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Will Rain Follow the Plow in our Job Market?

Students of history may recall that the phrase "Rain follows the plow" guided settlers in the 1870s to homestead and sow crops in vast stretches of arid plains in the American mid-west. According to this theory, the cultivation of the soil would result in greater humidity and rainfall, so that as the population increased, so would the harvest. An unusually damp decade supported this belief, but after years of persistent drought it was discredited.

We are seeing similar magical thinking afflicting the confluence of education and economics, in the belief that if we manage to prepare all our students for college, somehow the colleges will expand their capacity to educate them, and the future job market will absorb and reward them.

Let me say preemptively that I strongly believe all students deserve the very best education possible, and most students would benefit from attending college, assuming they do not need to acquire massive debt in the process. I also believe our current K-12 system is hugely inequitable, and that is not fair and should be corrected.

That said, the need to prepare all students for college is now being used as the reason we must close down, restructure or reconstitute "failing" schools - those with high numbers of drop-outs and low test scores. I do not wish to say these outcomes are acceptable, but I think the bigger question is how can we create an economy that has real opportunities for all of our students once they graduate? In the absence of these opportunities, I have to wonder whether the commitment to prepare all of our students for college is a sincere or wise one, and if it will, in fact, lead to better and more equitable outcomes.

I have, in the past, raised the rather obvious question about this goal: We have a great many college graduates on the unemployment rolls. It costs families, students and society a great deal to acquire this education. What makes us think there will be good jobs for an even larger number of college graduates, assuming our massive school improvement scheme works?

I raised this question to blogger Dan Brown, and got this reply:

A nationwide postsecondary-ed prep initiative would truly pay off in a generation. If America is going to remain a global leader, it needs to open up new sectors of white-collar (or green-collar) jobs. We need to grow the work force and grow the pool of qualified people to accommodate that growth. Is America really tapped out of good jobs--- no more need apply?

I hate to say it, but I think that if we do not drastically shift our priorities, America is indeed tapped out, and no amount of homegrown college graduates will rescue us.

This takes us into the rather touchy territory of macroeconomics, but I am reminded of yet another period of American history, the economic boom that followed World War Two. We recall with fondness the expansion of the middle class that is credited to the GI Bill, the last great expansion of American college attendance. But the foundation for the post-war boom in our economy was the dramatic expansion of manufacturing, made possible by the devastation of our global rivals in the war. And the strength of labor unions meant that a much larger share of the profits from this expansion were returned to the growing middle class. I believe nostalgia for this era fuels the belief that if we simply graduate more students from college, the middle class jobs and rising income will follow.

Today we have a vastly different economic scene. We have a tremendous concentration of wealth, and a shifting of the tax burden from those with lots of money to the middle class. In the US, the latest data (from the Economist magazine) on the economic recovery indicates that while national income has increased by $200 billion in the past year, corporate profits have increased by $280 billion, while wages are down by $90 billion. We have an exportation of every job that can be done elsewhere for less, and that includes many jobs that used to be middle class. We also have the capacity to import cheap college graduates from abroad, as employers have shown every willingness to do. We have resources being shifted away from the public sector so that the very existence of public education is threatened.

And since our students are often more aware of these realities than our policymakers, teacher exhortations and expectations are likely to prove less and less effective as motivational tools. It is heaping insult onto injury to close down the schools and fire the teachers when their students fail to seize opportunities that are illusory.

This week, even the USA Today had the nerve to ask: What if a college education just isn't for everyone?

There is some hope in the areas of the economy that Dan Brown mentions. If we are smart and get ahead of the curve on green technology, we could expand opportunities there. But growing the highly educated workforce in the hopes that jobs will arise is rather like planting crops in the belief that rain will come. If we do not consciously choose economic policies that strengthen our middle class, support job growth, and provide adequate resources for public education, then all the talk about preparing everyone for college is just going to lead to an educational dustbowl of massive proportions.

What do you think of asking schools to prepare all students for college?

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