In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
This just in: well-connected rich white kids who drop out of Princeton can still do well in life, and the New York Times is ON IT.
Well, that’s a relief.
It’s also hugely unrepresentative. Worse, the popularity of the story may well serve a corrosive political agenda.
This week’s version of “who needs college, anyway?” comes to us from the New York Times. The Times profiles several Ivy League dropouts in their twenties who have started high-tech companies, and uses their stories to cast doubt on whether college is really necessary or helpful.
In a vacuum, I have no issue with a claim that college isn’t for everyone. It isn’t. If the thought of structured education gives you hives, and you can’t wait to light out for the territories, then by all means, have at it. Part of what makes college different from high school is the fact that it’s voluntary. If you desperately want out, you can get out, and people do. And yes, some of those people wind up spectacularly successful. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg -- hyperintelligent, well-connected white guys who drop out of high-toned institutions and hire lots of people with computer science Ph.D.’s can occasionally hit the jackpot.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the typical college dropout faces dramatically worse life outcomes than does the typical college graduate. The typical college dropout isn’t dropping out of Harvard. For every Zuckerberg, there are thousands of students from more modest backgrounds, whose real-world economic options are relatively sparse and unforgiving. The reasonably well-paid blue collar aristocracy isn’t what it used to be, and outside of North Dakota’s drilling encampments, it generally isn’t hiring. (Or if it is, it’s hiring at a permanently lower wage than a previous generation was able to get.) And even moving beyond strictly monetary measurements, college graduates tend to vote more, to stay married at higher rates, to live longer, to own homes, and to be more likely overall provide the kind of lives for their children that social conservatives tend to embrace. This suggests a non-abstract public good that widespread higher education serves.
The “who needs college, anyway?” meme draws on several sources. One, obviously, is the Great Recession; it’s no coincidence that skepticism towards college has spiked just when job prospects for college grads have withered. (Of course, good job prospects for folks without degrees have suffered even more.) The emergence of online education and its variants -- MOOCs, most recently -- has made possible options that simply weren’t possible a few years ago. Student loan debt is a real issue, especially for dropouts, and the recession has done a real number on both cost (through aid cuts) and ability to pay back (through the job market). And the underlying march of Baumol’s cost disease is getting harder to ignore.
But taking the occasional “free agent” as somehow representative is as absurd as suggesting that LeBron James shows us that we need to encourage more kids to play basketball. The Times article quotes someone saying he knows people with six figure incomes from dog-walking businesses. I don’t. And I bet you don’t, either.
A few years ago, in a review of Anya Kamenetz’ DIY U, I issued a challenge that still stands:
Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."
Kamenetz, Peter Thiel, and the various other partisans of the Brave New World of empowered dropouts celebrate the “unbundling” of the services that colleges offer, but they neglect to mention that part of the “bundle” is economic opportunity. It’s a form of civic investment.
Public higher education -- and, indeed, indirect public support of private higher education through Pell grants and subsidized loans -- reflects an ethical position that holds that education should not be the exclusive province of the wealthy and powerful. That ethical position, in turn, rests on an epistemological humility, a recognition that we do not know where the next great minds are. Yes, some of them are born into privilege, but many aren’t. The son of the Brookline attorney is no more morally worthy than the daughter of a Chillicothe waitress. And sometimes, the next great breakthrough comes from someone from Chillicothe, or East St. Louis, or Buffalo.
For years, the great political battle involved bringing the institutions that serve Brookline into Chillicothe. Now, apparently, the great political battle will involve getting the Brookline kids not to abandon them.
Left to its own devices, the unbundling that technology enables can easily lend itself to greater class polarization. If you already have money and contacts and a solid education and access to all sorts of high-tech stuff, you may be able to top it off with some MOOCs and still come out fine. But if you’re a more typical American, you need much more than a disaggregated set of catch-as-catch-can DIY options can offer. You need legibility, and advisement, and contacts, and time. You need a college. And it would be a mistake, if not a crime, to let the daring exploits of a few well-placed high flyers provide political cover for destroying the best hope of the many.