I was, of course, intrigued by read the headline of an article on CNNMoney.com that read “Community college grads out-earn bachelor’s degree holders.” Written by Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Institute, the article reports research done by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce which shows that nearly 30% of Americans with associate’s degrees now make more money than those who have earned a bachelor’s. These community college graduates hold jobs demanding what Marcus calls “middle-skills,” requiring “no more than an associate’s degree, such as lab technicians, teachers in early childhood programs, computer engineers, draftsmen, radiation therapists, paralegals, and machinists.” Marcus also cites some compelling data reported in January by CareerBuilder.com:
With a two-year community college degree, air traffic controllers can make $113,547, radiation therapists $76,627, dental hygienists $70,408, nuclear medicine technologists $69,638, nuclear technicians $68,037, registered nurses $65,853, and fashion designers $63,170, CareerBuilder.com reported in January.
Decent, and even better than decent salaries, it’s true, especially if the people earning them consistently out-earn those who have earned four-year degrees. By the end of the article, however, Marcus contradicts the article’s headline (which I recognize he might not have written):
Still, the salary advantage for associate’s degree holders narrows over time, as bachelor’s degree recipients eventually catch up, says Schneider.
Although these figures vary widely by profession, associate’s degree recipients, on average, end up making about $500,000 more over their careers than people with only high school diplomas, but $500,000 less than people with bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown center calculates.
An associate’s degree might give you a head start, in other words, but if you don’t continue your education, you will eventually fall behind. One reason for this, I would suggest, is that the more fully-rounded liberal arts education that a bachelor’s degree represents better prepares you for the challenges of engaging, thoughtfully and responsibly, the world of work at ever higher levels of responsibility and accountability, which correspond, of course, to higher levels of compensation. It’s true that on-the-job experience is also necessary to learn how to meet those challenges, but that experience is not guaranteed to teach you the critical thinking skill you will learn in a college classroom and that are essential in building a successful career of any kind.
I teach at a community college that is regularly touted, and not just by itself, as one of the best in the nation. We have a nationally recognized honors program, have been cited by our accrediting agency and other important groups for our model of and commitment to faculty governance, the excellence of our program offerings, the quality of our teaching, and our approach to assessment. I have been saying for a very long time that, all else being equal, I would be very happy to send my son to the school where I teach, where he could get the first two years of his college education not only for significantly less than $10,000/year, but also from faculty who are committed to both teaching and scholarship. Nonetheless, I have long been accustomed to the disdain in which many people–inside and outside academia–continue to hold the kind of institution where I teach, along with teacher who work there and the students we teach. So I really do appreciate the point I assume Marcus’ article was intended to make, i.e., that we should not write off community college education as second-rate; and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the potential earning power of an associate’s degree as part of an argument for why.
What I don’t appreciate, what I think is actually dangerous, is the way that this part of the argument often becomes the argument in its entirety, essentially equating higher education with job training. You see this, for example, in the proposed higher education budget in New York State, where the Next Generation NY Job Linkage Program (read Section D) ties funding for certain community college programs to whether or not they can be justified by the rate at which students who finish those programs find jobs. You see it as well in the pronouncements by politicians of both parties who make statements like the one North Carolina’s governor Pat McCrory made, referring to certain humanities and social science courses, like gender studies, “What are we teaching these courses for if they are not going to help get a job?” The problem with this question is not that it is unfair to ask about the practical value of a college education. Any degree or certificate program offered at any college or university, needs to be justified at least in part on those grounds. The problem is that when this question governs how we assess the value of a college education, we lose sight of the fact that the purpose of a college education in a democratic society is not to train people for work. Rather, the purpose of a college education in a democratic society is to nurture an engaged and active citizenry. (I will grant you that there was a time when a high school education served this purpose as well, but in the United States today, that is not the case anymore.) If we allow the market, which is inherently undemocratic, to dictate what an education ought to be, then we will have undermined what has been the most powerful democratizing force in this country for the past 150 year at least: a four-year liberal arts education.
One of the biggest mistakes that politicians and business leaders make is to treat higher education as if it were a business, as if the degrees students receive when they graduate, or even the newly graduated students themselves, are products that can be tallied, the worth of which can be measured, in the same way that the worth of any other manufactured product can be measured. This way of thinking is inherent in the high-stakes, standardized testing of No Child Left Behind, and you see it in accountability funding schemes that attempt to measure the bottom line of a college’s efficiency and productivity based on the number of degrees it confers per year or, as an administrator tried to do at my school, that determine an academic department’s viability based on the post-graduation employment records of students who took courses in that department. (Forget whether the premise has any validity at all; just imagine what a nightmare it would be to try to collect that kind of data.) The problem with this way of thinking is not that the number of degrees conferred or the practicality/relevance of a field of study doesn’t matter doesn’t matter–of course they do. The problem with this way of thinking is that it fails to take into account the full complexity both of what it means to be someone who claims an education and what it means to do the work of making that education available to be claimed.
Stuart Rabinowitz makes this point quite well in a Newsday editorial, where he wrote:
Approaching an undergraduate education based on the availability of jobs in a particular area may appear to be a low-risk/high-reward endeavor, but these trends can change with astonishing rapidity. Think of how quickly job prospects in law and finance changed from 2008 to 2009. The jobs that are seen as hot today may cool off by the time a student is ready to graduate; jobs that may be abundant in one region may be hard to come by in another. The virtue of a liberal arts education is that it provides the graduate with enduring communication and critical thinking skills that are less susceptible to the consequences of job erosion in an area where a student has devoted years of pre-professional training.
The pressures that our economy has brought to bear on higher education are real, and they demand a response, but treating higher education as if it somehow were the problem, gets things ass-backwards is a serious and potentially destructive way. With the exception of the continuing rise in the cost of a college education, private and public–an increase, I would point out, that has little or nothing to do with a school’s academics–and the crushing amount of debt that too many graduates end up shouldering, neither college administrations nor college faculty (both of whom, after all, are ultimately responsible for an institution’s academic offerings) created the socioeconomic problems that have resulted in the jobless rate we now face or the poor employment prospects college graduates will have to confront. Promising students the quick-fix of an education tied more or less directly to a job might look good on paper, but it will not do anything to address the underlying issues.
Cross-posed on my blog.