Oren Cass wrote one of the worst op-ed’s the New York Times has ever published. That is no small feat. His premise is that we spend too much money (and time) preparing college-bound students and do too little for vocational education in our public schools. I argue that his thesis illustrates how deeply conservatives misunderstand the historic purpose of public education, the financial benefits tax-payers receive from this investment, and the reality of vocational training programs in communities where that is actually a desired outcome for the students, their families, and their local communities. Cass is the education policy sequel to Paul Ryan’s deficit crunching “wonk” charade. His ideas only make sense if you fundamentally do not know what public schools do, how the economy works, and breaks down pretty fast if you ask the simple question of “who does this really benefit?”
Before discussing the thesis of this piece, I want to point out how lazily Cass has researched even his quips that are designed to highlight the excesses of our college-student funding. Ohio State University is not giving out free smoke detectors because they know that college students are just too poor or too irresponsible to buy one themselves. This is not some huge tax-payer giveaway that slights the working class. OSU gives them out because the off-campus housing near campus that many of the students for working and middle-class families live in is notoriously dangerous. This fall alone over 75 citations were given to campus slum lords for mold, improper wiring and, according to the Columbus Dispatch, “worse.” Friends of mine lived in houses they were with people in illegal basement “rooms” and attic spaces and more than a couple had them burn down while they lived there or directly after they moved out in the first five years of the 2000s. This is a long, ongoing problem that the school is attempting to resolve because local government, private industry, and our sense of decency have been unwilling or unable to convince these property owners to take the lives of their tenants seriously. Five seconds on Google could have turned that up. Pick a less dangerous give away to mock next time, Oren.
The rest of Cass’s work is little better. Federal funding may have increased drastically in the last 30 years, but that is largely because state funding has collapsed. State governments, particularly in conservative to right-leaning states, have shifted the burden of public education to the students and the federal government. Land Grant institutions like Ohio State, should be especially sensitive to this issue. And unlike massive tax-breaks to the richest Americans and corporations, this money largely gets pumped right back into the economy. Faculty and staff wages are taxed. They spend money on products and services. The university’s building projects employ loads of engineers, city planners, and construction workers. Oh. And it creates generations of higher wage earning Americans who will pay significantly more taxes (and contribute significantly more to the nation’s economic growth) and nice piles of interest on the money the government lended them to go to school. It is actually a damn good deal for the tax-payer without even considering the softer benefits.
No one is “shovelled” to the college pipeline by the school system. Nor is it the goal of most schools in areas where college graduates are rare. The public schools, and formal education in general, exist to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next. In a American society, they exist to guarantee access to the knowledge and skills one will need to make informed decisions in our democratic process. The traditional curriculum that most students take is remarkably similar to the curriculum used in the schools in the 1890s. We take the same general load of science, English, history, and math that our great-great-great grandparents did. Somehow this did not discourage them from taking good paying jobs that did not require a college education. It is almost like the jobs and status we pursue might not be based on the insidious goals of do-gooding principles and teachers but are more influenced by what jobs we think will create a better life for us (and will continue to exist into the future). Sorry people are not rushing to gobble up jobs that business experts keep telling them will not exist in 20 years. Isn’t it strange that very few people want to imagine trying to start over in a new career at 40?
In fact, I wonder how much time Mr. Cass has spent in the sort of working-class communities for whom vocational education is considered an actual option. Vocational education is alive and well in places like Lima, Ohio. The people of my hometown support it and some even encourage their children to take these paths. Shockingly, many of them still want to swing for a college degree. I wonder why, when the median pay is so much higher, the careers are projected to last longer into the future, the skills are more transferable in the modern economy, they provide more geographic flexibility, they have higher status attached to them, and the work is often less physically demanding. Who would want that? Cass wants to play with the margins on those career earnings, arguing that those lowest earning college graduates make basically the same as the highest earning non-college grads and would likely be better served by a scheme which funnels higher education and high school funding into vocational training. This defies basic economic principles. If you have more plumbers the competition will drive their wages or business earnings down, not up. Funnelling more people into the trades will simply depress trade wages (though you can see what a boon that would be to developers and employers).
Cass plays a little word game with the notion that college grads who do not specifically use their degree in the way it was designed are not good earners. This is often conservative short-hand for bashing the “soft skills” of a humanities education. Working and middle-class students need to be practical and get degrees in accounting or nursing. No point in getting a useless history degree. There is very little to back this up. In fact, humanities degree holders are very competitive in long-term earnings with non-STEM degrees (those in the hard maths and sciences do tend to outpace other earners– though this includes nearly all of the practical business degrees conservatives so frequently extoll).
There is also an unspoken aspect of his Cass’s plan that deserves scrutiny: who would decide this? He challenges parents to see that their children need this. Do you believe for one second that the children of the educated and financial elite will be sending their kids to Apollo Career Center by the droves? Baron Trump is coming to learn to weld. Phoebe Gates isn’t enrolling in the truck driving program. Cass himself admits that students would have to decide to pursue this other path for themselves. But like I said, they already have this path. There are spots open in vocational programs. Most school districts would happily partner with local businesses to offer more skill and trade training. People do not want to do it. To actually make this feasible on a wide scale you would need educational tracking. The schools themselves would decide who was college-bound and who should start working on those trade skills. And if the history of how other countries educate their youth can be any guide, they will do it young.
This is a horrible idea and is antithetical to the notion of individual freedom and merit-based education. It almost always leads to a caste-like situation where who your parents are and what they do for a living will dictate the kind of education you are slated for. Extraordinary skill or personal patronage are the only ways around it. My own journey provides good anecdotal evidence for this historical trend. The Lima City Schools had an enrichment program for elementary education where students who scored highly on intelligence tests (imperfect tools that they are) were taken out of regular classes once a week to pursue their intellectual curiosity. Despite having the highest score in my class I was not one of the two or three students who was chosen to participate in the program from my class and building. Instead, students whose parents were more well connected to the school system were. This only came to light when I changed schools in 5th grade and the new school wondered why I opted out of enrichment given my test scores. Later, a number of my high school teachers suggested that I lacked the capacity for success in college. Why? My grades were good. I aced every exam and paper they had ever assigned. I crushed the ACT and SAT. But I lacked some quality (i.e. the sort of “educated” parents who they knew and kowtowed to) they seemed to think I needed to succeed.
There is nothing wrong with vocational education. Many family members of mine have good jobs and good lives because of it. There is indeed dignity in blue collar work. But there is also dignity in white collar work. And college educations. Schemes like these try to keep the average American from having a shot at that life. I believe in options for all.
Schools and teachers are rarely good judges of our intellect, our work ethic, or our grit. Parents have rose-tinted glasses. And kids… well they are doing their best just to survive adolescence in one piece. Asking any of these entities to decide when to pull the plug on college ambitions between the ages of 14-16, as Cass’s plan requires, is a pretty tall order. It is as limiting as it is stupid. Little stands in your way of dropping out of a college that clearly is not for you and enrolling in a vocational program. The “wasted money” you spent on a semester or year of college is pretty small in the grand scheme of things (akin to buying a bad used car or having a small health issue with a high deductible insurance plan– things no conservative would worry that we need to insulate consumers from). At best, Cass has a solution in search of a problem. Read less charitably, Cass and his fellow travellers in the pro-vocational education movement want to strip yet more money and access from higher education, insulating the children of elites from the risk of competing with the best and brightest from the working and middle class under the guise of putting America back to work. If conservative elites are serious about this, they will lead by example. Send your own kids to these programs. Lead from the front.