Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Role of Public Education

Hi Everyone,

I thought I would blog about some thoughts about public education. I should come clean and say that I am the product of a private college. I did get my doctorate at a public university though.

Private colleges are often excellent but they are expensive. It costs a lot of money to pay for the small class sizes and highly trained and accomplished professors to teach them. Such small, private colleges are typically only open to students who are exceptional enough to win scholarships or come from families that are relatively wealthy (or some combination of the two). A completely privatized tertiary education system will serve mainly the upper classes in society. If we want education to enable at least the possibility of class mobility from one generation to another, there must be a public component to it. And this public component must be of a quality that is at least credible. It cannot be that private colleges turn out highly trained and educated graduates while the publics become little more than diploma mills. Many public universities provide a high quality education. The problem is that providing high quality education costs money and states are increasingly unwilling to provide that money. The result is either tuition must go up or quality will go down. If tuition goes up, the publics become more and more like the privates, serving mainly the upper classes. If quality goes down, the value of the public degree relative to the private degree goes down and its ability to provide for some social mobility decreases.

There is another important role for both public and private education. In the American economy, most workers change employers several times in the course of their careers. They may change companies, industries, perhaps they will even go back to school and change their skill set. This fluid labor market is the hallmark of the American economy. There are many advantages to it. One of the consequences though is that companies have little if any incentive to provide training to their employees. Why should GM, GE or Microsoft spend a lot of money and time training all of their employees when they know that each of these employees is likely to leave the company in the future? In this context, the constant supply of trained potential employees is a public good that no one company will see it as worth while to provide for themselves. The systems especially needs people with a broad and flexible skill set that can adapt quickly to the particular needs of a variety different potential employers with different needs.

Now, as the economy in the United States shifts more and more to services and high tech sectors, employers need more and more workers with broader skill sets. Privates alone cannot meet that demand.

A note about vocational training: There is also a serious need for vocational training (plumbing skills, electronics, etc). There is also a public/private divide among vo-tech schools. In some states, Indiana for example, private vo-tech schools have taken over from underfunded community colleges. You see them advertising on TV. These are often respectable places (the ones in Indiana have a quite good reputation). But people tend to want their services at exactly the moment they are losing a job or changing to another industry. Coming up with the money to pay for a year or two of "up skilling" can be most challenging at precisely the moment when it is most needed.

Public education needs to be robust at precisely the times when the economy is doing poorly. But the general public/political reaction to an economic down turn is to place disproportionate shares of the budget cutting burden on education. This is an unfortunate development. In the medium and long term it will serve to continue exactly the class divisions that generate so much resentment of "elitism" etc. I fear a continuing spiral in which decreasing public support for education leads to increasing tuition which then breeds more resentment which leads to another round of decreased public support. The end result will be an overwhelmingly private education system that serves mainly to lock class distinctions in place rather than enable people to move from class to class across generations.


The Law Talking Guy said...

I agree with almost all of what was said here. Higher education has been primarily a state endeavor in this country since the early 19th century, and it is one of the reasons the country has prospered so much. Universities are idea factories. In a free society with a robust market economy, universities have revolutionized our world a hundred times over.

I have said it before and will say it again: the problem is Reaganism. The belief that taxes and "the gummint" are the problem rather than a powerful tool for solving collective action problems. Worse, having gotten their cheap public educations in the 1960s and 1970s, the boomers pulled the plug in the 1980s.

I think it important to connect this to Reagan because we need a wholesale rejection of Reaganism. Reagan should be said in the same breath as Hoover.

Raised By Republicans said...


It could be a little unfair to say that Boomers pulled up the public education ladder behind them. I can't remember where I heard this but I've heard that Boomers are actually less likely to have college educations than is Gen X. Of course assuming that is true, part of that could be because since Gen X as so much smaller, a shrinking public college system could still accommodate demand.

But if my memory of the rumor that I heard is correct (OK, weak evidence), it could be that blue collar Boomers are the real scourge of public education. If that's the case, this could be yet another hang over of the class-culture conflicts surrounding the Vietnam War. The tragedy of this is that the primary victims of this will be the Boomers' own children.

The Law Talking Guy said...

"Boomers are actually less likely to have college educations than is Gen X"

I don't know if this is numerically true, but it may be because we encourage more college attendance today. That's not the issue that I was pointing to, however. The issue is that the cost of those educations in the 50s, 60s and 70s was shouldered by the government in largest part, with most state schools having little or no tuition required and generous grants (such as the GI Bill and Pell Grants) that went very far. Student loans were very hard to come by (as were all loans in this period). Today, GenXers graduate with mountains of debt. This is what I meant by pulling the ladder out. So while boomers were spending their 20s investing in real estate or saving for the future, GenXers and GenYers are paying back student loans. This has hobbled a generation.

Worse still, the "elitist" charge is not the big sticking point, so much as the idea that the purpose is just private economic advancement, so there is no reason for the state to pay for college education. Thus, people say that it's okay for doctors to have big student loans because they are investing in their own future. The stats you give about the benefits of education in terms of greater earning power ironically have become the justification for all education and the reason for seeing it as a personal rather than societal investment. We are all the poorer for it.

The following comes from the Chancellor of UC Berkeley in 2000: "Under Reagan, the federal government transferred many costs related to health care and welfare to the states. In the midst of the tax revolt, state governments, the primary source of public funds for public universities, found it impossible to continue investment in universities at levels previously established. The notion developed that the chief beneficiaries of universities were the students educated, not the public at large, so that it should be the students themselves who bore a larger portion of the cost of education. Faced with substantial inflation and declining support, universities increased fees. From the early 1980s to the present, for example, annual fees at the University of California have risen from zero in 1960-61, to $450 in 1971, to $3600 at the present time, down from two years ago. State support for Berkeley's operating budget has fallen from over 60% in 1980 to 34% at the present time. In the process of privatization of public universities, the largest single group of private contributors is the students, who now contribute about 15% of the operating budget of the University." Those figures are even more skewed a decade later.

Of course, I have a different viewpoint about who is to blame because of where I live. In California, the blue-collar working class is overwhelmingly Latino and faces its own issues with college education, but it has shown a willingness to support state schools for their children and votes for a democratic party with large government spending. The post-1994 political landscape in California has a lot to do with the Latino working class entering politics on the center-left side. The problem with funding universities here really has to do with the total implosion of California government over the past 25 years.

The historic white working class (which is what I think you really are referring to) has an identity and politically relevance in the old rust belt and eastern cities, but not so in the west. Those "Reagan Democrats" were indeed vital in pushing Reaganism and remain crucial in politics in the Midwest and Northeast. They were alienated in part by the "liberal elitism" of racial equality politics in the 1960s and 1970s. The Obama/Clinton vote of 2008 echoed some of that residual disaffection. "Reagan Democrats" are not the problem in the West.

Raised By Republicans said...

"The historic white working class (which is what I think you really are referring to) has an identity and politically relevance in the old rust belt and eastern cities, but not so in the west. Those "Reagan Democrats" were indeed vital in pushing Reaganism and remain crucial in politics in the Midwest and Northeast. They were alienated in part by the "liberal elitism" of racial equality politics in the 1960s and 1970s. The Obama/Clinton vote of 2008 echoed some of that residual disaffection. "Reagan Democrats" are not the problem in the West."

Yep, that's what I meant. And I agree about the regional differences.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It's actually quite fascinating that the South has another sort of working class entirely, mixed white and black. I have read many civil rights experts opining that the true success of the civil rights movement was in the southern working class. While the southern middle class fled the public schools and into its country clubs and gated communities, the white working class couldn't and didn't. There is, I understand, more mixed-race socializing among the working class in the south than probably in any other class grouping in the country. And they all mostly vote for Democrats, but not necessarily for liberal democrats (rather for populists). Still, it's a smaller working class in the less urban south than is the rural white/rural black population that remains very very separate.

The Economist noted that Texas is a good deal more like California than it is like the Deep South or the Midwest, and that it may find itself with a ruling Democratic coalition of liberal urban whites and working class Latinos. Shocking? Well, consider that California was Reagan's state and solidly Republican into the 1990s. Change happens sometimes. In CA, urban whites have had no problem voting for Latinos for most offices - not yet in Texas.

Raised By Republicans said...

It's also interesting that traditionally, public tertiary education in the Deep South has been less well funded than it was in the Midwest and South. Perhaps this was part of a conscious effort to use education as a barrier to rather than a facilitator of class mobility.

Raised By Republicans said...

If Texas goes blue (or even purple), it would be a devastating blow to the constituencies that currently dominate the Republican party.

The Law Talking Guy said...

The real problem in Texas for the Democrats appears to be their lack of statewide organization. The 2008 campaign really helped change that. The Democrats have 73 of 150 seats in the House currently (they had 74, but one Dem jumped ship a couple months ago). Of course, Texas had a Democratic legislature from the Civil War through 2003, when Tom Delay's faction forced an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting.