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Why did 17 million students go to college?

I’m increasingly uneasy with educational reform discussions. The cures being offered are far worse than the disease. Many of those who are most passionately advocating for reform may well be the one’s that lose the most in the process. UK’s massive funding cuts to higher ed suggest “that public funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences may come to an end.” Like it or not, humanity likes to systematize. If the current university structure is discarded, some type of structure will emerge…and currently it looks like it will be a system dominated by supply/demand and market forces. Even now, what is not economically valuable in education takes a back seat in funding and attention. The Chronicle has been infected with this attitude, as seen in this article Why did 17 million students go to college?: “Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.”
What about the skills of general knowledge, critical thinking, developed in the process? Because these individuals are currently working in jobs with skills “below their degrees” doesn’t mean that they have not become better members of a democratic society. Would society be better off if those 17 million (in the US) had not received a degree? Obviously with a degree as a base, each of those 17 million have better future education and employment options than others without a degree. However, education reform now being suggested will dismantle the best of the education system and preserve the worst.


  1. Richard Hall wrote:

    The key issue for me is the shackling of HE to business imperatives. Whilst we [socially and reflected within HE] are beholden to, and do not challenge, a taylorised view of HE as the dominant idea of what education is for, we will only be in a place to demonstrate frustration. What is education for is a big, and often uncritiqued, question.

    Those 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees have the collective capability to imagine and deliver something better. But whilst the dominant neoliberal view of political economy holds sway there is no space to deliver anything else.

    The public spaces within the UK are being coercively remodelled in the name of the market. I would argue that this is Klein’s disaster capitalism being unleashed on a massive scale. How we resist is at issue. There are [non-perfect] models for something else – in Latin America, in Open/Community Education, in social centres etc.. How this is aggregated up to something else, whilst there is no opposition to the hegemonic position I don’t know. There is an argument that in France we are witnessing a position that may evolve into something similar to ’68.

    How we engage with this current position in HE is not divorced from wider political economy and its symptoms in climate change, peak oil, energy and resource availability, and our deeper socio-cultural resilience. How we use social media to build a coalition for something else is a big question, and that follows on from “what is that something else for?”

    I enjoyed this post – the interplay between the critique and the evolving practice are vital.

    Be good.

    Saturday, October 23, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink
  2. David Wees wrote:

    I’m not sure that the primary purpose of college is to make our citizens job ready. In fact if you talk to many college graduates you will probably find that most of them didn’t find the courses they took relevant to their job experiences outside of college, possibly with the exception of students who go to vocational institutions.

    The purpose of college is to develop the ability to think and to analyze what you do. Another purpose is to develop a population which values education as a process rather than the end goal.

    Those 17 million people probably found some value in the experience of college even if none of the skills they learned are remotely applicable to themselves. They are likely to share those skills with their children which will give them greater opportunity to participate in the knowledge economy.

    Saturday, October 23, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  3. Jon K. wrote:

    17 million out of how many graduates is the real question. I suspect that 17 million out of 200 million graduates really isn’t that disproportionate – especially when there’s close to 10% unemployment.

    Many of us have worked at jobs beneath our education level for a number of reasons, maybe a portion of those 17 million are doing the same?

    The subtext of the article is really out there on a Fox News level – denigrating the folks who do “menial” jobs, essentially putting down the working and lower middle class.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  4. gsiemens wrote:

    @Richard, Jon, David – I think you’re getting to a similar concept, i.e. that education is not only about employment, and that even when it is, all work can be valuable or self-fulfilling (even when it’s “below our education”). The service sector – as Jon alludes – is an important part of the economy and shouldn’t be reduced to menial or unwanted status.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink
  5. Joss Winn wrote:

    Fundamentally equating (higher) education with economic imperatives is now the norm among UK government politicians and policy makers and even the Russell Group of elite universities in the UK now see this as an opportunity for them.

    I see it as a further sign of ‘economic totalitarianism’, where everything is subsumed to the imperative of work and economic growth/capital accumulation. There will be no way out of this until it falls apart and it will intensify further still before it is outright rejected.

    Like Richard suggests, we should start creating radical alternatives here and now. The anti-capitalist movement has been doing this for some time, with some small successes. It involves sacrifice and courage but I see no other choice.

    I like this essay as an introductory critique of work, labour and hence, economic totalitarianism:

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 2:53 am | Permalink
  6. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Joss, “I see it as a further sign of ‘economic totalitarianism’, where everything is subsumed to the imperative of work and economic growth/capital accumulation. There will be no way out of this until it falls apart and it will intensify further still before it is outright rejected.”

    I view certain fields/domains as dominant in that anything they encounter, they seek to dominate and remake to reflect their standards and values. Economics is one of those areas. Technology is another. There is no such thing as balance in these domains (though occasionally there is an illusion where we think we’re in control or are keeping a balance). Dominant fields want more – more tech, more $$, more dominance. A little leads to more.

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  7. Joss Winn wrote:

    Yes, I agree, although I would add that these domains (economics, technology) are sub-domains of capital(ism) and it is the imperatives of capital (‘value in motion’) that truly dominates us to the extent that it subsumes everything and puts each of us to work so as to create more value.

    All our networks are the networks of capital. The emancipatory moments of the Internet are to be found in its porosity.

    My thinking is greatly influenced by Postone:

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  8. gsiemens wrote:

    Joss, I’m not familiar with Postone, but I’ll have a look at the resources you provide – thx.
    I’m not comfortable placing technology as a sub-domain of capital (though it depends on how you define technology). Pre-capitalists developed tools and technologies – not nec. to generate revenue, but rather to accomplish or achieve tasks (such as farming or hunting). It’s quite obvious that today’s technology, science, and research activities are tied to capital. However, I’m not convinced capital is the dominant agent in the relationship. It is a mediator or an enabler, but in itself, the very system that permits global capital flow is driven by technology.

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink
  9. Joss Winn wrote:

    Hi George,

    So you propose that technology permits ‘value in motion’ and I propose that technology serves ‘value in motion’.

    We are both right, of course :-) The relationship is dynamic to say the least.

    As you note, pre-capitalist technologies were developed primarily for their use value. They were sometimes exchanged/sold and also assisted the exchange of goods, too (i.e. transport), but exchange wasn’t the motivating reason for the development of technology until the advent of capitalism.

    In capitalist societies, technologies are still occasionally developed for their use value (individuals are curious to solve practical problems) but at any kind of scale technology is quickly harnessed for its ability to create surplus value/profit by expanding upon the value of labour.

    Capital makes money out of the exchange (sale) of technology’s use-value. The use value of technology is a commodity of capital. Capital’s primary use for technology, besides selling it on, is its so-called ‘efficiency factor’ in that it can expand on the value created by living labour to the point of replacing it sometimes, but never entirely.

    Marx used the formulation M-C-M’ to solve the chicken and egg circuit that you and I are in.

    In capitalism, Money (M) is used to create Commodities (C) in order to create more Money (M’). This is the most fundamental formulation of capital’s networks, within which everything is subsumed and from which I have not yet found any escape.

    Any pointers? ;-)

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  10. Ben Butina wrote:

    There are two questions here:
    1. What is college for?
    2. Why do people go to college?

    Different questions with different answers, and if you want to get a good idea of just how confused everyone is about it, take a look at any random college brochure.

    Colleges still talk a good game about learning to think, becoming a more well-rounded person, and being exposed to diverse viewpoints. At the same time, there’s an awful lot of talk about “real world” and “opportunities” and “leaders of tomorrow,” etc. which is obviously about getting a good job.

    I suspect that most young people choose to attend college because: (a) they crave the independence and social experience, (b) they want to get a good job, (c) it’s just what middle class people do, (d) they want to expand their minds, (e)…

    Could go on and on, of course, but you get the idea. Our ideas of “what college is for” aren’t nearly as important as whether or not individuals are satisfied with the “return” they got on their very significant investment of time and money.

    The traditional and high-minded motivations for attending higher education might just be met elsewhere in a better way, and without the need to go into massive amounts of debt.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 5:05 am | Permalink