Now that our "do nothing" Congress is finally set to "do something" to stop interest on student loans from doubling, I think I’ve finally figured out what motivates conservatives on education in general, and conservative opposition to student loans in general. Conservatives are fighting to save our children – your children, my children, America’s children – from a fate worse than collective bargaining. Conservatives are fighting to save America’s youth from being "overeducated."
Say what? "Overeducated"? What does that even mean? I used to think it meant having more education than available jobs require; like the students graduating off a cliff, into a market where most of the jobs being created are low wage jobs, as jobs in the middle of the income and skill spectrum are hollowed by the recession. In other words, I used to think "overeducated" was the flip-side of "underemployed."
Then, Rush Limbaugh set me straight.
That’s right. The truth was revealed to me by Rush Limbaugh, when he followed up his attack on Sandra Fluke by targeting journalist and author Tracie McMillan as an example of the kind of "overeducated" young, single white women who are apparently ruining America.
It’s hard to comprehend exactly what Limbaugh is try to say. He suggests that McMillan is overeducated but not intelligent, naive and out of her league. McMillan isn’t offended, necessarily. She seemed more concerned with the rhetoric Limbaugh’s promoting. "Calling me out for being a single woman and suggesting that having put me through university on my own dime makes me an over educated person," she said, "that’s pulling out some really bad tendencies in American thinking."
At first, I found it mind-boggling. After all, even taking into account burden of debt needed to acquire it, a college education is still a good investment. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, college graduates earn about $650,000 more than high school graduates over the course of a 40-year career. A college-degree makes upward economic mobility a lot more likely for low-income Americans, and that’s not all.
Indeed, for those born into the poorest fifth of American families, the obtainment of a college degree gives you an 80 percent chance of bettering your economic status over the course of a lifetime. Opt not to graduate college, and those odds drop to 55 percent, according to a new U.S. Treasury Department report "The Economic Case for Higher Education" (h/t The New York Times).
See the chart on intergenerational mobility below:
The weekly earnings of people with a bachelors degree are an average of 64 percent higher than those workers with only a high school diploma, the report also found. Likewise, unemployment rates are significantly higher among those without a college degree.
The report isn’t the only one to show the economic benefits of a college education. Those with a bachelors degree earn about $1 million more over their lifetimes than those without one, according to a recent Georgetown study. Currently, the median salary for college graduates is $42,000, compared to just $26,364 for all Americans in 2010, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, WZZM reports.
They didn’t have charts and numbers like those above to make their case, but my parents understood the above pretty well.
Like some middle class kids in my generation, education was a high priority. In my house it was emphasized as the doorway to upward mobility. (The idea of learning for learning’s sake was something I discovered later.) If I wanted a "good job," I’d better – at least – get an undergraduate degree. It wasn’t a question of if I’d go to college, but where, as far as my parents were concerned.
"Where you’ll go," I recall my dad saying, "I don’t know. But you’re going to somebody’s university." My dad’s desire for me to go to college was probably due in part to his never having been. The son of sharecroppers, he left the far via the draft, and never looked back. Despite his lack of a college degree (he did earn technical school degree, as I recall), my dad managed to find a "good job" and make a "good living" to provide for his family. He believed getting a college education would help me do the same and do better.
And my husband I and I understand as much where our children’s education is concerned, but the conservatives are determinedly pursuing their agenda to decouple education from upward mobility .
But, to a degree, the damage has been done. And we have more dropouts than we thought. What they’re going to do – what they’ll be able to do, or what there is for them to do – is anybody’s guess. But – in a economy where decoupling seems to apply not only to economies, but to the relationship between education, employment, and upward mobility – their stories probably won’t be like my father’s or like mine.
Now, I’m a father. I look at our five-year-old, and I see how well he’s reading already, how curious he is, and how sharp his mind is. I even look at our three-month-old, and I see how he loves to be held upright so he can see the world around him, and how he’s already started figuring out that he can make something happen when he pushes one of his favorite toys. We’ve already started saving for their educations, but I’m no longer sure that education will ensure for them, what my father hoped it would for me.
Instead, I find myself hoping their stories will be somewhat like mind. I know I’m supposed to hope their stories turn out better, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen. But if "making the grade" is no longer a path to "moving on up," then it looks like the decoupling of education from employment, upward mobility, and the American Dream is at least underway. Or maybe it’s already happened.
The success of that decoupling strategy can be read in the soaring rate of unemployment among college graduates.
After all, over the past 30 years, there has been a stunning disconnect between huge income gains at the top and the struggles of ordinary workers. You can make the case that the self-interest of America’s elite is best served by making sure that this disconnect continues, which means keeping taxes on high incomes low at all costs, never mind the consequences in terms of poor infrastructure and an undertrained work force.
And if underfunding public education leaves many children of the less affluent shut out from upward mobility, well, did you really believe that stuff about creating equality of opportunity?
So whenever you hear Republicans say that they are the party of traditional values, bear in mind that they have actually made a radical break with America’s tradition of valuing education. And they have made this break because they believe that what you don’t know can’t hurt them.
Sure, a college education is still the best route to upward economic mobility. The Treasury Dept. report I mentioned earlier shows that, without a degree, children born to low-income families have a 45% chance of being low-income as adults. With a degree, they have less than a 20% chance of the same.
A college education is also key to staying on the top run of the economic ladder. The chart at the top of this post shows that, without a degree, children born to wealthy families were still likely to stay at the top as adults, but just barely. With a degree, more than half held their grip on the top rung.
That’s probably not going to change. What is going to change is who it’s for. Those who can afford it will get it, and have a better chance of holding on to their economic status. Those who can’t afford it won’t get it by and large, and most likely stay put in the economic class they were born to.
N+1 magazine notes that since the late 1970s, when Santorum was enjoying his taxpayer-subsidized higher education, "the price of tuition at U.S. colleges has increased over 900 percent." In 2011, that meant the average total cost of a year at a public university was $21,477, up 5.4 percent in just 12 months. Thanks to cuts to programs that make college and vocational education more affordable – cuts Santorum supported in Congress – those tuition increases promise to get even steeper in the coming years, all but ensuring that a future college student will have even more than the $25,250 in education debt that today’s average student carries.
With higher education this unaffordable but with most decent-paying jobs in our economy still requiring a degree, the trends have created another bubble scenario. Those lucky enough to get a job out of school can barely pay back their now-massive loans, and those left jobless in the recession can’t pay back their loans at all, leaving us facing the potential of mass defaults and yet another financial meltdown.
…As the facts prove, though, the real crisis is about a conservative economic agenda whose anti-government extremism is making the path to a degree and a decent job even tougher than it naturally is during tough times.
There’s a logic to the conservative agenda, when you think about it. Making college more costly makes sense, in the context of an economy that no longer has a place for "overeducated." So, by crushing their college dreams now, conservatives are really doing low-income, working-class, and middle-class a favor.