One of the more memorable lines from last week’s debate was Marco Rubio’s discussion of higher education.
Here’s the best way to raise wages. Make America the best place in the world to start a business or expand an existing business, tax reform and regulatory reform, bring our debt under control, fully utilize our energy resources so we can reinvigorate manufacturing, repeal and replace Obamacare, and make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.
If we do that — and if we do this — if we do this, we will be able to increase wages for millions of Americans and we will be able to leave everyone better off without making anyone worse off.
The “welders versus philosophers” thing is just a specific version of an argument about the value of a “liberal arts” degree. I’m a liberal arts graduate myself (history), and so is Senator Rubio (political science). But Rubio is right about the liberal arts in general. Right now, the structures of the system are skewed in their favor, and that skew does a disservice to people: “lower prestige” jobs like welding are stigmatized culturally, and billions of dollars in higher education financing subsidizes degrees that are not necessarily resulting in the development of employable skills.
Rubio’s position is best examined in the context of another answer he gave, this one in response to a question on automation costing people jobs.
… what we are going through in this country is not simply an economic downturn. We are living through a massive economic transformation. I mean, this economy is nothing like what it was like five years ago, not to mention 15 or 20 years ago.
And it isn’t just a different economy. It’s changing faster than ever. You know, it took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users. It took Candy Crush one year to reach some 100 million users.
So the world is changing faster than ever, and it is disruptive. Number one, we are in a global competition now, and several of the candidates have said that. There are now dozens of developed economies on this planet that we have to compete with. And we lose that competition because we have the highest business tax rate in the industrialized world, because we have regulations that continue to grow by the billions every single week, because we have a crazy health care law that discourages companies from hiring people, but because we’re not fully utilizing our energy resources, that if we did, it would bring back all kinds of growth, especially in manufacturing, and because we have an outdated higher education system.
Our higher education system is completely outdated. It is too expensive, too hard to access, and it doesn’t teach 21st century skills. If we do what needs to be done — tax reform, regulatory reform, fully utilize our energy resources, repeal and replace Obamacare, and modernize higher education, then we can grasp the potential and the promise of this new economy. And we won’t just save the American dream. We will expand it to reach more people and change more lives than ever before. And then truly this new century can be a new American century.
If there is a broad theme of Rubio’s domestic policy proposals so far, it is that the United States has outdated institutions that are choking its ability to thrive in the 21st century. (Historian Walter Russell Mead might call this the “blue social model.”) Rubio is arguing that conservative principles, applied to the problems of today, can benefit America. Much of this, then, is about confronting existing institutions that are no longer working. Higher education is one of the bulwarks of the old model, and Rubio seeks to challenge it. He laid out the basics of his plan in an editorial in the Des Moines Register in September, proposing the following:
- Make it easier for new institutions to become accredited.
- Increase the availability of information surrounding expected earnings.
- Expand financial aid programs to support part-time education.
- Expand income-based repayment.
- Increase vocational education.
Rubio’s proposals suggest that his aim is to expand access, along with expanding our conception of what higher education actually is. Right now, when we think higher education, we think about four-year degrees, with other models like part-time education being seen as “lesser.” Instead of expanding that system, Rubio is suggesting that we allow other models to challenge that status quo.
That is essentially the crux of the “welders over philosophers” argument: the 20th-century university system of four-year degrees from non-profit institutions is not for everyone. Moreover, we are spending a great deal of taxpayer money under the assumption that four-year schools are benefiting everyone. Megan McArdle presented the best case on the “signaling” problem over at Bloomberg:
Administrators defending the value of degrees in “business” or liberal arts rely on nebulous claims that they are teaching students “how to think.” However, they provide little objective evidence that these programs impart thinking skills worth tens of thousands of dollars.
There’s at least some evidence that a lot of the benefit of a college degree comes not from what you learn in college, but from signaling to employers that you are the kind of conscientious, hardworking student who can get into college and stick with it long enough to get a degree. In other words, much of what we do in school is not learn anything in particular, but obtain a credential that certifies us as good potential employees.
As an individual, it’s still perfectly rational to borrow money to invest in that credential, considering the sizeable income bonuses it confers. But public policy has to look at the system, not just what might benefit a particular individual. And at a system level, helping people borrow money to obtain a credential is crazy. A credential doesn’t increase anyone’s productivity; it just determines the distribution of better-paying jobs. [emphasis added] The net economic benefit is zero.
Now, ideally a degree is not just a credential, so the productivity benefits of a diploma are probably greater than zero. But if we could see that much of the economic benefit of college is the credential, rather than the education, would we still pour vast sums of money into higher education?
McArdle argues here that for many people, the benefit of the liberal arts degree is much more in the signal to future employers than in the stuff that people learn in college. Is this really inconceivable to us? How many college students do the bare minimum, engaging only with their readings to the extent required to get a (cheapened, inflated) high grade? How many students save the paper until the last week of the semester, doing a couple of all-nighters to prepare something that gets a B+ from a harried grader? Are those students really getting the benefit of interacting with Plato’s Republic or Voltaire’s Candide? Or are we just pretending that they are?
And yet even with this reality, the system as currently constructed places higher education at the top of the social pyramid. Four-year higher education is the default expectation, the requirement for acceptance in high society. (Just look at the criticism that someone like Scott Walker faced for not finishing his four-year degree.) This would not be a terrible outcome if it were without costs; exposure to philosophy or history isn’t going to hurt someone’s intellectual development. But the costs fall on taxpayers, families, and unsuspecting students. Taxpayers are left on the hook for student loans that are not repaid, and for grants to students. The additional money flowing into schools has actually driven up prices, so much so that middle-income families cannot possibly save enough for the sticker price of college tuition for multiple children. And the students themselves are potential victims, encouraged by their betters to borrow vast amounts of money and go into great debt with no strings attached. No one forces them–or even encourages them–to enter degree programs with higher earnings potential or more immediate practical benefit. All degrees are created equal in this model for all students. Students, moreover, are discouraged from thinking about the practicalities; they are exhorted, for years, to follow their passion. Go to the school that feels like the best fit. Your college years, after all, are the best years of your life.
At the end of it, the best liberal arts majors get good grades and become better critical thinkers, but are not very employable, even with the credential. The lesser students get the credential and the credential alone. In the worst cases, students are overwhelmed by the distractions and end up with no degree, no prospects and a lot of debt.
This is backwards. The vocational path is the lower-risk path, surely, based on demand for services. At some level, we will always need plumbers and electricians. The demand for liberal arts majors is less certain, and much more dependent on the major’s ability to apply their critical thinking and writing skills to something practical. Instead of exhorting all of our high school students to go to four-year school, we should instead be honest about the risks. “You’ll have a great time in college, but you might get overwhelmed by distractions. You’ll likely have to take out a lot of debt, and you may not have great job prospects at the end of it all, particularly if you choose to major in the humanities or social sciences. If you want to study anthropology, strongly consider minoring in something like math.”
Rubio’s plan is, in essence, a response to this reality. Instead of the one-size-fits-all current model, why not allow competing institutions to challenge the status quo? Why not facilitate vocational training, so that young people can enter the workforce soon after high school without crippling levels of debt? Why not make it easier for working people to go back to school at night or on weekends? And why not rely on competition, rather than coercion, to force universities and colleges to innovate?
Sure, the best students–the ones that really want to engage with text and debate–can go to college and go for a liberal arts degree. Some will become professors, others will become lawyers, others will enter business, others will work for government or non-profits. But maybe that’s not the best plan for everyone. Maybe some of those people would be better off developing more hands-on skills, rather than thinking that the four-year degree is their ticket to a comfortable middle-class life.
In the long run, a better model would dispense with the four-year school model entirely and work towards degrees as demonstrations of competence and skill, rather than as signals of time served. But in the meantime, we should expand our options and be open to alternatives, rather than continuing to throw billions of dollars at the status quo. Rubio is right: we need more welders and fewer philosophers, or, at the very least, we need to encourage more people to learn a trade than to make everyone think that they need to go to a four-year school to be successful.
Image by Atli Harðarson