The great myth of America’s ‘knowledge economy’

Only 25% of Americans go to college and only 16% of these actually try to learn anything. And it doesn’t really matter...

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:01 ON Fri 23 Mar 2012
Alexander Cockburn

"IN THE 21st century, the best anti-poverty programme around is a first-class education," President Obama famously declared in his 2010 State of the Union address, just as millions of high schoolers across the nation were going through the annual ritual of picking their preferred colleges and preparing the grand tour of the prospects, with parents in tow, gazing ashen faced at the prospective fees.
 
The image is of toiling students springing from lecture room to well-paying jobs demanding advanced skills in all the arts that can make America great again – out-thinking, out-knowing the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, South Koreans and Germans in the cutting edge, cut-throat high tech economies of tomorrow.

As a dose of cold water over all this high-minded talk, it’s worth looking at Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum’s recently published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The two profs followed more than 2,300 undergraduates at 29 universities, selected to represent the range of America’s 2,000-plus four-year college institutions.
 
Among the authors' findings: 32 per cent of the students whom they followed in an average semester did not take any courses that assigned more than 40 pages of reading per week. Half did not take any courses in which more than 20 pages of writing were assigned throughout the entire term.

Furthermore, 35 per cent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone. Typical students spent about 16 per cent of their time on academic pursuits, and were "academically engaged", write the authors, less than 30 hours a week.

After two years in college, 45 per cent of students showed no significant gains in learning; after four years, 36 per cent showed little change. And the students who did show improvement only logged very modest gains. Students spent 50 per cent less time studying compared with students a few decades ago.
 
One of the co-authors, Richard Arum, says college governing boards, shoveling out colossal sums to their presidents, athletic coaches and senior administrative staff, now demand that the focus be "student retention", also known as not kicking anyone out for not doing any measurable work. As Arum put it to Money College, "Students are much more likely to drop out of school when they are not socially engaged, and colleges and universities increasingly view students as consumers and clients. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that all students want to be exposed to a rigorous academic programme."

Rick Santorum briefly struck out at ingrained snobbery about going to college: "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob." Amid howls from Republican governors this was a piece of derision it didn’t take him long to retract. Actually, it turns out only about 30 per cent  of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor's degrees. Jack Metzgar, emeritus professor of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, had a very useful piece on Working Class Perspectives, the blog of the Centre for Working Class Studies site, with this and other useful facts.

The US government’s Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20 per cent of jobs required a bachelor's degree, whereas 26 per cent of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43 per cent required only a high school diploma or equivalent.

Please note that the latter 69 per cent were therefore devoid of the one debt in America that’s even more certain than taxes – student loans. At least, if you’re provably broke the IRS will countenance an “offer in compromise”. In fact they recently made the process slightly easier. No such luck with student loans. The banks are in your pocket till the last dime of loan plus interest has been extorted.

Now for the next dose of cold water. The BLS reckons that by 2020 the overwhelming majority of jobs will still require only a high school diploma or less and that nearly three-quarters of "job openings due to growth and replacement needs" over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30 per cent paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars).

In other words, millions of Americans are over-educated, servicing debt to the banks and boosting the bottom lines of Red Bull and the breweries.

The snobbery stems from the fact that America’s endless, mostly arid debates about education are conducted by the roughly one-third who are college-educated and have okay jobs and a decent income. The "knowledge economy" in the US needs more than 6 million people with master's or doctoral degrees now, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020.  But this will still be less than 5 per cent of the overall economy.

The BLS's three largest occupational categories by themselves accounted for more than one-third of the workforce in 2010 (49 million jobs), and they will make an outsized contribution to the new jobs projected for 2020. They are: office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $30,710); sales and related occupations ($24,370); food preparation and serving occupations ($18,770).

Other big areas of opportunity: child care workers ($19,300), personal care aides ($19,640), home health aides ($20,560), janitors and cleaners ($22,210), teacher assistants ($23,220), non-construction labourers ($23,460), security guards ($23,920) and construction labourers ($29,280).

As Metzgar writes, as a society, "the best anti-poverty programme around" cannot possibly be 'a first-class education' when more than two-thirds of our jobs require nothing like that.”

So what is the best anti-poverty programme? Higher wages for the jobs that are out there, currently yielding impossibly low annual incomes.

The current American minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour. On a fairly regular basis, executives of Wal-Mart call for a rise in the minimum wage since, in the words of a recent Wal-Mart CEO, Lee Scott, “Our customers simply don't have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks."

The minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, is currently well over $10 per hour, while in France it now stands at nearly $13. Australia recently raised its minimum wage to over $16 per hour, and nonetheless has an unemployment rate of just five per cent.

Any Republican candidate seriously pledging to raise the minimum wage to $12 would gallop into the White House, if - a solid chance - he wasn’t shot dead by the Commentariat, or maybe by a Delta team acting on Obama’s determination relayed to him by the bankers, that this pledge constituted a terrorist assault on America.

As Ron Unz, publisher of The American Conservative recently wrote (calling for a big hike), "The minimum wage represents one of those political issues whose vast appeal to ordinary voters is matched by little if any interest among establishment political elites." · 

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There are some very good points here, though the minimum wage one can't be seen alone without addressing globalisation issues.

The UK target of 50% University education with massive debt underwritten by the taxpayers for jobs that don't exist or don't require the product of three productive years lost to student life style is one of the key political elephants in the room of UK politics.

When will they realise? The imposition of "student debt" is just an extension of the imposition of mortgages by a society that says you must own your house...if you have a big enough debt (but not too big! that breeds desperation) you can be controlled and herded, and thats exactly what the politicians want. As for university education: why can't they teach a work ethic and a "can-do" attitude, rather than the idea that a degree automatically entitles you to a big wage

Thanks for this article which explains the very poor level of service one receives from government offices and cooperations, why they so lack in knowledge of the basics of their jobs and why they so adamantly refuse to respond to any queries in WRITING! Well, if it is any comfort, there are millions of Indians and Chinese waiting and eager to fill up the slots. Bring them in, let the chickens come home to roost!

thanks for telling it like it really is. i hope you do more on this topic it needs people to wake up and not allow this to continue. be well 

If you have a degree in Turkey you can shorten your national service. Something Blair never considered when he started the Uni industry with his child maths. 'You will earn more as graduates as they earn more over their lifetime'. Well yes they did when they only represented 10% of the workforce market.