The ‘College Scorecard’: Tall Tales and Confidence Men in the Age of Austerity

In this week’s radio address, the President illustrated how committed the elite political class is to promoting delusional ideas at all costs.

The President took the opportunity to celebrate the release of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, a website that allows students and parents to “find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value – like whether they’re likely to graduate, find good jobs, and pay off their loans.” On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a bad thing. But if you think colleges ought to serve all students, the implications are pretty terrible. For instance, schools that enroll lots of low-income people or first-generation students are going to look pretty bad according to the Scorecard rankings. The desire to improve their ranking might lead colleges to stop enrolling students that bring down the numbers.

But the President and the neoliberal robots at the Department of Education are so committed to promoting education as a consumer good and to treating rising defaults as an information problem, that they don’t care who pays the price.

It is important that people can access data about college outcomes, the President said, because “some higher education is the surest ticket to the middle class.”

This assertion is a key part of one of the tallest tales of the last hundred years: that college degrees produce economic gains for individuals. In other words, no matter the state of the job market or the broader economy, proponents of the “college premium” insist that a degree is a magic pill that cures all economic ills.

It’s not surprising that the administration is trotting out the argument at this juncture in history. The President and the Democrats are under pressure to deal with the problem of student loans and the rising cost of college. Forty million Americans are in debt for education, to the tune of $1.3 trillion. Seven million debtors are in default, and that number rises every year.

Unfortunately, politicians have no interest in real solutions. To people struggling to get by, the only thing elites have to offer is education. They have been beating that drum so hard, especially since 2008, that they’re beginning to sound a little hysterical.

The ‘college premium’ is quackery of the first order. The President has become our Snake-Oil-Salesman-in-Chief, whether he actually believes what he’s saying or not. Let’s examine two other assertions from the radio address.

Assertion #1:

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education.”

This is just plain false. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report in 2009 that projected occupational trends through 2018. They found that most future job openings would not require a college diploma. In fact, only 19% will require a 2- or 4-year college degree. Most job growth will occur in the service and retail sector (cleaners and cashiers) and in the low-wage health care sector. If you dream of becoming a home health care aide earning minimum wage, you won’t have a problem finding a job in the coming years.

Indeed, the BLS also reported that most job growth will be in low-wage industries. Of 10 most rapidly growing jobs over next decade, only one pays more than the median wage.  I don’t know where the President is getting the data showing that two in three future job openings will require a college diploma, but it’s not from the federal government.

Assertion #2:

“One study showed that a degree from a four-year university earns you $1 million more over the course of a lifetime.”

This is hogwash. The one million dollar figure has been discredited by so many people from so many angles that the President is really embarrassing himself.

College degrees can’t lead graduates to jobs that don’t exist, especially if the jobs that do exist don’t pay a living wage. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy recently explained that “one of the main reasons [the college premium] went up in the first place wasn’t that college graduates were enjoying significantly higher wages. It was that the earnings of nongraduates were falling.” The jobs people get, how much money they earn, and how much wealth they ultimately accumulate (or not) are products of multiple overlapping factors, the most important of which are beyond individual control. In that context, breathlessly insisting on the benefits of a college degree is a kind of ritualized sadism that encourages people to blame themselves for larger social problems.

In his radio address, after uttering bizarre paeans to a discredited idea, the President went on to tout the College Scorecard as a solution to…. something. The “status quo,” he said, “doesn’t serve our students well.” I’m confused. If 2/3 of employers want to hire college graduates and if a college degree grants the bearer an extra one million dollars in income over a lifetime, then it seems like the status quo is doing just fine.

Nevermind the contradiction. The President is advertising the special powers of the College Scorecard for some reason. I suspect it’s mostly because the God of Silicon Valley says that More Data is Always Good. Now we can all see which schools are enrolling the richest students and confirm that those graduates are getting the best jobs. The problem is, in an age of low-wage work, austerity, and debt, a lack of data transparency about that fact is not a social problem of any consequence whatsoever.



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