Free Community College is Nothing to Celebrate, or What Piketty Means for Education

Last week Obama announced a proposal to make community college free (the Federal government would pay 75% and each state would pick up the rest of the cost). Adapted from a program that is already in place in Tennessee, the President described the initiative using free-market language, arguing that such a plan would help “train our work force so that we can compete with anybody in the world.”

I’m on the record supporting free tuition at public colleges. It would be absurdly cheap to fully fund higher education, and Obama’s plan presents an opportunity to expand the discussion to include all 2- and 4-year institutions and to push for a system that provides a quality education to everyone. Beyond the unlikely prospect of success on that front, there is not much to celebrate in this proposal. Early indications are that in order to qualify for the program, community college students would have to major in so-called “high-demand” fields that can be proven to “lead to jobs,” a vocational orientation towards teaching and learning that deserves a serious critique from the left.

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of uncritical praise from journalists and Progressives. The Chronicle of Higher Education called the proposal “historic.” Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation called it “genius” and said that such a program could make community colleges “engines of social mobility.” Mike Konzcal wrote in The Nation that the plan would turn two-year colleges into an “egalitarian machine.”

All of these positive feelings are seriously misplaced. The truth is that education can’t fix inequality. I feel compelled to say this because I value teaching and learning so much. The freedom to think, read, write, and discuss ideas with others is so crucial to life that I insist on being scrupulously honest about what education can do and what it can’t.

To understand the limits of education, Thomas Piketty’s work is a good place to start. Capital in the 21st Century was a surprise bestseller last year. It got everyone talking about inequality, even economists who (surprisingly to a layperson like myself) don’t like to talk about such things.

The crux of Piketty’s argument is that the 20th century was an aberration in world economic history. “The reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950,” he writes, “was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war.” Apart from those global events which produced taxation and financial policies that resulted in broadly distributed prosperity (relatively speaking), the history of capitalism shows a clear trendline towards increasing inequality. That is the path that we’re almost certainly back on. In Piketty’s words, the “unprecedented situation” of the 20th century “is about to end.”

Assuming Piketty has a point (and judging from the critical reception of his book, many people think he does), then the next question is: What is the role of education in solving inequality?

Piketty’s answer is clear: education didn’t create 20th century prosperity by itself, and more college degrees can’t reduce inequality or provide mass social mobility.

We can best understand the implications of Piketty’s research for national educational policy by examining the roots of the proposed plan for free community college. The New York Times explained that the basis for the idea

can be found in a 2008 book by the [Harvard] economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz called ‘The Race Between Education and Technology’ … which tells the story of how the United States built the world’s most successful economy by building its most successful education system. At the heart of that system was the universal high school movement of the early 20th century, which turned the United States into the world’s most educated country. These educated high school graduates — white-collar and blue-collar alike — powered the prosperity of the 20th century.

Goldin and Katz argue that post-war prosperity (that mostly benefitted white men) was a product of universal education. But Piketty pretty much destroys this thesis in Capital. Their argument, he says, is largely based on the theory of marginal productivity, the “idea that a worker’s wage is always perfectly determined…by skill.” This model is simplistic because it doesn’t explain why the rich have gotten much richer, especially in the United States, since 1980. People in the top 9% of the income scale, Piketty explains,

 have progressed more rapidly than the average worker but not nearly at the same rate as ‘the 1 percent.’ Concretely, those making more than $500,000 a year have seen their remuneration literally explode (and those above $1 million a year have risen even more rapidly).

This extreme divergence at the top cannot be explained by the theory of marginal productivity. There is no evidence that those with the highest incomes are more productive than everyone else, including other very rich people just below them on the scale. Furthermore, there is no difference between the 9% and the 1% in terms of education or skill. And yet it is undeniable that the topmost group saw their income and wealth skyrocket in the last three decades.

Piketty’s analysis is devastating for the theory of skills- and technology-based economic change espoused by Goldin and Katz and many of the proponents of free (vocational) college courses. The idea that reducing inequality is a matter of people’s skills catching up to technology (a problem education can solve, at least in the short term) doesn’t explain the widening gap between the 9% and the 1%, just as it doesn’t explain the gap between the rich and poor or the hollowing out of the middle class. In a further rebuke to Goldin and Katz, Piketty argues that neoclassical economists treat the economy as a “mathematical abstraction” rather than what it actually is: a system of rewards and punishments that reflects the values and compromises of society and the power arrangements in place at any given time.

Considering the popularity of Obama’s free college proposal and Piketty’s critique of its theoretical basis, how should the left respond? It is beyond the scope of this post to fully answer that question. However, one way to think about the problem is by sticking with Piketty for a bit longer.

Education, Piketty writes, “has an intrinsic value.” In Capital, he makes several original connections between history, literature, and economics. The book itself is a demonstration of the rich interdisciplinarity of his method, which tells us a lot about the kind of education that prepares people to think creatively and rigorously about the world and the problems we face.

Piketty uses this method to counteract the lazy assumption that education acts as a kind of free market lever that can radically change how wealth is distributed and to whom. “Make no mistake,” he writes,

I am not denying the decisive importance of the investments in higher education … Policies to encourage broader access to universities are indispensable and crucial in the long run, in the United States and elsewhere. As desirable as such policies are, however, they seem to have had limited impact on the explosion of the topmost incomes observed in the United States since 1980.

Universal access to education is part of a social commitment to democracy, “indispensable” to civilization “in the long run.” But it can’t autonomously change very much about the distribution of wealth or the basic fact of who makes the rules in the present.

This is the context that Obama’s proposal for “free” community college leaves out. This gap is not surprising when we consider that the Lumina Foundation provided research funding to support the development of the proposal. Lumina is partially funded by the Gates Foundation. Another Gates-funded non-profit, Complete College America, promoted the idea at its annual conference. (One of CCA’s primary policy initiatives is to “encourage performance-based financing” of higher education.) It’s important that we ask why the same organizations that are pushing for the privatization of education are suddenly interested in free community college.

Furthermore, Obama and Secretary Duncan have spent 6 years supporting efforts to de-fund and privatize education at every level. Through programs like Race to the Top, they’ve sought to tie education funding to test scores and distribute public money to charter schools. We should be asking why they are now proposing a substantial investment in community colleges.

It seems that Progressives and the education privatization movement are working from the same flawed script. The New York Times is also a culprit: “Both history and economics,” David Leonhardt wrote in an article on the Obama proposal, “suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy.” This is simply not true. In capitalism the major factor involved in determining “living standards” is capital, not education. If we want to reduce inequality, we should distribute social resources like wealth and income more equally. Assuming that education can serve as a substitute for that essential work is, in Piketty’s words, “out of touch with reality.”








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