(The bill is, for the time being, dead on arrival.) In a brilliant piece at the New Inquiry, Aaron Bady posited that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of education reform even if we are not sure what the end will look like. The MOOC hype seems to be pivoting, if not retreating; Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun recently conceded that MOOCs might not be a good fit for diverse-i.e., not wealthy, well-prepared — students.
But all of the above is the what of 2013, but not the why. Why do we all care so much? (With 33 percent of Americans possessing a college degree, higher ed is still a relatively narrow world.)There is the practical debate about the cost, risk, and rewards of colleges and universities. But there is also the higher-ed debate as a symbolic conversation. The symbolic conversation is about what we believe College-with-a-capital-C represents. It has represented economic and social mobility, two things that we increasingly feel are slipping away. We can feel the persistent, growing income inequality in our daily lives. Workers lucky enough to be employed are working longer hours and earning fewer real dollars, adjusted for inflation. Education is supposed to fix that kind of inequality.
Eduardo Porter at the Times echoes a common response to this kind of stagnation: Americans need more education. Porter rightly points out that college graduates earn more than nongrads. But analysts at the Economic Policy Institute detail a decade of stagnate worker wages in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, even among those with college degrees. Education cannot fix a limping economy or produce jobs out of thin air. The Brookings Institution, like others, continues to assert that we have a skills gap in this country and only more education can prepare workers for the fastest growing jobs and industries. But there’s a lot that education cannot fix. It cannot change the fact that fast-growing industries don’t necessarily produce enough well-paying jobs for everyone who needs one — and that’s before we start worrying about the robots that are coming for our jobs. We can sense that more college cannot fix the skills gap, which is really a gap between what employers are willing to pay for skills and the amount of student loan debt we take on to acquire those skills. Sure, we could all go to college, or as Matt Yglesias points out, capitalists could also just hire a less-skilled worker and “teach him how to do the damn job.” With little evidence that our great capitalists overlords are willing to do this anytime soon, we all get kvetchy about college.