Small Classes

When PhDs Engorge Welfare Lines
& Dropouts Dream of Hitting It Big

The confirmation, last week, of the number of jobless workers with some college now exceeding those with a high school diploma or less, has reignited the age-old debate about what’s more important in the marketplace, a degree or professional expertise. Both, one would say, but things are rarely that simple.
While there are many billionaires who never finished college or who quit school early on, lack of formal education is still an excuse, at least for job recruiters, to cut down the ever increasing stack of resumes they receive. Besides, billionaires are less than one percent of the population, as the Occupy Wall Street movement helps us remember.
Still, at a time when many consider playing Lotto part of their retirement plan, while others dream about fame and fortune despite staggering odds stacked against them, it’s no wonder that the super rich example finds its way to any debate about unemployment and education, even though it has little to do with either.
Educators, political scientists and even populist politicians all routinely puzzled over the undeniable benefits but less clear practical advantages of having a degree. Specially in the U.S.’s current toxic environment for independent thinking, scientific knowledge and high-end academic achievement, all commonly associated to the number of years one spends at school.
Also, putting aside the increasing cost, rampant student debt and declining funding for research factors, however relevant to any discussion about education they may be, it’s instructive to note that if geniuses can’t be artificially raised, they hardly ever sprout without nurturing conditions.

Thus, it’s an understatement to celebrate the outstanding personal merits of a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg or the late Steve Jobs, to name just a few of the many billionaire college dropouts. But what sometimes gets lost in their dazzling accomplishments is the common trait they all share: their fathers were academically savvy professionals and do or did hold a degree.
The headline-crabbing piece of news looked, at first, as some kind of hyperbole, so dear to the sound-bite style media of our day. Except that it is truth. Almost hidden in a U.S. Department of Agriculture report about the increased number of people on food assistance last year compared to 2000, was what it said about a now highly-distinguished minority: Doctors of Philosophy.
Among the record 44 million Americans receiving some kind of government assistance in 2011, 17 million more than a decade ago, there were almost 400 thousand holding master’s degrees and doctorates, along with their welfare checks. To put that in perspective, 22 million people had graduate degrees during the same period.
No wonder, some callously would say. The whole economy was driven off the cliff in 2008 and the dive hurt a wide swath of the U.S. labor force, not just those who’d spent years and millions of dollars working hard to rise up above the academic heap. Just because they once dreamed of being our next brain trust shouldn’t exempt them from the general pain. So, let them get on line, they say.
Which is also the argument used by austerity advocates to freeze government funding for scientific research, unless creationism is taught at schools and faith-based policies are adopted for public health and birth control. In other words, is not a matter of lack of funding as it’s a question of who’s setting the government priorities for its use.
One of the reasons pointed to explain this is the fact that many states have had to cut their higher education budgets, and universities may use part-time faculty members instead of hiring full-time professionals to teach. Thus, that’s today’s bizarre reality of lecturers and high-level professors having to spend time in line to collect food stamps, to just be able to get by.

Luckier researchers who don’t need to spend time in fetid government agencies, are trying to figure out when, exactly, a college education, or even going to high school stops being an attractive choice to students. Surprisingly, it may be as early as in the sixth grade, a Harvard research team argues. Since 10-year-old kids are still years from making their first long-lasting decision, the answer may lie elsewhere.
In the U.S., many public schools hold elementary classes up to the fifth grade, and for parents, the transition to middle school is the first major scramble to move their kids to another building, school or even district. The disruption also happens often a few years later, when it comes the time for them to go to high school.
A recent study of public schools in Florida indicated that the so called K8 schools had lower high school dropout rates than those holding only up to fifth grade. The transition at that early age to another school, with brand new teachers and classmates, experts say, may be traumatic and put the child in disadvantage.
Add to that the fact that class sizes increase considerably as grades progress, and the literally new kid on the block may feel less than supported by busier teachers and a group of mates already acquainted with each other. Educators are now saying that the trend should be studied closely to determine whether the system needs to be changed, so to prevent such conditions.
It may as well be, along with countless other factors. Not the least of it, of course, the leap from the laid back atmosphere of the early stages of education to the considerably much more academic demanding middle school. Kids, as we all know, may not be able to articulate their discomfort, but are bound to internalize its effects on their development.
Whether such particularities of public education, and their impact on the choices children make later in life make sense or it’s just pure ‘hogwash,’ as a noted educator we know would put it, remains to be further investigated. Possibly by another Harvard team as in the Florida study. But what the latest Labor Department seasonally-adjusted data shows also deserves utmost attention.
‘Out of 9 million unemployed in April, 4.7 million had gone to college or graduated and 4.3 million had not,’ according to the report. Which is more than 2 million since the start of 1992. Last year, 57% of those 25 and up with no jobs had attended some college, compared to 43% nine years before. But the number of unemployed high school dropouts actually fell from 21% to 12% in the same time.
The obvious reason why these numbers are so dramatic is that we’re talking about a demographics that is the core and most vital part of the workforce of any nation. If they can’t get a job, despite being highly qualified to join the work force at such a young age, what’s of the older Americans, then? You guessed it, they’re not doing too well either.
Already less likely to pursue higher education, they’ve been actually exiting the work force and slowly fading from the statistics, which can track only those who’re still hopeful they’ll find a job anyway. By the way, that’s when all this sneering at welfare recipients reveals its phony side: most are still willing to stand up and be counted. Others simply have given up.

Which is very sad, indeed. You may also hear all sorts of excuses for what’s essentially inexcusable. Worse: the usual scapegoats will be probably be invoked as well. The latest round kind of blames college-educated immigrants, supposedly willing to work for lower rates than Americans. Haven’t you heard that one before? Don’t buy it. Such a line of thought has usually a xenophobic agenda hidden behind it.
Much harder is to take a courageous stand on the issue and be serious about ways to reverse this trend, before it causes even worse long-term damage to the U.S.’s academic leadership role, which has already gone the way of the typewriter and the Xerox machine. Curiously, all three billionaires mentioned on this post are or were involved in education-related projects.
Unfortunately, at this point, not even their whole fortunes combined could pay off the debt contracted by the ever dwindling contingent of Americans who, despite it all, are still interested in having a college degree. That’s an effort that has to involve every single resident of this nation. And a few thousand big Lotto jackpots too.

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