OMG, President Obama is gonna give free college to everybody! Poor kids everywhere, rejoice, a high-paying tech job is right around the corner! How could anybody be against this?!!? Bless his sweet Hawai’ian heart, let’s just forget about the murders and the civil rights violations and all the fascist spying bullshit and just hire him on for a 3rd term, Putin style!
Ask yourself this… Do we really need more education? Specifically, what do you get out of community college (CC) that you couldn’t get out of high school?
Some fields are very specialized and require long-term exposure to a vast body of knowledge and previous practice to master. Think engineering, law, medicine, academic research. Even if you could squeeze the basics of these fields into high school, you’d still need some years immersed in the field’s culture before you truly got it. It’s also probably good for the role models of our society — the doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, whatever — to have a broad liberal arts education underlying their specialized knowledge, since they help preserve, transmit, and define our culture.
CC doesn’t prepare anyone for this kind of job: it’s purely vocational. You get degrees in things like programming, network management, and accounting. While those are all laudable skills, do you really need 14 years of education to do them? I humbly submit that you do not.
A couple decades ago vocational training came on-the-job. You got hired knowing nothing but the basics (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic), and within a month or so you learned whatever the company wanted. However, at some point it changed so that to get that same job, you had to spend 2+ years of your life sitting in a CC classroom, probably while you worked at Wal-Mart, just to get in the door. There’s a large opportunity cost in spending two years in college. You’re not building career experience; you’re spending money, not making it; you’re making no useful business connections; you’re broke, so you’re probably not getting married and having kids, either.
The President says he wants to improve workforce preparedness in the US and cut education debt. He could push high schools to teach more useful skills, thus reducing the number of people who have to go to college at all. For instance, there’s a big movement (which I wholeheartedly endorse) to teach basic computer programming to middle and even grade school kids, thus lifting the myth that you need two semesters of calculus before you can understand a command prompt. Probably the best jobs you can get with CC are IT jobs, but if kids came out of high school knowing how to code… just that one simple policy, which would cost virtually nothing, would revolutionize the American workforce.
If CC isn’t needed to learn how to do a job, and the skills it teaches are more economically taught in high school, then what’s the point of going? As ASD is wont to do, let’s take a run at this question using evolutionary theory.
Think about the job market as a Malthusian system: more people want good jobs than there are good jobs, so competition is high. As we’ve already covered above, getting a job usually doesn’t require already knowing how to do that job. What determines whether you get it is: do you look more competent on paper and at the job interview than the other people applying for the job?
Thus, fitness in the job market — how well you compete — is about looking better to the hiring committee. Your resume — since they see it before they meet you — is probably the most important element of fitness. What you need to outcompete your conspecifics is more lines on your resume. The best lines are work experience, but when you’re a noob fresh out of high school, you can pay for lines by going to college.
In Granddad’s day, not everyone had a high school diploma, so if you had one you were competitive. Once 12 years of free education became a human right, you needed some college to get a job. These days some job markets are so glutted that you need grad school to be competitive. This is painfully obvious to anybody in science grad school: we compete like starving pit bulls to produce resumes solid enough to get us into good postdoc labs, with the hope that someday we might look good enough to get an entry-level academic job.
The longer resume competition continues, the more impressive the resume has to be to get the same job. In evolution, we call this a Red Queen race. The name comes from the Red Queen Hypothesis, originally proposed by Leigh Van Valen to explain the apparently constant probability of a species going extinct in a given time period. Briefly, the hypothesis says that a species’ environment is constantly deteriorating because of the evolutionary improvement of the species’ competitors. When your competitor adapts, you need to get an even better adaptation or risk going extinct, producing a never-ending evolutionary arms race — the Red Queen race. The analogy comes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, in which the Red Queen from a chess set has to run faster and faster just to stay where she is.
Red Queen races are great for stimulating rapid evolution, and as such they can be good for a species in the long run. In the short term, though, the race is wasteful: the definition of competition is that both competitors lose, but one loses more than the other. Indeed, some Red Queen races don’t improve a species’ lot at all, and just elaborate pointless vanity characteristics. Consider the case of the peacock’s feathers, which are very useful for competing for mates against other peacocks but probably actually increase the likelihood of getting caught and eaten by predators. That’s a pretty good descriptor of resume competition, methinks, and one might argue that government intervention should be directed toward avoiding such useless frilleries. On the contrary, the President’s plan actually worsens the Red Queen race: now literally everybody will have a CC degree, which will make them completely useless for getting a good job.
The Red Queen race makes us addicts to higher education: we can’t jump off the merry-go-round without killing our competitiveness. Why would government support such a thing? I’m sure it has nothing to do with education being a big business, and subsidizing it lets the bigwig politicos sink their fangs into it and vampirize it to further enrich themselves. I’m also sure such a motive has nothing to do with government’s obsession with health insurance or real estate or oil — all markets that have been manipulated just enough by government to encourage addiction, and to allow the politically connected to take profits.
The President’s CC plan is thus useless for improving the workforce and reducing debt. In fact, it will probably do the opposite by reducing the number of years of work a person can do in their lifetime, and by forcing more people to get 4-year degrees to remain competitive. Worse, the President says he’s going to tax 529 college savings plans to pay for the program. I’m sure the good childless leftists think only the super-rich use 529’s, but that’s stupid — rich people pay for education out of pocket, but marginal middle-class families need investments to pay for the Red Queen-inflated tuition their kids need to get jobs. As usual, the upper-crust left pinches the middle class to enrich themselves, using poor people as an excuse.
The President’s plan really is a wonderful bit of left-wing politicking, though. It sounds really great and inspiring — let’s uplift the poor with the light of education! But at the same time it increases the share of the population that’s in debt, out of work, alone, and miserable, thus inflating the voter roles with Democrats. Gold, man!
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