Guest Post: President Decatur missed Reich’s point

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This guest post was authored by Jon Green ’14, former editor of the Observer.

Last Wednesday, President Decatur responded to the title of a repost of an article by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

In the article, Reich argues that America sends too many students to four year colleges who would be better off in other avenues of postsecondary education. If only we would fund it. Seems straightforward enough, no?

Problems arose when Salon picked up the article and slapped a clickbait-y title on it: “Robert Reich: College is a Ludicrous Waste of Money.” That’s close to the opposite of what Reich was arguing, and President Decatur was right to call them out for it.

Except he only sort-of did.

Reich and Decatur (and I) agree on the basic premise: right now, if you don’t go to a four year college, you are in all likelihood totally, unbelievably, comprehensively screwed. But Reich continues to the next step of the argument where President Decatur seems to trail off: The statement is true because we’ve convinced ourselves that a four year degree should be our only pathway to success and, when this is the case, it has negative effects on our entire labor force — including college grads.

So while at no point in Reich’s article did he call a liberal education anything close to a “ludicrous waste of money,” he did imply— and I agree  that a liberal education isn’t for everyone. In other, more explicit words, we need to expand opportunities for those who have skill sets and interests that don’t square with a four year degree. Right now, post-secondary education that isn’t a four-year degree isn’t taken seriously — either by our government or our high school seniors — and it should be, because that’s where the jobs are.

It’s a fairly straightforward argument: In 2012, according to the Department of Education, nearly 30 percent of American 18-24 year olds were enrolled in a four year college or university. Match that with Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that, in the same year, 21 percent of all jobs required a bachelors degree or higher, and what you get is a higher education surplus. If you’re wondering why you’re seeing all of these articles about college grads working as baristas, there’s your answer: We’re awarding 40 percent more bachelor’s degrees than our economy can handle right now.

President Decatur, in the interest of higher ed, would (rightly) point out that the same BLS report showed that between 2012 and 2022 the fastest growth in jobs by degree requirement will be at the master’s level. However, that’s largely because those jobs currently comprise just two percent of our workforce. Jobs that require an associate’s degree or non-degree-earning postsecondary education are already ten percent of our total labor market, and that share is projected to increase nearly as fast as jobs requiring a master’s over the next ten years.

So Reich’s point wasn’t that your Kenyon education isn’t “worth it” (in fact, Reich would agree that your Kenyon education for you in particular is totally worth it — more on that later); it was that there’s a gaping inefficiency in the way we incentivize and invest in our workforce. Since American teenagers are told to go all-in on a four year degree because that’s, for all intents and purposes, a requirement for making a decent living in this country, we wind up sending more people than we should to four year institutions while forgetting to invest in any other kind of post-secondary education.

We can cite all the studies we want about how valuable a liberal education is in terms of raising our own human capital, but we shouldn’t be surprised when numbers are thrown back in our face showing that many graduates are still struggling to find work that matches their qualifications. And when that happens, we would do well to have a plausible explanation as to why.

But all of this is a minor quibble. My real issue with President Decatur’s post is that, after doing a great job of waving those stats in Salon’s face, he fumbled his chance to make an effective case for a liberal education.

I’m not on campus anymore, so my only evaluation of the recent panel on careers in finance has to come from the account President Decatur gave in his post. However, based on what I read there, it appears as though the two most important things to do if you’re a Kenyon student who wants to work in finance are a) intern and b) network. In other words, the big takeaway from the panel seems to have been, “If you go to Kenyon and major in English, you can totally still work on Wall Street. Just make sure you do all of the things that rich kids at bigger schools are doing, too.”

Fair enough, but in these respects, Kenyon adds little to no value over larger schools in more urban settings. To suggest that your English major will actually get (or even help get) you a job at McKinsey is absurd. And while I have applauded and continue to applaud President Decatur’s work in making unpaid internships more accessible to Kenyon students, that’s an avenue that’s simply not in the cards for a large share of the student body.

As a standalone statement, it’s absolutely true that “using your summers well” (a nails-on-chalkboard substitute for simply saying “interning”) and hardcore networking are necessary if you want to work at a hedge fund or consulting firm your first year out. However, in the context of what makes a Kenyon education great, it should make all of us incredibly uncomfortable that that message snuck into a post that was otherwise about the value of going to a school like Kenyon as opposed to a soulless banker mill of a state school.

It’s a message that Reich was speaking to directly in his criticism of American higher education. I mentioned earlier that your Kenyon education is 100% worth it, and I meant it. However, while everything President Decatur said about Kenyon providing “proven writing and communication skills, the ability to learn and integrate new material…and analytical skills” is absolutely true, the employment value of a Kenyon education comes when you can leverage those things across other channels that correlate strongly with being able to afford Kenyon in the first place.

For starters, if you can afford Kenyon, you can afford an unpaid internship, which begets a professional network. Relatedly, when there are more college students than jobs that require college degrees, the college students that stand out are the ones that graduate with resumes relevant to the field they’re entering. So when Reich and I point out that a number of college grads are getting squeezed out of jobs that require a college degree, we aren’t talking about Kenyon students; at least not the ones who will land a sweet internship this coming June. Those are the students who are doing the squeezing.

This isn’t to take away from all of the things about a Kenyon education, which President Decatur highlighted, that will make you great at your first job. But even as he was arguing the opposite, President Decatur effectively conceded that a Kenyon education does not necessarily get you your first job by itself. More importantly, he forgot his most important point:

The real “truth behind the liberal arts” is that it has nothing to do with getting a job in the first place.

1 comments on “Guest Post: President Decatur missed Reich’s point”

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