The Elite “Let Them Eat Education” Fallacy

Yves here. If you’ve read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal, he charts how the Democratic party abandoned the working class and came to represent professionals, the more elite, the better. The Democrats regularly take the position that the solution to all sorts of economic problems, like inequality and unemployment, is education. You too can have a bright, secure future as a symbol manipulator!

There are plenty of reasons to doubt this theory. The shift in the balance of power towards employers means that the payoff to getting a good general education is questionable. worker rights have been so badly diluted that average job tenures were down to just a bit over four years, and it’s likely that more recent data would show a further decrease. That might not be so bad if employers will willing to hire individuals with general skills, but that is less and less true. When I was a kid, a college education from a decent school meant you were pretty much assured a job, even if that job might not be one you were so keen about, because employers expected to have to train new workers. That investment meant that employers had incentives to retain those employees so as to recoup the cost of new hires being less productive while they were getting up to speed. As we know too well, many employers prefer to treat workers as disposable, even though the managerial cost of replacing people is not cheap, particularly when the job skills are narrowly spec’ed.

The result is that students increasingly have to take a mercenary approach to their education. But how can one possibly sus out what skill set at age 20 to 23 might form the foundation for a 30+ year career? Look at how one of the formerly secure paths, that of being a doctor, has been turned on its head by the way insurers and the ACA are increasingly pushing doctors into being employees of health care organizations and practicing corporatized medicine. Not only is that profoundly unattractive to MDs who care about patient health, but it is also leading a lot of doctors to abandon treating medical conditions and instead converting their practices to niches that serve the wealthy so they can avoid being under the thumb of insurers, such as cosmetic procedures or anti-aging.

Related to that is an issue that Jamie Galbraith described in his book The Predator State: that it wan’t such a hot idea on a societal level to encourage more people to get advanced degrees. They are costly in personal and economic terms, and the recipient of those degrees have very narrow skills. If they can deploy them productively, that’s great, but if they can’t, their alternatives are usually poor. They would have wound up better off getting a job after college. And remember that Galbraith made this argument more than a a decade ago, when higher education costs were less catastrophic than they are now.

Another layer of the problem is increased class stratification. I know lots of people personally who came from working class families, both my age and somewhat younger, who went to elite schools and got prestigious jobs. All sorts of data now shows that people who grow up in lower income cohorts are unlikely to leave them. Greater class differences and less class mingling means that there are fewer opportunities for bright, energetic kids from the wrong side of the tracks to learn to master the class markers necessary to move up the social ladder. And that’s before you get to the fact that continuing attacks on public education and teachers, the increased propensity of parents of means to send their children to private schools, and the looting operation known as charter schools have increased the gap between the pre-college educational experience of the upper middle class and affluent and everyone else.

With all that as background, no wonder that education is insufficient to combat the additional barriers to advancement that blacks face.

By Darrick Hamilton, Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, The New School. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking

Last week’s release of The Ever Growing Gap, a study by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation for Enterprise Development into America’s vast and growing racial wealth divide, raises the urgent question of policy remedies. And it’s on that front that our own findings on the question of educational opportunity — where the disparities are often the favored explanation of many researchers and policy analysts for the racial wealth gap — are worth revisiting.

Our recent research brief entitled, “Umbrellas Don’t make it Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans,” critiques the preponderance of research and public policy that asserts that education and hard work drive upward mobility, especially as it relates to racial and ethnic disparity. Like umbrellas and rain, simply observing that wealthier individuals typically have higher levels of education does not necessarily mean that educational attainment is the causal factor behind their greater wealth.

Our research found that the typical net worth of black families headed by a college graduate is only about $23,000, while the typical white family of equivalent educational achievement has close to eight times that amount, with about $180,000 in wealth.

In fact, black households headed by a college graduate have only about two-thirds of the wealth of white families whose head dropped out of high school.

So, while a college degree is positively associated with relative wealth within a particular racial category, it does little to explain or address the massive wealth gap across the racial divide.

Nor is a “good” job necessarily the great wealth equalizer that many imagine. Income-poor white families own more wealth than middle-income black families — the typical white household whose head is unemployed has nearly twice the wealth of the typical black family whose head holds a full-time job —about $23,000 versus $12,000. The typical black family whose head is unemployed, by contrast, has no wealth.

While not to diminish the intrinsic value of education, nor our society’s responsibility to equip all its children with a high-quality education, our findings demonstrate that education alone is not the antidote for the enormous racial gaps in wealth and employment.

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  1. fresno dan

    I have posted about the high tech conspiracy through HB1 to suppress wages. Google it and you find an overwhelming amount of evidence of the illegal behavior of the tech companies, all run by our “illustrious tech philanthropists” (SARC) – I guess not being wage busters is not part of “don’t be evil”

    You know, there was a time in American that such behavior would have been criminally prosecuted….
    Why do we have a DoJ????

  2. Johnny Lunch Box

    Why do we have the SEC, FDA, AMA, EPA, ect ect. They are all illusions of protection. For years they have been toothless just like our Attorney General. Now we have the FED throwing the screws to all the people who did things right by saving so that they can save the banks and and their huge salaries.

  3. lower middle class

    “You too can have a bright, secure future as a symbol manipulator!”

    I have a new mantra!

  4. Louis

    On semi-related note, there will likely come a point–if we’re not already there–where education won’t be a sufficient guarantee of job security where automation is concerned–some jobs that currently require a degree could be rendered obsolete.

    I’m in agreement with the original post that as valuable as education is it’s not always a be all end all to all to the problems with stagnant wages or employment in general.

    1. dw

      and what good is getting en education, if the field you got it in, disappears either because of automation, or because all of the jobs have been exported? and you dont know which one(s) will be in the next 10 years let alone beyond that. and employers demand that their new employees have all the skills they need from the start, plus understand the business they are in. and corporate training of employees has died years and years ago

      1. hunkerdown

        Debt makes for more reliable employees. It really is just indentured servitude gone middle-brow and anonymous.

      2. Louis

        Agreed. This ties into to the issue of retraining, which is a popular sound bite when the issue of employment and wages comes up. Although it sounds good, the problem, of course, is retrain for what?

      3. HBE


        “and employers demand that their new employees have all the skills they need from the start, plus understand the business they are in.”

        You have no idea how true this is. I spoke with grads, saw the writing on the wall and got lucky, and managed to seek out and get paid internships in my relevant field before graduation.

        I know too many recent grads who weren’t as lucky or still operated under the illusion that a degree was all you needed, and are now working low skill, low pay, customer service jobs.

        I went to several interviews before I got hired for (very) entry level jobs in my field. The one thing i found, and heard from employers and friends is that if you want to get hired (without a family connection) you better graduate with at least a year of experience in your field under your belt, and have the ability to start work with zero training (outside of internal company processes).

        Basically if you want a job in your relevant field today and don’t have company connections, you better show them you can start tomorrow with no training, or the interview is over.

        It’s truly sink, or swim.

        Bit of advice for parents or older students, no one gives a shiite about grades (college level), if your grades suffer (still passing though) because of an internship, screw them and stick with the internship.

        1. Spring Texan

          Yes all the risk is shifted to the potential employee who has wasted time and money if there is any mismatch between what the company wants and what the employee imagined they might want.

          When employers were willing to train (they even hired people called “trainees”, in the olden days), there was a near-perfect match between training and employer needs. Just saying. But oh — then the employer had to pay for the training, so we couldn’t have THAT!

          1. jrs

            A lot of what employers seek in job ads are not taught in schools anywhere (from the community college, to the university, to adult education) and not because colleges are doing it wrong (sometimes they are behind the curve but even when they offer bleeding edge things), but rather because what employers are seeking is something so specialized to a narrow market niche that NOONE is going to teach that, nor would it make any sense to.

            And yet despite the fact of training never going to be available elsewhere for their narrow niche, they won’t train. And so almost noone qualifies but they seek the purple squirrel who somehow managed to learn it at another job, and the job market is bad enough they might get it.

            Getting internships may be good advice but it’s so depressing, because how many young people (or older people even) know this? How are they supposed to know this? Does the college or high school guidance counselor give this advice (maybe in the high schools in the rich neighborhoods but not the poor…) They can do the best they possibly can within the lights of their very young in many cases understanding of the world including choosing what seems a useful major and fail. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and what they know. Sigh. Time for a revolution already.

            1. bdy

              People lie, get the job and learn it on the fly. “If you don’t feel totally overwhelmed on your first day of work, you aimed too low”. Crapification in the labor market.

  5. Bill H

    Education as a solution to inequality is farcial on the face of it. What, we’re going to have janitors with college degrees making $90,000 per year? Even though garbage truck drivers are now called “sanitation engineers,” it still doesn’t require a college degree to do the job, and they still are not paid princely wages. Maybe the Democratic elite think we no longer need janitors and garbage truck drivers.

    1. diptherio

      Wage levels, by all rights, should be inversely proportional to the social prestige of the labor being performed. Hard, dangerous, dirty jobs that people don’t respect you for doing should be the best paid jobs. Jobs that don’t put your health at risk or require a shower after work should be at the bottom of the pay scale. That would be fair.

      1. Charlie Beard

        You are absolutely right. I’m assuming you have worked hard, dangerous, dirty jobs, as I have all my life. Fairness receives no consideration. Most people who have labored as you and I have will feel the same way. I’m not complaining. Hard, honest work builds character, or at least up to a point.

      2. hunkerdown

        Hmm, a “life theory of value”. Interesting, interesting. Except that the operation of debt money is merely to compel other people to do things for you.

        I suggest, instead, to make sure those precious credentialled professionals spend a duly large amount of time performing menial tasks and spending time with non-professionals, in order that they get over themselves[1]. Continuing Effacement Units, we might call them.

        [1] Which is the first of two straws that made me decide I can’t pull the lever for Trump. The second was the house rules on Reddit’s The_Donald sub, an apparent central command (divided with 4chan’s /pol/, no doubt) for the constitutency Trump party: “No dissenters”. Lovely. Sometimes I wonder how many of them are paid by which candidate.

        1. Michael Fiorillo

          Absolutely: everyone, especially the children of the wealthy and affluent, should have to work a shit job and have to scuffle for their livelihood for a while.

          It might create a little empathy, and more important, generate support for higher wages, for people who do that work for years or decades.

      3. Bern

        “Hard, dangerous, dirty jobs that people don’t respect you for doing should be the best paid jobs. Jobs that don’t put your health at risk or require a shower after work should be at the bottom of the pay scale. That would be fair.”

        Walden 2, Wall Street nil.

    2. Some Guy


      Not just janitors et al, but the reserve of unemployed the Fed uses to prevent wage inflation.

    3. jrs

      we’re going to achieve greater equality by this here rube goldberg machine, of course the obvious way to reduce inequality would be to redistribute wealth*, but we need to run the penny through the rube goldberg machine first see … Stop questioning, your betters know best afterall! You just lack the edumacation to understand the workings of the rube goldberg machine!

      *of course things like higher wages would work

    4. Code Name D

      It’s no longer just “garbage”, but recycling and the handling of increasingly hazardous materials. While even a GED may not be required, there is still a lot more to this job than simply dumping cans of trash into a truck.

      Even so, we should know by now that the complexity, difficulty, or skill level of any job has little relevance to its importance. If you doubt this, go visit India which in the midst of a massive sanitation strike.

      The education fallacy is not just about the false promise of a better life through a college degree. It’s also a classist argument that assumes garbage collectors are worth less than doctors and lawyers, and thus their pay should reflect our social bias, in contempt of their actual worth. We do not have the right to abuse our heroes, even if they are humble and unsung.

      1. Mike G

        I have more respect for a really good and ethical auto mechanic than I do for 90% of the corporate managers I’ve known who seem to excel mainly at self-promotion and internal politics. The same for other skilled trades.

    5. nycTerrierist

      We already have adjuncts (70% of all college faculty) making less than janitors.

      What could possibly go wrong?

      1. Arizona Slim

        One of my neighbors *used* to own a home. She went back to school, got her PhD, and the only jobs she could find were as a postdoc and an adjunct.

        So, she and her husband sold their house and moved into a really crappy rental. It’s next to my house and I can personally attest to the idea that slumlords exist. The landlord who owns this dumpy rental house fits the bill.

        The ever-efficient neighborhood grapevine noted the reason for my next-door neighbors’ home sale: The need to pay off debts. I strongly suspect that those debts were student loans.

        So much for the ROI on advanced degrees.

  6. Steve H.

    “So, while a college degree is positively associated with relative wealth within a particular racial category, it does little to explain or address the massive wealth gap across the racial divide.”

    This reminds me of a quote I can’t find, that IQ scores within race had a much higher variance than across race. ‘Within/Across” seems to be a particularly good analytic tool.

    “I know lots of people personally who came from working class families, both my age and somewhat younger, who went to elite schools and got prestigious jobs. All sorts of data now shows that people who grow up in lower income cohorts are unlikely to leave them.”

    This goes to two points. One is the danger of conflating race with income or wealth. We’re predisposed to see the visual differences when there are better measures available.The level of inherited wealth available to a young adult is more important in supporting the time they have to search alternatives, and the risks they may take, than inherent talent or ‘merit.’

    The other is a cohort effect. I’ll hypothesize, there is a cutoff point where the benefits of education (and student debt) snapped off of costs in the way income cut off from productivity in the early 1970’s. White degree rates have been dropping while Black have been increasing, which multiply the effect of decreased rewards across race.

    1. flora

      “The level of inherited wealth available to a young adult is more important in supporting the time they have to search alternatives, and the risks they may take, than inherent talent or ‘merit.’ ”

      A very important point. Today students have to take on enormous debts to attend even state universities. The college loan debt burden forecloses risk taking.

      1. Sam Adams

        Student loans do more than foreclose risk, they demoralize a generation. They create an incentive to undercut others and create fiefdoms. One mistake choosing a major carries devastating lifelong undischargable debt, garnishment and peonage. It destroys belief in civic virtue and the role of government.

      2. bdy


        Opportunity means little to nothing without the security to time your reach, or the security to fail.

  7. Toni Gilpin

    On a related note, I wrote a piece for Labor Notes about the phony “skills gap.” It’s a few years old but nothing much has changed. It’s still the case that public dollars are now underwriting what companies once routinely paid for themselves. The public high school in my hometown — Evanston, IL — has made a major investment in a Manufacturing Lab, despite the fact that manufacturing employment has flatlined and new factory jobs often pay little more than fast food employment does. We’d be better off funding an Organizing Lab, in my view, as unions are reason that factory jobs once offered decent pay and benefits, and in the process we’d also teach students how to be engaged and active citizens. It would be cheaper, too: no high-tech (and quickly obsolete) equipment to buy. But educators and policy makers are committed to the view that education — that is, education tailored by the job market rather than education aimed at liberation and empowerment — solves all problems: such a view allows corporations to escape responsibility for our wrecked economy and endeavors to transform what is a societal crisis into a matter of individual initiative. It’s a strategy that has proven very effective.

    1. Louis

      Along similar lines is retraining, which makes for a good talking point but is easier said than done in practice for two main reasons:

      (1) Retrain for what? It’s hard enough to predict what the job market is going to look like in just a couple of years from now and next to impossible to predict in 10+ years.

      (2) Who pays for it? There aren’t that many jobs, at least that I’m aware of, that both pay well and you can be retrained for in a short period of time. If you have to do it yourself, it take months and sometimes even several years, especially if it means getting formal degree. This can get expensive fairly quickly if you have to shoulder the financial burden yourself.

      While retraining is a solution and works some of the time, it is not the solution: i.e. one that will work 100% of the time.

      1. jrs

        yea the middle age people who are often said to “need retraining”, well some who have been fortunate may easily retrain with accumulated wealth for something and maybe even find jobs in it and good on them, but the rest can’t necessarily afford to have no income for 2 or more years (for any degree) while they retrain with a job far from guaranteed at the end of it all anyway.

    2. H. Alexander Ivey

      ‘that is, education tailored by the job market rather than education aimed at liberation and empowerment…”

      Talk about timing – I am working my way thru a model for teaching & learning, and had forgotten to address the purpose or reason for learning (education) something in the first place! Now I’ll have to figure out how to footnote your quote.

      Hat tip to you, Toni Gilpin!

  8. diptherio

    Greater class differences and less class mingling means that there are fewer opportunities for bright, energetic kids from the wrong side of the tracks to learn to master the class markers necessary to move up the social ladder.

    Please, let us not forget that the goal isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be, imho) to help people from non-affluent families be better able to fake being from a different social stratum, or to allow a demographically proportional percentage of every identity category to be represented in the one percent.

    Which is to say that the desire to move up the social ladder is actually counter-productive, as it buys into the whole concept of hierarchy and inequality that produces the “social ladder” in the first place. It’s that ladder that is the problem, or at least our focus on it. Rather, we need to be figuring out ways to meet our actual needs, without regard to moving up the social ladder. There’s only ever going to be room for a small minority up at the top anyway…heck, that’s what makes it the top. We need a major re-think in this country about what “success” means. Until we get over the idea that success = being relatively high on the social ladder, we will just keep competing with each other, to the detriment of all. My 2 cents.

  9. Sigmund Krieger

    Most jobs require little more than a proper high school education. Many jobs require some specialized training, the equivalent of two years of post high school training and or apprenticeship. A moderate number of jobs require a college degree and some require a masters or a doctoral degree. In 1951 I graduated from an all boys high schoool in Chicago with a better education than most colleges currently provide. I have done reasonably well thru five different careers. As to social class I place myself as middle to upper middle. In the latter years of my career I encountered many college graduates who were incapable of critical thinking and analysis. While quick to adapt to new technologies they were clueless as to cause and effect and were far more concerned about group acceptance. Group dependent thay flock to twitter and facebook and have great difficulty recognizing snake oil. The current class income problem is that of our color-class oriented society and the financialization of our society. the pernicious long standing debasement of the currency is an integral component of why we have the disparity in incomes and wealth.

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘Many jobs require some specialized training, the equivalent of two years of post high school training and or apprenticeship.’

      Quite so. Only a tiny portion of the workforce possess both the inclination and the ability to advance the intellectual frontiers in their fields.

      The rest — including the college and postgraduate educated — mostly use their educational attainment as a credential. Then they end up applying knowledge gained in perhaps two or three of their classes in recipe fashion to solve the daily issues that confront them. Most of their know-how is gained on the job.

      In the political realm, a mindless assumption that “MOAR college = double-plus good” prevails. This anachronistic claim might have true a half century ago, when the average educational attainment was tenth grade and an eighth of the adult workforce was college educated.

      Now we’ve reached the other side of the mountain, where college graduates arguably are in surplus. But the “college for all” mentality can’t turn off their sorcerer’s apprentice. So they sucker their young victims into the indentured servitude of college debt.

      Who will teach our youth about higher education’s slimy student loan racket?

      1. PhilU

        The driver of this is the much hyped average income of college graduates vs non-college graduates. That is being pushed is entirely because high schools are ranked by college acceptance of their graduates. I was skimming through some high school ranks the other day and noticed that it was very high yet had a graduation rate of 93% while schools that didn’t rank as high had graduation rates of 98%. What more basic measurement of a high schools quality is there then ability to graduate students? Especially one in an well off suburb with presumably no need to drop out for financial reasons.

  10. PlutoniumKun

    A quick look at the list of countries by tertiary degrees shows how meaningless it is to talk about how more people with degrees will do better in terms of wealth generation and jobs. The US has quite a high rate at 44% – but Russia has 54% – while Denmark has 34% and Germany has a mere 25%. Clearly, there are all sorts of factors involved, but clearly its just one factor (and not necessarily an important one) among many in dealing with growth and poverty.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Germany has long had world-class vocational education and apprenticeship programs. Whereas in the U.S. they are few and far between.

      You don’t need no PhD Econ to see that a licensed plumber isn’t going to be put outta business by foreign competition.

      *brandishes pipe wrench in greasy paw*

      1. grizziz

        No knock on the intelligence, skill, experience or public safety that plumbers provide, however it is their credential and its limited supply which secure plumbers (not helpers or apprentices) higher incomes than PhD Economists. Also, in Chicago the testing is much tougher meaning that the University of Chicago credentials more PhD Economists that the City of Chicago licenses new plumbers.

      2. vegeholic

        I lived for a while in Switzerland and it seemed every vocation had an apprenticeship/training program. And the people in all of these jobs were proud of their abilities and proud of their station in life. It seems in the US apprenticeships became the domain of the unions, with the perception that you had to know someone to get accepted. Likewise colleges and graduate programs are full of people who really just need training, but we have so denigrated labor and so elevated academia that we get huge misallocations of talent and ability. We do not have to invent anything new, just follow the examples of Germany and Switzerland.

        1. bmeisen

          That’s right. The international comparison based on tertiery degrees is specious, an example of numbskull American exceptionalism, even when as here it appears somewhat reflective. Advanced social democracies – systems in which capital is compelled by the electoral success of labor’s political allies to partner with labor – have more or less successfully defended their labor forces from the de-skilling campaigns of western neoliberals. In advanced social democracies the paths to qualification for sustainable careers are diverse. In contrast to the USA where it serves as a vague indicator of professional potential, in advanced social democracies the BA is a specific qualification among many, and one that is not attactive for many schoolkids.

    2. Isotope_C14

      I’ve worked with multiple people from Russia and their PhD’s are generally worthless. I suspect that it is not just that Stalin wrecked modern Genetics in the old USSR, but many of the degrees are simply purchased. I’ve seen these guys turn off the overhead fluorescent lights to work with “light sensitive” chemicals, showing about how much they understand chemistry. I’ve seen lab voo-doo that can only be explained by someone who has no understanding of what they are doing.

      Science doesn’t work properly when there are authorities. Carl Sagan said something similar, and said “at best” there are experts. Well, there’s plenty of “not best” in academia, I’d say the majority…

      1. Anon

        So give me some data.

        I have interactions with Russian emigres here in the US that are ridiculously well-educated AND can speak fluent, non-inflected English after six or seven years here. Anecdotal, yes. But from my reading, the Russian culture is more interested in learning and education than the U.S.!

        I mean, the University of Phoenix? Really?!

        1. Michael Fiorillo

          I teach high school ESL in NYC, in a school that is 100% recent immigrants. Although my school does not get a lot of students from Russia, we do get some, and many others from former Warsaw Pact nations.

          They are invariably better educated, in the broadest sense of the term – foreign language, music, art, science, history, etc. – than their US peers.

    3. JTFaraday

      Well, here’s the glitch that I see to all this glib dismissal of higher education and symbolic reasoning, (or if you prefer, symbolic manipulation). It took at least a bit of work on your part to come upon those data points and, at the end of the day, few among the wealthy and particularly clever are going to defend the interests of the majority, so they are going to have to figure out how to do it themselves.

      As the elite John Adams foretold. Have a nice day.

      1. JTFaraday

        Including little Jamie Galbraith, who didn’t mind turning his public policy appointment into some kind of glorified historian and talking head position, instead of deploying a small army of grad students in pragmatic research and drafting counter cyclical jobs legislation and depositing it in Congress, like any decent self respecting K-Street policy shop.

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      The overall level is misleading. The US has very high educational attainment….among OLDER people. It drops off dramatically when you get to the under 40 cohort. In a few years. as more old people die and the weight of younger people become greater in the average, you’ll see the US % of tertiary degrees lagging those of more countries.

  11. sid_finster

    There was a time when the Yugoslav government pushed education as a panacea for the raging unemployment in Kosovo. Something like 1/5 of the province’s population were students for a while.

    Actually, noon believed it was a panacea, but it was a way to buy time.

    How’d that work out?

    1. jrs

      I suspect it worked out with a lot of youth emigrating with their newfound credentials to somewhere that could use their skills?

  12. Ranger Rick

    So are they going to build any more Ivy League schools? Because that’s really what they mean when they say “education is the solution to your problems” — attend the right school, get the right education, meet the right people.

    1. Rosario

      Thank you! You probably made the most relevant comment WRT the successful outcome of college educated students.

    2. Mike G

      With the right connections and influence, even a lazy, ignorant fratboy like GW Bush can make it to the White House. Without connections, he’d probably have spent his career running a furniture store in Abilene or somesuch.

  13. Watt4Bob

    My putting my wife and kids through grad-school and college has little to do with Job-Prospects, it has to do with Life-Prospects.

    We’re not going to able to change much about the conditions of employment resulting from the devolution of American capitalism in the short term, but forgoing an education because it doesn’t directly result in a guarantee of more money is too high a price to pay.

    Education is it’s own reward.

    And life is still a b*tch.

    PS; The skills-gap meme is a load of BS, a myth perpetrated on workers to explain why their jobs have been stolen, and to promote their further fleecing through bogus training programs that soak both students and tax-payers.

    1. jrs

      it’s own reward if someone else is paying for it I suppose … If one has to foot the bill … maybe not.

      1. Katharine

        That’s when people who really want the learning become autodidacts, unless, as is too often the case, they become swamped by multiple jobs and other responsibilities. The confounding of education with credentialism has done amazing harm, I think.

  14. joey

    But if people don’t go to college, how will the financial elite make money off guaranteed student loans?

    1. joey

      On a different point, the linked article doesn’t clearly cite the origin of the data, but nevertheless there is considerable skew from the 0.1 percenters. Take out the Waltons alone and white average wealth will drop.

      1. John Wright

        I am concerned whenever someone uses a “typical” wealth figure when it is not explained if “typical” = average or “typical”= median.

        In this case “typical” apparently does mean median, with half the population above/below this number.

        Median is used in the linked article from 2015 (


        2013 Median net worth of White non-Hispanic families is 141.9K while 2013 Median net worth of Non-white or Hispanic families is 18.1K.

        Note with a USA median home price of $188.9K, the median net worth White non-Hispanic home owning family could still owe more than 40K on their home, so conceivably they have little financial cushion..

        They have to sell/mortgage their homes to have liquid funds to invest/pay off other debts.

        The median net worth figure of 141.9K of White families should not be used to imply that these families are doing comfortably well in the USA.

        Of course, the 18.1K median non-white or Hispanic family net worth is even worse.

        The message should be that, at the median level, no ethnic group is doing well in the USA, not that “the typical white family… has close to eight times that amount (of equivalently educated black family)”.

        So at the median level, ALL groups are NOT doing well in the USA, this is further evidenced by Figure 1 of the first link ( that has liquid wealth by race of $25 dollars for black families and $3000 for white families (200/23000 if retirement savings are tapped)

        Even $3000 will quickly be swamped with an car engine repair bill, a major home repair such as a roof replacement or medical expense..

        Hence the term “precariat” is applied to much of the USA’s population, but some groups are in a more precarious position than others..

        Note the authors of the 2015 paper close by advocating for government sponsored Child Trust Accounts that might be funded with 60K for babies born into the lowest wealth families and would be federally managed and grow at a federally guaranteed annual interest rate of 1.5-2 percent. They would be accessed when a child becomes an adult and used for “asset-enhancing endeavors such as purchasing a home or starting a new business”

        One might expect the vaunted US financial industry would provide copious advice to “inform” Child Trust Accounts holders how to tap into these government provided funds when the time is ripe..

        What could possibly go wrong?

  15. JustAnObserver

    This post reminds me that, way back in the 1970s, before the Higher Ed Industry went into full-on gouging mode, a friend of mine talked about the narrow skills problem. His solution was to go off & get a class III heavy goods vehicle license (US = semi, tractor/trailer) and then spent a few years building up experience in the long distance trucking trade (ended UP IIRC doing runs as far as Iran). Can’t quite remember now whether he did this before or after going to University but it stood him in good stead.

    The problem now is that this will no longer work so well as most of what were once the high skilled, high paying jobs have been crappified and/or credentialised. I’d still advise any one from the non-elite classes to try do this before submitting themselves HEI gouge … always have a backup, a plan B, for when the 10% find some new & interesting way to screw the rest of the population.

  16. ab/mba

    Amen. Story of my life. With degrees from the two most recognizable higher ed brands in the US, I am perpetually in and out of employment, for the reasons Yves mentions above. Business does not value general intellectual skills. I don’t blame them, at least not the individual companies, which know what they need, at least in the short term. My ire is reserved for the liberal elitists and reformers who claim that more and more formal education will solve our problems. And for the university faculty and admins who collect hard money from students and parents and the government with no accountability. What is the most galling is – if I may generalize – their pride and self-righteousness. I could have been an ally of both, but when they finally fall I will be among those who laugh and celebrate.

  17. ekstase

    People have a whole range of skill sets, and probably some of them are inborn, but we don’t value them equally in our society. If we meet a lot of different kinds of people, it becomes clear that reading and analyzing are: a) useful to society and b) not everyone’s cup of tea. I think Jung’s theory of sixteen personality types is right on the money. There are a lot of people who are more interested in, and gifted at, working with their hands, for example:
    It seems to me that there are two arguments here. Everyone should have access to equal, non-stratified education, and under capitalism, we “need” the stratification to tell us who are betters and lessers are. But also, besides the incredible unfairness of this sysrem, some people learn better in less formal “schools.” Chefs spring to mind. Maybe some major changes need to occur in making higher education free, and in valuing the work of people who do not need it.

  18. Softie

    Noam Chomsky famously said from his own elite college experience,

    “The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on – because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

    In other words, college education is for mind-control obedience training, and it has purpose to perpetuate the current political economic setup.

  19. Andrew Watts

    Research studies won’t refute the belief of our current ruling class elites are superior to the rest of us. In their mind education is a means of sorting the smart people from the dumb people and we have a perfectly level playing field where all can succeed and f— the losers. That self-congratulatory nonsense is why we have Trump as a presidential candidate and even more social instability in our future.

    1. Andrew Watts

      Oops, accidentally a word or two during copy + paste.

      Research studies won’t refute the belief of our current ruling class elites that they are superior to the rest of us.

    2. Softie

      “our current ruling class elites are superior to the rest of us.”

      British philosopher Bertrand Russell once pointed out “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.”

      Is it true that in the past our current elites weren’t elites at all? Is it also true that they can be elites forever in the future?

      When they legitimize their privileges and power over the masses by meritocracy, we can certain that they desperately want to persuade us that there is no hierarchy preventing us from ascending to the top of the economical and political power structure.

      In reality most of us fail to realize that we are fucked everyday culturally, politically, financially, and ecologically by the same power.

      How smart is the smartness of our elites’ destroying our only biosphere in the entire galaxies for some imaginary wealth? You tell me.

  20. Saint Grottlesex Only

    [There’s Chomsky’s view of education as a lint trap for nonconformists, and diptherio’s précis of the pernicious idea of education as a leg up on your competitors. Then there’s state and federal common law, ]

    a UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society… shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance

    [including] UDHR Article 26.

    (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
    (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
    (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

    [Then there’s the educational prerequisite for any state that claims to be sovereign:]

    ICESCR Article 13

    1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

    2. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the full realization of this right:

    (a) Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all;

    (b) Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

    (c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

    (d) Fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education;

    (e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.

    3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

    4. No part of this article shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions, subject always to the observance of the principles set forth in paragraph I of this article and to the requirement that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards as may be laid down by the State.

  21. Seamus Padraig

    Of course education is being pushed as the solution to all of our problems! Don’t forget that, here in the US of A, education is yet another for-profit industry, providing yet another reliable revenue stream for the big banks … and best of all it’s a form of debt which is now virtually impossible to dismiss, even through a bankruptcy filing!

  22. Buffalo Cyclist

    Another issue that needs to be acknowledged: Education is not the same thing as schooling, even though society tends to confuse the two. Rather, they are two different things that happen to overlap somewhat (but not completely). There are a lot of educated people who have had not had a lot of schooling and vice versa. This is a huge, unacknowledged issue given the number of people in power now who have prestigious degrees but are nonetheless clueless about many basic facts (which events like Iraq’s WMDs and the GFC illustrated so clearly).

    1. Mike G

      Schooling is not education.
      Insurance is not health care.

      But it’s more profitable for our rulers to pretend they are the same.

  23. Sluggeaux

    Isn’t the point here that printing graduate degrees like Cracker-Jack prizes is never going to be a panacea for the exclusion of Americans from engaging in productive activity in favor of workers under corrupt and oppressive regimes who earn a tiny fraction of American wages?

    Only 2 percent of the population have PhD’s; only 12 percent have graduate degrees of any kind, although few of them from the elite Ivies. Last year I went to a lecture by Joseph Stiglitz, where he offered “college for all” as the remedy for inequality. I took him to task over this — a PhD is by definition a person who is “above-average” in achievement. I pointed out that as an economist, he should know that it is mathematically impossible for everyone to be above average! I told him that instead we should look for ways to honor and compensate productive labor, rather than paying lip-service to notions of equality.

    The current “college for all” push is nothing but a design for indentured servitude and debt peonage for the benefit of the elites.

  24. Watt4Bob

    It’s very disappointing to read this thread and find that almost everyone has accepted that the primary purpose of education is to insure a ‘good job’.

    If that’s the case, I’d say we’ve pretty much conceded to the PTB in their effort to turn us into a heard.

    I was taught in a junior high school psychology course (those damn 1960’s) that businesses had started screening people in order to discover which of us were motivated mainly by money. It was explained to us that business people were of the opinion that those who were motivated by money were the easiest to control, and could be trusted to follow the company plan to the letter if it included the proper monetary incentives.

    I was raised with the expectation that I would go to one of the military academies, leave the working class behind and become one of the ‘movers and shakers’, but when the Viet Nam war gave illustration to the nature of our empire, my dreams of an honorable military career went up in smoke.

    This was back when ‘following your passion’ was still in vogue so I followed mine and enrolled in art school majoring in ceramics and glass.

    Both disciplines are extremely technical, chemistry, thermal dynamics,… and on top of that, learning to be a craftsman.

    I later moved into music, and through that discovered audio production and then digital audio, and through that, computers.

    I got an opportunity to use my computer skills when IP networking took off and everyone wanted to add networked PCs to their business environment.

    What I’m describing is not an ‘unique’ personal history so much as what used to be the way the world worked, people followed their nose, so to speak, their passion if you will, and went where life carried them.

    And here’s the punchline;

    When Ross Perot started EDS to provide IT/data services, he could not find and adequate supply of programmers, and the solution he decided on, was to hire people out of university music schools, because programming necessitated an appreciation for craft.

    Programming is a craft, programmers have to live within the natural constraints of the craft, there is a beginning, a middle and an end to programs, if the parts are not crafted properly, the program doesn’t work.

    Musicians understand that every note has to be in its place, there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and if everything note is not exactly in its place the music doesn’t work.

    Musicians were easier to teach because they already understood, accepted and valued the basic requirement of craftsmanship that was necessary to the job.

    These people did not end up with high-paying jobs by following the money, they followed their passion, which led them inevitably to colleges where they were sought out by a very smart motivated man who saw them as a valuable resource.

    Later, (1970s-80s) when the economy was being to go abstract, and creation gave way to ‘creative destruction’ the PTB put on a full-court-press to discredit the politically adventurous ‘hippy’ culture and convince young Americans that there was nothing wrong with wanting a lot of money, and in fact ‘Greed is Good’.

    Our masters managed to create a tsunami of interest in an obscure credential, the MBA, and started a wave of ‘creative destruction’, and ‘financial innovation’ that we are now endeavoring to survive.

    After witnessing our master’s full-spectrum attack on public education, higher education, and the educated, (teachers and academics) we are now told that if we’re having difficulties, we probably have the wrong education, and have we considered the possibility that we don’t need that college education at all?

    “Just get a job”

    Accepting what we’re being sold, that an education is quite possibly a losing proposition for many of us in today’s economic climate, we should be insisting that that economic climate is toxic and must be changed.

    But here we are agreeing that a college education isn’t a good ‘investment’ and looking for another way to join the 10%.

    Which is just another way of blaming ourselves which is what the PTB always help us to do.

    And aspirations to wealth, and a life of ease through joining the 10% credentialed class is capitulation.

    1. flora

      I agree with your comment. However, in the 60’s and 70’s students and their families didn’t have to mortgage their future in undischargable debt to go to a state college or mid-level college. Now that it’s so d**m expensive families are sensible to ask if it’s worth the cost.
      Here’s an on-point essay from 2013: ” The Decline and Fall of the English Major”

      1. flora

        adding: 40-50 years ago a year’s instate tuition for several good midwestern state uni’s averaged $300. – $500 dollars, that for a whole year or 30 credit hours. Student housing was pretty cheap, too. You really could get thru school with little or no debt if you had a full-time summer job and part-time job during the school year.

        Today those same uni’s instate tuition for a year, or 30 credit hours, averages $8000 – $10000 plus fees. College costs have sky-rocketed compared to wage increases over the past 40 years. Student housing costs have also increased much like general housing inflation.

        Having said that, I agree with your statement:
        Accepting what we’re being sold, that an education is quite possibly a losing proposition for many of us in today’s economic climate, we should be insisting that that economic climate is toxic and must be changed.

        1. Watt4Bob

          Yes, you’re right, and thanks for your comments.

          But, If I was hiring, I’d take an English major from just about any ‘normal’ school over any degree from Phoenix U any day. (IMHO, the whole avoidance of training thing on the part of employers is a pathetic cost-saving measure gone too far)

          We may make fun of English majors but it’s still a good all-around education if you ask me.

          I went to school when it was affordable, great school, about $500 per semester as I recall.

          I want my kids to have the same educational experience.

          My son just graduated from a very good school, my daughter is about to start her sophomore year.

          My wife graduated with a master’s degree around 2008, just in time for the catastrophe.

          I’m walking on faith that our country will self-correct the situation we all find ourselves in at the moment. Starting with a student debt jubilee, then a national mortgage adjustment and some sane tax-reform that doesn’t amount to more tax-cuts for the rich.

          (These things would stimulate the economy)

          This is really not too much to ask.

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