Sunday Soapbox: Educational Iniquity

>> Sunday, April 11, 2010

*Steps on soapbox*

On my posts earlier in the week regarding the attitude toward "poor people," education was mentioned and Relax Max pointed out that getting an education was less than useful if there wasn't a job to plug into.

I sort of agree but I mostly don't. Here's why.

The part I sort of agree because, of course, that's technically true. Few people are going to jump from college to a new business and make a killing. Most will be looking for jobs. And, all "educations" are not the same when it comes to marketability. If you get a bachelor's degree in "English" for instance, you are not going to be as marketable as someone who gets a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. In fact, a Ph.D. in English is unlikely to garner you as many options as a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and, with a masters or Ph.D. in chemical engineering, you may never have to worry about unemployment. That's not a reflection on the value of knowledge of the English language, mind you, but a reflection on (a) how common the degrees are and (b) how useful potential employers find them.

However, I mostly don't agree because, when it comes there are a number of professions we are desperately short of like technical degrees. And one's prospects with a bachelor's degree are much better than they are otherwise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates (people >25) for those with a Bachelor's degree or more is 4.9% vs. 14.5% for those who don't have a high school diploma, 10.8% for those who have a high school diploma, and 8.2% for those with some college. There are also nearly 4x as many degreed people employed (45.8 million vs. 11.8 million) as those who don't have high school diplomas. So, an English degree is certainly better than nothing at all.

I suspect there are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that, if you're choosing between two job applicants, a degree is as good a reason as any to pick one over the other.

But, the truth is, there are a number of places where we have shortages, including nurses, doctors, scientists, engineers, and any number of technical experts. I might also point out that ideas and creative thinking have done more for this country than any other natural resource.

Unfortunately, the availability of higher education is not equitable. True, some exceptional students who are completely focused and brilliant with the right teachers and the right circumstances can sometimes get a real education anyway. It can happen if they manage to learn the study habits they need and stay focused and get the support they need and get lucky. It can happen, just like people can sell their first novel to the first publisher they ask or become a rich and famous singer out of the blue. But it's not easy.

If, however, one's parents are educated and (almost always) relatively comfortably off, college is often almost a given.

Many of us pretend that everyone has the same opportunities as everyone else.

Sadly, that's not so. And those without educations are suffering disproportionately.

And that's not even counting how much better off our country might be with more technical expertise.

*Steps off soapbox*


  • Project Savior

    I mostly agree with you, but I wouldn't discount the humanities degrees as much. Their is a lot value in being able to logically think out a plan argue logically for it and have a good feel for the consequences. And that's what you learn with a strong grounding in English, History, Economics, Business Management and the General Sciences.
    Some people have learned this without degrees and some notable people (our last President) let it bounce off their heads without taking it in. But I do know some bright people who maybe great in their field like electrical engineers that believe the silliest things outside that field, like vaccines cause autism. They just haven't learned the critical thinking needed to analyze claims outside their narrow field.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Let me be clear. I'm not equating intelligence or capability necessarily with a degree. Or assigning actual value to a degree - just marketability. Several of the smartest people I've ever known (including the two best engineers) never got a technical degree (one didn't even graduate high school) - but they were and are brilliant.

    I'm not saying an English or History degree makes you less capable of doing any number of jobs - I'm saying that the degree is less likely to readily lead to a job.

    There are plenty of educated folks that have no common sense or practicality or who are poorly suited for the jobs they obtained based on the fact they had a degree in something (including a technical degree - doing the coursework does not a brilliant engineer make). However, in a world where one's record on paper is more important (and more easily discerned) than one's character and inherent skill, they get the jobs anyway.

    And that's not necessarily equitable either.

  • Jeff King

    There is a place for poor people and workers that need to do a job that doesn't pay well... or if you will--their willing to do jobs regular people wouldn't.

    Not everyone can be a chief--in fact, it works better the fewer chiefs there are, and it helps to have a lot more Indians. If someone really wants an education, there is nothing stopping them. Just handing it out won't solve a thing... it would be wasting money and letting those that don't deserve it a way to float on by.

    I have had many, many college grads come and work for me, because they wasted their money and a degree in a field that wasn't in demand or in a field that people seldom move up, so the limited slots stay filled for their life time...


  • The Mother

    I need to add that the culture of a given individual may value education more or less. Often less.

    When a kid grows up in a family that never finishes high school and really doesn't see anything wrong with that, it's not opportunities that are missing in his life--it's motivation.

    Studies routinely show that Asian kids are highly educated, and highly pressured to be educated, while American blacks fall ruefully short of both goals.

    In other words, creating opportunities is only a part of the solution. Changing attitudes may be the bigger problem.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Agreed, the Mother. Unfortunately, that has to be done at home. Only rarely can one manage to do it from the outside.

    My family was poor growing up, but they took education very seriously, were willing to sacrifice for it. If your mom is raising her by yourself and wants you to get a job to help put food on the table instead of college, what are you going to do?

    I think Obama, as black, educated and in a position of power, can do a great deal as an example for many minorities. If they can take that lesson to heart, that will definitely be a step in the right direction. But it's still a long hard road.

  • The Mother

    A good example is worth a thousand words. Let's hope you're right.

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