In the August 2012 edition of Harper’s, Thomas Frank wrote “Easy Chair”, an article on the wave of professionals lying about their education background or buying fake degrees in order to get better jobs. He briefly touches on societal class in this article, but his idea struck me hard — that education isn’t about learning or proving a skill set, it’s just a way to sift people into class.
So what about that? What is the purpose of an education? Is it to get more skills so you can make more money, or to increase your general knowledge to become more analytical of the world? The ideal answer is a blend of the two ideas, but one thing is true, if you have a college diploma on average, you’ll make double what you’d earn if you just graduated high school. Everyone knows people that break that mold. I know people with a high school degree that makes twice as much as I do with a Master’s, but those people are the exception, thus why we can easily think of them, but it does mean something. What about skills? Many people teach themselves how to program computer, take free online classes, or just plain work hard until they’re good at what they do, but because they don’t have the magic piece of paper, their skills don’t mean much. Perhaps, the college degree doesn’t really mean much, except as an easy ticket into the middle class club. There is no harm in thinking like this, because truly, a college education should provide a person with the skills to perform on a higher level than someone without that education. This too isn’t always true, but those who have to prove themselves, take quite a bit more time to climb the “ladder of success”, when if they just would have jumped through all the flaming college hoops and groveled to the right department heads like the rest of us, then they could have had higher income earlier in life. If they acquired these skills over time without the education, it still doesn’t count for much because you need a way to prove to your potential employer that you have them, thus the magic diploma. So it’s always an uphill battle, even if you’re excellent at what you do. But who cares, right? That’s the way it is and has been. It’s pretty transparent.
The real problem is the cost of higher education. Everyone knows it keeps going up, even community colleges, so the people who can afford it are the upper middle class, the middle class with scholarships and loans, and the lower class with a prayer and hopefully enough loans so they aren’t strapped until the day they die. Why put in so much money into something when you could be making money now? That’s the big question for every high school graduate. If you wait, jump the hoops of college, you could end up with a higher starting salary and a total earning potential, but if you’re poor, even if you’d like a college diploma, you still need money to live right now, so how can you stave off four years of your life at no pay, wait, negative income because it goes to the university? It’s simple economics, the higher you increase the cost, the less number of people will buy the product. So if the cost of high ed keeps going up, who are the first to jump ship? The people who make the least amount of money because it has a greater impact on their whole well being. This then continues and increases the poverty class.
In Montana, we’re not immune to this cycle, I think we’re actually more prone to it because on average, our incomes are much lower than the national average, so when you have even the slightest increase in higher education cost, it has an exponential effect on those with very little money. So if we still want to be a state of equality, meaning if you want to make better for yourself, we need to create pathways for people to get there, not put up walls to block people out of the middle class. We need to lower the cost of higher education and raise the pay of those in the lowest bracket. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say free, because I do believe that if you’re paying, you’re more likely to take it seriously, but we as a state and a nation have crossed a threshold where the cost outweighs the benefit. Why would you go to school for four year at the price tag of $64,000 (at MSU’s current costs), when you can go become an electrical apprentice in state for free, plus you get paid about $25 per hour while you’re in the program? The choice for those with very little money, but would like a higher education has drastically shifted here in Montana, more doors are now closed for more people, limiting what they can choose to be in our society. The long term potential stratifies the classes even more that it is today, which will effect every one of us.