High education, low pay

Aug 12, 2014

Economics behind abandonment of public education

In elementary, middle and high school, students are told to study hard so they can get into college and be able to find a good job. While only a certain percentage move into higher education, the sacrifices involved in attaining a college degree have historically been worth it in terms of life-long earning power. A college degree has long been seen as the ticket to a “decent-paying” job.

This picture has changed in recent years. Instead of graduating and finding a good job, a common scenario has many recent college graduates working at Starbucks or other low-wage service jobs, if they are able to find work at all.

Nearly half of people in the United States are working in jobs for which they are overqualified. This trend is only likely to increase, according to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which conducted the research.

Workers in the United States are becoming more educated, but their earnings and opportunities for social mobility are declining.

The educational level of the U.S. workforce has skyrocketed in the last ten years. Those whose highest degree is an associate’s increased 31 percent, with bachelor’s there was a 25 percent jump, 45 percent for master’s and 43 percent for doctorates.

While college graduates tend to receive higher pay, Labor Department data suggests that the number of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree is only around 29 million. There are nearly 42 million people with such degrees. That means three out of every ten college graduates are working in jobs that do not require their degrees at all.

Two out of every three jobs in the country require only a high school degree. This is not going to change anytime soon. Labor Department projections expect that number will not change in the next 10 years as low-wage service sectors continue growing. With no promising economic path ahead of them, many working-class youth in college are asking themselves, “what’s the point?”

Sectors of the capitalist class are asking themselves the same question, but from a different perspective. From their perspective, there is little or no point in providing much of an education for a substantial sector of the working class.

In general, the goal of the capitalist is to pay workers on average only as much as they need to survive and keep coming back to work. Typically, more highly skilled or trained workers are paid at a higher rate because their education and skills required additional expenses and investments, and they are not as easy to replace.

But in an era of high technology, which requires high skills training for those managing and developing the technology, and relatively low skills for those doing the work, wages have stagnated and the educational objectives of the establishment have shifted.

The history of capitalism and higher education

Since the end of World War II, the numbers of people attending college has continued to grow. College, which had been previously only available to the most privileged youth, was opened up to millions of working-class veterans because of the GI Bill. In the 1960s and 1970s, movements fought to make college accessible to an even wider swath of working class and nationally oppressed students. As millions of women poured into the labor market, this too provided an impulse for the expansion of higher education.

Publicly-funded systems, through the government, were instrumental in opening up higher education. This was not because of charity or goodwill. The post-World War II period witnessed dynamic economic growth, particularly in science, technology and other white-collar job categories. In this era when the United States emerged as the dominant force in the global capitalist economy, industry leaders wanted a better educated workforce, and helped fund public institutions to make it happen.

Today things are different

Every capitalist politician knows to emphasize the importance of education during campaign season. Ruling-class business magazines moan that other societies have higher standards of educational achievement and are leaving the U.S. workforce behind.

But there is no significant sector of the ruling class calling for vast increases in educational spending. They know that they are managing an economy, which they constructed, with a growing service sector, and a glut of college graduates relative to the number of jobs requiring a college degree.

The reality is that in these times of budget cuts, educational opportunities for poor and working people are often the first to go. They preach about “higher standards” in schools not as a mechanism to improve the educational system, but as a way to point to its failure, and justify cutting it back.

This strategy has been coordinated by the federal government, as a top priority of both the Bush and Obama administrations. Federal programs like “No Child Left Behind” and now “Race to the Top” have emphasized standardized tests, the results of which are then used to label as “failing” both individual schools and even entire districts.

This is really an attack on the working class. Across the board, achievement on standardized tests is best predicted by family income. Schools that serve low-income students are most likely to be labeled “failing” and then, under the new policies, shut down or converted into a semi-private charter school. Charter schools, while paid for with public money, have a track record of failing to serve students with disabilities, and pushing out students using harsh disciplinary policies, leaving only the most compliant and easy-to-teach.

By weakening teachers’ unions and shifting curricular decision-making out of the public system, they have laid the groundwork for the biggest corporations and foundations to directly control the education system for decades to come.

A nationwide phenomenon

The capitalist establishment has systematically withdrawn support for both K-12, post-secondary education, and programs that serve working class students. Black and Latino communities have been the first on the chopping block.

Nationwide, states are spending $2,353 or 28 percent less per student on higher education than they did in 2008, when the recession hit. Eleven states have cut funding by more than one-third per student, and two states—Arizona and New Hampshire—have cut their higher education spending per student in half.

On the other side, average annual tuition at four-year public colleges has grown by $1,850, or 27 percent, since the 2007-08 school year after adjusting for inflation. In seven states—Arizona, California, Florida, Washington, Georgia, Hawaii, and Alabama—average tuition has increased by more than 50 percent. In Arizona and California, tuition has risen by more than 70 percent.

In the realm of K-12 schools, federal sequestration and austerity budgets have meant massive cuts to many important programs. Federal programs like Title 1 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have been slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars.

State and local tax bases have been eroded resulting in additional cuts, leading to teacher layoffs and huge class sizes—which dramatically impacts student learning, particularly in the lower grades.

Taken altogether, the budget cuts and drive towards privatization in K-12 education shows where the priorities of the ruling class lie, despite their propaganda.

Under capitalism, those who own and control the economy see the education system as a factory for producing suitably trained workers so they can make maximum profits at minimum costs.

Surplus labor—labor that they cannot profit from—is to be disposed of, typically through the prison system. This is the basis for what some call “the school to prison pipeline.”

Socialists have a different view of education. If you take away the profit motive, it becomes clear that there are many currently unmet needs in our society: we need more schools and teachers, more hospitals and nurses, more social programs and workers, more artistic and cultural investments, more development of green energy, more rebuilding of basic infrastructure.

In a socialist society, no worker would be seen as superfluous. A job would be a right and a living income guaranteed. The replacement of jobs by technology would be grounds for the government-paid retraining of the worker. Similarly, education would be a right, not only to make sure that we have suitably trained workers to fill all the needs of society, but also to allow each person to achieve his or her highest potential, to stimulate innovation and unleash the creativity among the tens of millions currently locked in a daily struggle just to survive.