Donald Trump and the Value of College

The candidate's support comes disproportionately from those without bachelor's degrees -- but that may say more about the failure than the success of our higher education system, writes Ryan Craig.

March 7, 2016
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The rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is yielding strong reactions among college graduates: fear, befuddlement, calls seeking refuge after November with Canadian friends and relatives, and some amount of self-satisfaction that college graduates aren’t buying what Trump is selling.

In poll after poll, support for Trump from those without a bachelor’s degree is up to 20 points higher than from Americans with them, leading to Trump’s memorable line following his win in the Nevada caucuses: “I love the poorly educated.”

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, Brits are seeing similar reactions to the rise of “Brexit” forces, urging the U.K. to exit the European Union. Similarly, school leavers, as they’re called in the U.K., support Brexit at a rate about 20 percentage points higher than university graduates. According to The Economist, “the more qualifications someone has, the more pro-European he or she is likely to be.”

The active hypothesis among educated elites is that our reactions to the raw emotional appeal of Trump and Brexit demonstrate the value of a college degree. Degrees, the argument goes, produce the requisite critical thinking, discerning judgment and a long-term focus so that frustration and anger don’t lead inexorably to radical and impractical options like Trump and Brexit.

Of course, an alternative hypothesis is that this is a result of self-selection: people who already have the stick-to-it-iveness to earn 120 credits over four-plus years while navigating a level of bureaucracy that, at many schools, could inspire the next Kafka, by definition have a certain level of critical thinking, discerning judgment and long-term focus. Students who are able to earn a degree without throwing up their hands and walking away are less likely to vote to walk away from the E.U., or from civilized politics.

But while fear, befuddlement and calls to Canada are legitimate reactions to Trumpism, self-satisfaction is not. In fact, there’s good reason for dissatisfaction at our system of higher education, because the failures of our colleges and universities are contributing to the anger and frustration propelling it.

Trump and Brexit voters are angry and insecure, in part, because the income premium for bachelor’s degrees over those with some college, high school graduates and high school dropouts is at its highest point ever.

Over the past generation, a bachelor’s degree has become the default currency of the labor market. Virtually all professions now utilize the bachelor’s degree as a screening mechanism, whether or not jobs require four years of college. Dental hygienists, police officers, cargo agents, claims adjusters, health information technicians, fashion designers, desktop publishers and hundreds of other careers are now virtually closed to individuals without a bachelor’s degree.

And although the job market tells them they must complete, for most low-income students for whom life is most likely to “get in the way,” that's an unrealistic goal; life rarely goes perfectly for a period of one year, let alone four-plus years. Approximately 46 percent of students who begin bachelor’s degree programs fail to complete a degree, and the numbers are even more dismal for students from the lowest income quartile.

While nearly 80 percent of children of top-quartile families earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, the number for bottom quartile families is 9 percent. Working-class students are caught between the Scylla of employer expectations and the Charybdis of completion reality.

So one overlooked source of the rise of Trumpism can be laid at the feet of elites and employers who have encouraged and accepted the cult of the bachelor’s degree. Through well-intentioned but misguided educational paternalism (having had the benefit of a four-year college education, it must be good for everyone), elites have established a social and economic expectation that a bachelor’s degree from a college or university is required for modern economic success. Prior to exploiting this politically, Trump did so commercially, dressing up his sham real estate seminars as “Trump University.”

So we should expect frustration and anger when the expectation of a degree from a real university proves unrealistic. And that sense that white working-class voters have that elites are looking down at them? It comes in no small measure from the fact that elites aren’t hiring them because they don’t have bachelor’s degrees.

Recognizing this, countries like Singapore have begun actively discouraging families from enrolling their children in bachelor’s degree programs. Singapore isn’t interested in denying students the benefits of a good general or liberal education. It simply doesn’t agree that the expensive four-year “bundle” we now lazily accept as the minimum qualification for a professional career is always the right one. Alternative pathways are shorter, less expensive and specific to a profession -- including training on measurable hard skills that employers expect to see.

While most of the sources of Trumpism are relatively intractable, this wound is partially self-inflicted. Elites have propagated the cult of the bachelor’s degree, and it has now come back to bite them in the form of Donald J. Trump. Similarly, if the U.K. votes for Brexit in June, the British elite will have some soul searching to do.

The rise of Trump and of Brexit forces shouldn’t make Americans and Brits smug about our systems of higher education. Quite the opposite. In the long run, keeping our politics civilized and rational will require the active participation of colleges, universities and employers to unbundle the bachelor’s degree and establish a more realistic world of differentiated and meaningful shorter and lower-cost credentials.


Ryan Craig is managing director at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.


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