by AndrewMc | 10/06/2009 07:00:00 AM
It's traditional to assume that when a recession hits, college enrollment rises at both the undergraduate and graduate level. There is a sense that having a college education allows one to accomplish more, and to earn more. As what might turn out to be a W-shaped recession drags on, I think we'll see a lot more people questioning whether or not a college education is really worth it. NPR did a piece on this question a few weeks ago, which you can listen to here.

It seems to be the topic du jour. Follow me . . . .

The New York Times also weighed in, asking the following:

The most subversive question about higher education has always been whether the college makes the student or the student makes the college. Sure, Harvard graduates make more money than graduates of just about any other college. And most community-college students will end up making far less than graduates of flagship state universities. But of course these students didn’t enter college with the same preparation and skills. Colleges don’t help to clear up the situation either, because they do so little to measure what students learn between freshman and senior years. So doubt lurks: how much does a college education — the actual teaching and learning that happens on campus — really matter?

and followed with:

Along with all this skepticism, though, economic downturns also create one big countervailing force that pushes people toward college: many of them have nothing better to do.

The article goes on to ask "who's right?"--skeptics who say that a college education doesn't lead to more money, or proponents who say that in the end they will earn more money.

I'm not surprised that this is how media outlets like NPR and the Times have chosen to frame this question. After all, we're in the midst of what is coming to be called "The Great Recession." So, questions of the economy are on everyone's mind. Even without these questions, the Census Bureau reminds us that over the term of the Bush Administration, most economic indicators got worse. Drastically so.

On every major measurement, the Census Bureau report shows that the country lost ground during Bush's two terms. While Bush was in office, the median household income declined, poverty increased, childhood poverty increased even more, and the number of Americans without health insurance spiked. By contrast, the country's condition improved on each of those measures during Bill Clinton's two terms, often substantially.

Think about that for a second. "Every major measurement." Not "some." Not "a few." Not "this one over here, but not those." No. "Every major measurement."

What makes this all the more galling is that the economy through which we are suffering is one that is entirely of the Republicans' creation. By the time Bush took office in 2001, that downturn was over. The economy was again on the upswing. By the time Bush left office, the economy had crashed. There's not many other ways to parse the issue. His policies, and those foisted on the nation by his Republican allies, took an improving economy and demolished it.

From the same article
(which is worth reading. Twice.):

That leaves Bush with the dubious distinction of becoming the only president in recent history to preside over an income decline through two presidential terms, notes Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

So, as we claw our way out of this Recession-not-Depression, folks head back to school. They do so for a wide variety of reasons. Some folks do it as an escape. They take out a loan, float through an MA program, and hope that when they get out the economy has recovered and they're a bit more marketable. Others do it because they always wanted to get that MA in History, and now's the time.

And other folks ask, "is it worth the money?"

Sorry, but this isn't the debate, folks.

And let me say, asking a bunch of economists for the answer is essentially silly. Economists are a Venn-subset of mathematicians whose main occupation is sticking numbers in at one end, excreting them at the other end, and then making wild ass guesses about what the piles of numbers mean for the future.

Education is not about number-crunching. A college education isn't just about earning more money, although that is certainly one incentive. The ideal of a college education is that it helps build a better-educated society on a number of levels. True, it builds a better work force. Even if sie doesn't earn more money, a well-educated laborer is a better laborer--one who can help hir company improve production and efficiency by offering more creative ideas based on a broader set of educational experiences.

More importantly a better educated citizenry is crucial to the workings of a democracy. In order to understand the myriad issues that face this nation, it is crucial that Americans experience as wide a range of viewpoints as possible. Citizens must be trained to take those viewpoints and process them in an analytical fashion. College does that; high school does not.

A century ago, a high school education was more than enough for most. But today's global reality calls for a college education for as many as is possible. Not just for the absolutely unquantifiable economic benefits to the individual, but because of the civic and economic benefits to the national collective.

The New York Times is asking whether or not a college education is creating better-paid workers.
The most "subversive" question isn't "whether the college makes the student or the student makes the college." That's a bullshit question dreamed up by martini-sipping reporters looking to sound smart in the first few lines of what they fear will be a boring article.

The most subversive question is "what's the purpose of a university?" [And not, "what's the purpose of a university education?"]

The purpose of a university is to produce students who can think analytically and contribute to the civic body of the nation, in whatever way their talents best allow. It's not about whether or not college creates better-paid citizens.
Going to college creates better citizens. That's hard to quantify.

Graduate students and faculty have to do a much better job of communicating the admittedly difficult idea that a college education is about creating a well-rounded individual who is better equipped to participate in civic society. We need to shout that message from the rooftops, in editorials, on blogs, in letters to the editor, and to anyone who will listen. Because as state budgets shrink, higher education is a target.

As the Chron reminds us (paid subscription), down this path lies disaster. While US Higher Ed remains dominant, that leadership is eroding. When it does so the United States loses a lot more than a higher-paid work force. We lose something crucial to the functioning of American democracy.

That's worth more than a few extra dollars an hour.

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