Connecticut’s Big Problem Isn’t Higher But Lower Ed

As was inscribed on the pedestal of the statue of college founder Emil Faber in the movie “Animal House,” “Knowledge is good.” But knowledge can be overpriced, as the growing clamor about college student loan forgiveness soon may demonstrate.

President-elect Joe Biden and Democrats in the new Congress will propose various forms of forgiveness, and this will have the support of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, all Democrats.

Student loan debt is huge, estimated at $1.6 trillion, and five Connecticut colleges were cited last week by the U.S. Education Department for leaving the parents of their students with especially high debt. There are many horror stories about borrowers who will never be able to pay what they owe.

But those horror stories are not typical. Most student loan debt is owed by people who can afford to pay and are from families with higher incomes. Relief for certain debtors may be in order, but then what of the students who sacrificed along with their parents to pay their own way through college? What will they get for their conscientiousness? Only higher taxes and a devaluing currency.

Student loan debt relief should not be resolved without an investigation of what the country has gotten for its explosion of spending on higher education. Has all the expense been worthwhile?

Probably not even close. A 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that many college graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college education. A similar study a year earlier by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity reported that there were 46 percent more college graduates in the U.S. workforce than there were jobs requiring a college degree and that degrees were held by 25 percent of sales clerks, 22 percent of customer service representatives, 16 percent of telemarketers, 15 percent of taxi drivers, and 14 percent of mail carriers.

Of course that doesn’t mean that college grads who went into less sophisticated jobs didn’t enjoy college, learn useful things, and increase their appreciation of life. But those who accrued burdensome debt only to find themselves in jobs that can’t easily carry it may feel cheated.

Some consolation is that college grads tend to earn more over their lifetimes than other people. But is this because of increased knowledge and skills, or because of the credentialism that higher education has infected society with? If it is mere credentialism, college is a heavy tax on society.

Public education in Connecticut may be more credentialism than learning, since, on account of social promotion, one can get a high school diploma here without having learned anything since kindergarten and can earn a degree from a public college without having learned much more, public college being to a great extent just remedial high school.

Some people in Connecticut advocate making public college attendance free, at least for students from poor families. But even for those students would free public college be an incentive to perform well in high school once they discover that they need no academic qualification to get into a public college and that they can take remedial high school courses there?

Even the student loans and government grants to higher education that underwrite important research and learning are largely subsidies to college educators and administrators, whose salary growth correlates closely with those loans and grants. Many college educators show their appreciation by resenting having to teach mere undergraduates instead of being left alone to do obscure research that has no relevance to curing cancer or averting the next asteroid strike. They prefer to strut around calling each other “Doctor” and “Professor” until the cows come home reciting Shakespeare.

Connecticut’s critical neglect, and the country’s, is lower education, not higher education, especially now that government is abdicating to the ever-grasping teacher unions by closing schools, where the threat of the virus epidemic is small. This suspends education, socialization, exercise, and general growth for the young without protecting those most vulnerable to the virus, the frail elderly. Forgiving college loans won’t be much more relevant to education than that crazy policy.

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Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.

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