The American Dream and the value of higher education

Self-determination is an attractive concept. The spaghetti western fantasy of the downtrodden individual making his or her way in the world is at the heart of American conservative discourse––and in many ways, political discourse––about our economy. After all, the Koch brothers are self-made; they started with millions and ended up with billions. Even United States President Barack Obama––supposedly the most radical president in American history––has been suckered into such wishful thinking. Though commendable, his plan to make the first two years of community college free reflects a worldview that is moving toward dominance: that education is at the heart of the pernicious inequality in the U.S. and abroad. In other words, fix the education gap and fix the income gap. Uplifting as this idea is, it’s simply wrong.

Higher education is undoubtedly important; a degree is more or less obligatory to exist as an adult member of the middle class. In philosophical terms, however, a college diploma has become a “necessary, but not sufficient condition” for financial security.

Writing for The New York Times, David Brooks lambasted “redistributionists” like myself who believe that income equality requires more than improved education. “Americans with a four-year college degree make 98 percent more per hour than people without one,” he wrote. This is unsurprising, considering that college-educated people are pre-sampled from higher income brackets and the income bracket you’re born into is an excellent predictor of your earnings as an adult. Brooks was forced to conclude that negative Nancy-redistributionists are so deluded because, “…their view is biased by temporary evidence from the recession.” This ignores the fact that wages for college-educated Americans have been flat for decades––which Brooks himself acknowledged.

Brooks’ colleague Nobel Laureate in Economics and “redistributionist” Paul Krugman provided a reasonable answer several weeks in advance of Brooks’ article. “Corporate profits have soared as a share of national income, but there is no sign of a rise in the rate of return on investment ... it’s what you would expect if rising profits reflect monopoly power rather than returns to capital,” he wrote. A variety of factors––most notably outsourcing and the information revolution––have conspired to make jobs harder to come by at all skill levels, thereby increasing demand and desperation. As a result, employers can squeeze more out of their employees for less.

This is all completely independent of rates of college education, which have risen continually. Underpayment and underemployment for college graduates aren’t just byproducts of corporate greed, however. Adjunct instructors at Geneseo are told to be grateful for the privilege of doing extremely skilled work for slavish hours and miserable pay, simply because they have a job. The ‘adjunctification’ of higher education is evidence that, if anything, there are more college grads than the market can––or is willing to––employ in good jobs.

Whatever the injustice of the current situation and its causes, we have to learn to exist in a market where even people with terminal degrees are undervalued. The common wisdom is that science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees will guarantee a stable and well-paying career. As with the equivocation of education and success, the common wisdom is incorrect. Very high salaries in the technical disciplines are mostly limited to engineering, medicine and computer science, and competition is fierce everywhere.

Whether your major is physics or philosophy, success depends on tireless effort to build connections and develop skills that separate you from the pack. In the words of author Cal Newport, being “so good they can’t ignore you” is the only option in a career landscape where everybody is disposable.

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