In his column a few days ago, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman questioned the idea of college education as a tool to restore America’s dwindling middle class. He voiced his concern in response to Obama’s recent declaration that “if we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.”
According to Krugman, based on an article about the use of technology at work in the New York Times, the jobs that used to belong to the so-called ‘middle class’ are quickly dwindling as computers become increasingly able to perform repetitive tasks at much more efficient rates, at only a fraction of the cost of human labor.
If this is true, then the polarization of class in America will only become more prominent. As jobs that classify one as being of the middle class become more scarce, people are pushed either into the upper class or, as would happen to most, the working class. The growing inequality, as Obama and many others have claimed, can only be solved by placing more emphasis on education, especially college education, so graduates can go beyond doing menial jobs, which the uneducated have no choice but to do due to their lack of specialized skills.
Nonetheless, if the middle class is indeed disappearing due to technology, the idea of touting college education as a solution to inequality gets thrown into question. What can college graduates do if they are being prepared for jobs that do not exist? While it is true that college education will allow some to break into the upper class, it is necessarily true that for most others it will not. Many people, despite a college degree, will struggle even to get a middle-class job. As technology continues creeping in without respite, the problem will only worsen. What, then, is the point of the government spending money on making college education available for more people if the goal of creating skilled labor to expand the middle class is not going to be met?
The problem might not be so much about the concept of a ‘college education’ – a highly-desired label without substantial actual meaning – as the fact that a college degree has become too easy to obtain. College graduates have become too numerous, and graduating from college has turned from an achievement that only some would even dream to pursue into a rite of passage that everyone is supposed to go through. As a result, the supply of college graduates has skyrocketed while the demand for jobs requiring a college education has grown at a much slower rate, and even decreased altogether.
Now, there is still a significant difference between what a college graduate is expected to make compared to another person with only a high school degree. Yet, when one sees the big picture, it seems to be a waste for government dollars to be spent on letting more go to college if only a fraction will actually make use of their degrees.
The solution, then, is not to focus so much on expanding the availability of higher education. This is not to say that funding for universities should be cut; instead, there should be greater focus on educating a fewer number of people, people who are qualified enough to emerge victorious in the increasingly competitive specialized job market. The focus on higher education should be on the quality, not the quantity of people to be educated.
As Paul Krugman wrote, college education is not the answer to inequality. The answer is to protect the working class by restoring their collective bargaining power, preserving their well-being through government intervention in fields such as health care and ensuring they are receiving enough pay to feed their beloved families. And if any government officials attempt to stray from this and instead thwart the working class, it might be reasonable to conclude that they do not have the interests of the people in mind. Scott Walker, are you listening?
Albert Budhipramono ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in biology.