“Train up a child in the way he should go,” says the Proverb, “And when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6). In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer M. Silva recounts the story of Brandon, “a 34-year-old black man from Richmond, Va., [who] labels himself ‘a cautionary tale.’ Growing up in the shadow of a university where both his parents worked in maintenance,” she writes, “he was told from an early age that education was the path to the ‘land of milk and honey.’” His parents trained him in the way he should go (or so they thought), and he did not depart from it, but the way itself failed to bring him “to the ‘land of milk and honey.’”
Silva goes on to recount how, unable to find a job in his field with a bachelor’s in criminal justice, “Brandon took a job at a women's-clothing chain, hoping it would be temporary. Eleven years later, he's still there, unloading, steaming, pressing, and pricing garments on the night shift.”
His story, unfortunately, does not end there: “When his loans came out of deferment, he couldn't afford the monthly payments and decided to get a master's degree in psychology—partly to increase his chances of getting a good job, and partly, he admitted, to put his loans back in deferment.” Brandon’s own words reveal his frustration and disappointment:
I feel like I was sold fake goods. I did everything I was told to do, and I stayed out of trouble and went to college. Where is the land of milk and honey? I feel like they lied. I thought I would have choices. That sheet of paper cost so much and does me no good. Sure, schools can't guarantee success, but come on—they could do better to help kids out.
Brandon’s story unfortunately is not unique. In May, Reuters reported, “More than 40 percent of recent U.S. college graduates are underemployed or need more training to get on a career track.” No doubt part of the problem can be poor choice of major, but the problem must be more complex: criminal justice and psychology are certainly not Mickey Mouse degrees.
Nor does Brandon, at least, seem beholden to an entitlement mentality—he clearly does not consider it “beneath him” to work at a women’s clothing chain. Indeed, under-employment requires people to have accepted less-than-ideal jobs. Yet in the face of such a trend, many still promote educational attainment as the path to a better life when social capital may be far more important for both upward income mobility and increased quality of life.
Educational Attainment -- A Bounced Check
As it turns out, the rhetoric Brandon heard about the “land of milk and honey” coincides with a push in the past few decades for educational attainment regardless of quality or utility, which has not slowed despite high rates of underemployment. For example, a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute highlights the connection between education levels and median wages, but fails to factor in other important variables.
While the importance of “high quality education” is often mentioned, the term is typically equated with degree attainment regardless of the substance of the education it may represent. Further, though the report does demonstrate a positive correlation between increased median wages and higher increase in shares of state population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, it fails to mention that the top six states in educational attainment (MA, CT, MD, NJ, VA, and CO) also happen to have some of the highest unemployment levels, welfare spending by state per capita, and cost of living. Three of these states (MA, CT, and CO) also have higher state minimum wages than the federally mandated level, likely increasing the median overall.
The study links increased percentage of residents with college degrees to increased productivity from 1979 to 2010, as well as increased productivity with increased compensation. Yet the study does not address whether any increased compensation for college graduates is enough for them not to be considered overqualified or underemployed. Lastly, despite the evidence presented, the correlation between education spending and such high levels of educational attainment is weak, calling into question the report’s key policy recommendation as a result of its findings.
I’m sure that working for eleven years on the night shift at the same women’s clothing chain has earned Brandon a significant number of raises, increasing his wages as he increased his education. But that makes him no less overqualified for his job, nor does it remove his looming loan payments. It is not enough to note a correlation between education level and income without inquiring into the state of recent graduates and trends in educational quality.
Regarding the latter, a steady increase in grade inflation since the 1960s betrays a watering down of educational quality in the U.S., while the Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that Millennials were “on track to become the most educated generation in American history.” But what does “most educated” produce when the quality has decreased, supply has increased, and from 1980 to 2010 cost has more than doubled for all institutions, adjusted for inflation? The answer is more debt (over $1 trillion) and less opportunity.
The very next Proverb after the one quoted above comes to mind: “the borrower is servant to the lender” (22:7). Brandon, at least, would be much better off financially had he gotten a job right out of high school or gone to a trade school and never set foot in a university. Instead, he and others live as modern-day indentured servants. A significant portion of his labor goes to pay educational institutions that continue to write bad checks for a better life.
A Moral Problem with a Social Solution
Education is ultimately a moral duty. Just as “a man should hand down to his children not only the goods he has acquired, but also the capacity to work for the further maintenance of their lives,” so too, wrote the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, “the present generation should leave a twofold legacy to the next—in the first place, all the positive acquisitions of the past, all the savings of history; and, secondly, the capacity and the readiness to use this capital for the common good.” He continues, “This is the essential purpose of true education.”
Stories like Brandon’s are symptoms of our society’s moral failing regarding education’s “essential purpose,” which unites both quality and utility. But what is the solution, not only for the future but for the present?
As higher education continues to be over-promoted, its price inflated, and its quality watered down, the question of utility now becomes far more pressing. The words of John Henry Newman no longer ring true that the university, through a well-rounded, liberal education, gives “a gift which serves [its possessor] in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.” The vast majority of colleges and universities no longer offer such an education or have somehow managed to make the endeavor and cost of obtaining one a charmless disappointment.
While human labor is an ascetic good, being stuck in a job with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, no apparent hope of paying it off, and no other clear options for upward mobility is and ought to be demoralizing. Though we must find a way to change our educational system and reverse this trend, that alone will not change Brandon’s situation or that of other overqualified and underemployed workers like him. On an individual level, workers like Brandon must find a way to make something of the education, talent, and experience they have.
While I do not know the details of Brandon’s situation in particular, Silva offers an insight that should not be passed over:
The answer to the time-honored question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”— or, more aptly, “What can you be when you grow up?”—is in flux. And as working-class families have grown more fragile, and communities, churches, and neighborhoods less close, men and women find themselves on their own when it comes to piecing together an adult life amid the isolation, uncertainty, and insecurity of 21st-century American life.
Intact, two-parent families and a strong civil society—“communities, churches, and neighborhoods” inter alia—also positively correlate with upward income mobility (and, for that matter, educational attainment). As one recent study has noted, “high upward mobility areas tended to have higher fractions of religious individuals and fewer children raised by single parents.” Significantly, the same study found “little correlation between measures of access to local higher education and rates of upward mobility.” Moreover, such social capital is a much needed resource for those like Brandon who view themselves as “a cautionary tale” in the wake of a higher education system that is declining in both quality and utility.
Neither increased educational attainment nor increased state investment in higher education can be assigned credit for increased quality of life. The quality and utility of the former is dubious, and the latter does not even have a strong correlation in its favor. Vital faith, families, and communities, however, not only have a positive correlation to commend them but, arguably, act even more than a liberal education as “a gift … without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.”
If we want a truly better life for present and future generations, not only in terms of educational quality and economic opportunity but also integral social bonds, we ought to focus our efforts on supporting a society in which freedom of religion and association, as well as healthy, lasting marriages, are defended, promoted, and preserved.
Dylan Pahman is Assistant Editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality and Contributing Editor of Ethika Politika. He is also a research associate at the Acton Institute and a fellow at the Sophia Institute.