyone else will be disrupted or eliminated.
In his interview, Larry Summers added to this neoliberal consensus by claiming that what is preventing higher education from advancing and serving the students are the dual evils of tenure and shared governance. Referring to the debate between Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen, Summers argued that technology will force schools to either adapt or die. He added that since the average professor is around fifty, these institutions will not experiment because all of the new technology companies are led by young people. The implied solution then is to get rid of tenure and shared governance and let these schools experiment and innovate. What Summers did not say is that these institutions have already innovated by replacing professors with part-time, non-tenured faculty.
While the current President of Harvard, Drew Faust, did push back on some of Summer’s ideas, she said that faculty would be much happier if they spent their time on their own expert areas and did not waste time on learning about school budgets and other issues concerning shared governance. In other words, she also believes that shared governance should be handed over to the expert administrators who continue to multiply on our campuses.
Like Duncan, Summers believes that it makes no sense to have 35,000 professors teach calculus at their individual schools when a small number of great professors could teach thousands online. Under the banner of increasing equality of opportunity, Summers wants to eliminate most of the faculty. Here we see one of the ways that higher education, jobs, and inequality are linked: technology allows managers to replace workers and increase inequality by allowing a few stars to make all of the money. Of course, the whole idea of stars is based on the meritocratic idea that we can fairly judge and assess quality. In the desire to turn every aspect of our lives into a market, the myth of the fair meritocracy plays the Darwinian role of sorting society into a small number of winners and a large number of losers, and higher education has now become on of the main sources for this generation of inequality.