For as long as I have been aware of the college narrative there has existed this boogeyman: some people go to college and end up as JANITORS! The horror!
Janitors now join baristas and occasionally strippers as cautionary tales of bloated, out-of-touch higher education run amok.
Today’s story, “Janitors With College Degrees and the Higher Education Bubble” from the Daily Beast is one of the latest to mash together every known hyperbolic concept in college journalism:
Students are paying a bigger share of their college bills, parents are paying less, and families are beginning to turn away from well-known and expensive colleges in favor of cheaper ones, including community colleges or anything near home. So says the 2012 version of Sallie Mae’s annual report, “How America Pays for College,” a collection of dry statistics that nevertheless reflect the rapidly rising anxiety about higher education and whether the cost is worth it.
The anxiety seems justified amid the growing number of students who, after running up $100,000 in student loans, take $25,000-a-year jobs after graduation—placing them in a position akin to the postcrash debtors whose homes are now worth less than what they owe on them.
The statistics, they are dry. Let us jazz them up for you by telling you how screwed you and your children are!
Let’s put aside the obvious classism embedded in the extreme disregard we seem to hold for the jobs that make social life possible for the rest of us (Janitors = ewwwwww, as if shitty toilets are the natural domain of other people) and let’s address a sentence farther down in the story:
Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that as many as one out of three college graduates today are in jobs that previously or historically have been filled by people with lesser educations or none
1 in 3 college graduates being underemployed is not the fault of them having a college degree.
Again, I repeat, having a college degree is NOT WHY THESE PEOPLE ARE UNDEREMPLOYED.
They are underemployed because the market does not have and has not created enough higher status jobs to absorb educated laborers.
That is NOT an issue with education but an issue with the labor market.
How are colleges supposed to force the market to innovate? To create more, better jobs?
That we even expect them to do so is a reflection of our cultural fetishization of all things market. The markets can’t be wrong, economists tell us they can’t be. They are always rational and over time they always innovate, absorb labor, and trend upwards.
We are so beholden to these economic market ideals to tell us which side of up is up that we fail to engage what is and not what is theorized.
And what is, presently, is a labor market that hasn’t kept up with our ability to produce higher skilled labor. Note, these underemployment statistics include even those in the vaulted STEM fields. There is nowhere to hide for new college graduates not because they didn’t get the right degree but because there aren’t enough good jobs for the good people we produce.
Sandy Darity, an economist (gasp!) at Duke University, has proposed a federal job guarantee that, among many things, would absorb our growing educated classes productively. Others are suggesting that we are entering an era of such efficient productivity that we simply need far fewer 40 hour a week human cogs to keep it all moving. All of this suggests that now would be a great time to re-imagine how we work, where we work, and how we define working.
But we can’t have that conversation if we’re still playing make-believe in our cultural conversations.
It is easy to blame higher education for the sad state of affairs some college graduates find themselves in. We don’t have a lot of experience fighting back against bullies in this sector. We don’t have big money lobbyists on the Hill to shape the conversation and sociologists, education researchers, and other disciplinary experts are less likely to be in the ear of the powerful than are economists. But framing this conversation as one of failing higher education does not ultimately challenge the solvency of education. It challenges the solvency of our greater culture.
So pick on colleges as you will. We’ll take the hits with the janitors and the strippers and baristas who are, at least, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. But that doesn’t save you. It doesn’t save us.