A Ticket to Ride

Although I’m sure one does not need a college education to become part of the middle class or even the upper class, it has increasingly become one the most important ways to attain and maintain that status.

Previous generations could rise to the top through intelligence and hard work. My dad only went to college for one year but ended up running the entire northwest area for his company, a job that quite likely qualified him as upper class. When he retired, two college graduates took over his responsibilities. Two of his older brothers who had to quit school before finishing high school to support the family ended up as well-paid supervisors at Boeing. Such success is still possible, but is becoming rarer and rarer. My older brother who never attended college owns his own company and probably makes more money in a single year than I made in five years.

My younger brother, on the other hand, never went to college but started working at my dad’s company before he graduated from high school. Unlike my dad, though, he didn’t end up working his whole lifetime for that company. Instead, he got downsized when the company decided to run most of the plants in the nation from a single computer network in Pennsylvania. He has never entirely financially recovered from that setback. Without a college degree to fall back on and with limited opportunities in his area of expertise, he has spent the last few years working as a truck driver. In doing so, he lost his house when he relocated, and several times has had to do without health insurance.

My son lost his job in the great dot.com crash about the same time, and, despite having to spend several months stacking Pepsi displays to support his family, with the help a college degree in math he has finally gotten another well-paying job in the computer industry.

Obviously such examples don’t prove anything. Still, I suspect they are indicative of general trends in our society. Surely there are fewer high-paying blue collar jobs whether because of the loss of unions, automation, or the more recent shipping of jobs overseas.

The loss of these high-paying blue collar jobs, the foundation of a large middle class in American in the past, has created a crisis of sort. Increasingly, the best paid jobs require a degree. The statistics seem to bear this out: “According to the Census Bureau, over an adult’s working life, high school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million; associate’s degree holders earn about $1.6 million; and bachelor’s degree holders earn about $2.1 million (Day and Newburger, 2002).” In other words, a college graduate earns about twice the income of a high school graduate.

One would assume, then, that a country committed to a thriving middle class would insure that anyone who has the ability and desire to go to college should be able to do so. Unfortunately, recent trends in society show the very opposite to be true. In fact, as the gap between rich and poor widens and as the middle class is pressed more and more on all sides, the cost of sending a student to college has skyrocketed, particularly in public colleges, those most apt to serve those with the least money.

I’ll look at the latest reports from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education next time.

7 thoughts on “A Ticket to Ride”

  1. As a public high school teacher in a racially and socioeconomically diverse urban/suburban school that also services the children of a major Army Base, I want to add to this.

    My concern is that our public schools are changing everything to get kids ready for College with a big C – totally cutting all meaningful vocational training in favor of the academics (we’ve got to meet testing goals! We don’t want to be a “failing school”) while totally ignoring that even if we reached this goal, colleges would be turning the majority of HS graduates away. They already are. There’s not enough space. There’s not enough money. Labor Dept. statistics show that all through this decade only 20% of jobs requiring a professional degree. The percentage of jobs requireing “skilled” labor (some kind of certificate program at a voc.tech, etc), however, has grown SIGNIFICANTLY since World War II. If I remember correctly it went from something like 20% to now 60%. That leaves 20% unskilled labor. Yet our bureacracy says “No Child Left Behind.” That is taken in education to mean all will be ready for a 4-year college. Why??? What will that achieve?

    I get really irritated. Won’t it be a great world when there’s (even more) rampant white-collar unemployment (and the unemployed are dragging around huge student loan debt) and there’s no one left to fix your car/ furnace/ pipes; to build thing; and so on…

    The colleges have got a good scam going as far as I’m concerned. I say all too often whatever there is to be learned could be far better learned in a real apprenticeship program — including and especially being a secondary teacher in a U.S. public school! This is a skill learned on the job – not in a college classroom! When I ask people in a varitey of industries why the are going back to get their MBA, they tell me so they can get a raise and be promoted. “So,” I say, “Couldn’t you just learn that one the job?” They invaritable say YES, but when the company foots the bill…why not just play their game to get ahead? When and why did we stop valuing real-world, on the job training?

    I think it all boils down that this push for college as the panecea for reaching the American Dream is smoke and mirrors to distract “the people” from noticing that the rich keep getting richer and 98% of us are getting a lot poorer. The elite distract and push the blame on us by saying “if you just went to college…(you could be rich like me)” . But it’s a lie. College CAN’T structurally be the solution for all. We can’t ALL be white-collar. Society would cease to function. This lie of college distracts us from the real conversation about how income is distributed in this county (read as ‘democratic socialism’ a la Norway, etc.) For example, did anyone else hear that David Beckam (English soccer star) was paid 60 million to shave his head on TV as Gillette’s new spokesperson? Need I say more? On what planet is one person endorsing one product worth the lifetime earnings of, what?, 50 high school graduates or 27 college graduates?

    – Disgusted in Tacoma, WA (allegedly a blue-collar town and proud of it)

  2. The country, as a whole, should insure that people go to college?

    Dawn, I don’t know what you mean. Who cares if David Beckam makes that much money from Gillette.

  3. No, Reinhold, what I’m saying is that we should do more at the K-12 level to prepare people for types of work that require skilled, specialized labor. We should not set them up to fail by promising them that a 4-year degree will make their lives perfect. A) It’s very probable they can’t afford to go OR that there aren’t enough slots at the State Colleges (see the nest article by Loren) and B) a 4-year degree doesn’t guarantee a job. What helps you in the job market is communication and people skills and the willingness to learn skills that are scarce and in demand. If there is demand, it drives up the price people will pay for your services. Returning to more of an apprenticeship model of training beyond high school with perhaps short 1 or 2 year companion study at Community College or Vocatation School seems much more economical than baccalaureate programs.

    In regards to David Beckham: I’m saying it’s ethically and morally wrong for society to place a monetary value on anyone, CEO, movie star, athlete, etc. that high above the mainstream of society.

  4. My first comment, about insuring that people go to college, was directed to Loren.

    Loren, I don’t think that society placed a monetary value on Beckam. Gillette made a business decison, with Gillette’s money, to do that. How is that morally wrong? And why should society care what Gillette does, with the money that Gillette earns?

  5. Renhold, I’ll try to address that question on my next post, one that discusses the effect of the GI Bill on America.

    It just takes awhile to look facts up, digest those facts, and make some sort of sense of it.

    While I’d agree with Dawn that not everyone needs to go to college, I’d still argue that ready access to education is an absolute necessity in today’s world, and will even more important in the future.

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