We should all congratulate President Barack Obama for pulling the education debate into the 21st century, or perhaps dragging it into the late 20th century, by proposing access to free education through at least an associate’s degree. But this merely restates the obvious.
As the White House documents supporting this policy point out, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, as the economy transformed into the modern era, Americans embraced the call of Progressives to extend public education from 8th grade to 12th grade. New job skills were required in the age that brought about automobile, telephone and airplane manufacturing and new occupations like electrician, motion picture projectionist, X-ray technician, truck driver, bus driver and radio operator-jobs that could not have been imagined in 1880.
So, too, common sense dictates that a high school degree in a world of computer processors and cell telephone communications cannot meet the needs of a changing world where web page designers, “app” writers and cyber security specialists are in high demand.
The President is simply asserting the obvious in extending free associate’s degrees as a democratic right. The price of the basic ticket to the game has changed. That means the full access to society has a new predicate.
Unfortunately, we live with a dysfunctional democracy where anti-democratic forces are strong. There are those who are fighting hard to limit voting rights instead of the American ideal to protect and strengthen those rights. So it isn’t surprising that voices are being raised to limit economic rights, and to instead rail against “government” extension of opportunity. Of course, the movie “Selma” reminds us that small minds have sought to limit opportunity in America for a long time.
But beyond the obvious need to redefine the right to a basic education in a world in which “basic” has clearly changed, the rest of the president’s case is short on the fuller problems and issues facing America.
First is the notion that the extension of the educational right is a solution to the sagging earnings of Americans. At the beginning of this century, in 2001, the median earnings of American men was $42,755, but in 2013 they had dropped to $39,602. This was despite an increase in the share of men with associate’s degrees from 7.5 percent to 9.1 percent and declines in the share of men with less education than an associate’s degree from 63.4 percent to 58.1 percent. It also came despite an increase for those holding bachelor’s degrees or higher from 29.0 percent to 32.8 percent.
So, despite increasing educational attainment, the income of men fell. More to the point, the income of men holding associate’s degrees fell from $51,144 to $42,176. More emphatically, the median earnings of men with bachelor’s degrees fell from $65,769 to $58,170.
Second is the argument that a better educated workforce will lead to a more productive workforce. This is clearly the case. Productivity of America’s workers increased from 2001 to 2013 by 27 percent. And increases in productivity are traditionally the source of increasing wages. But wages did not increase.
The president’s proposal deserves immediate support. But it must be supported in the framework of extending rights and opportunities that is the hallmark of America-the nation that always looks forward. And we must fight against those who want to take us backward.
Still, as the AFL-CIO’s recent National Summit on Raising Wages highlighted, the United States is facing a more fundamental structural problem that must be addressed. We have a better educated and more productive workforce, but a workforce that is getting paid less. Those lower wages are not the workings of the market or some economic necessity. Those lower wages are the result of clear choices to feed corporate coffers at the expense of an economy that functions for all. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, we must have policies that treat corporations as part of America, not above America.
We must commit ourselves to reinvest in America. Those who look backward will see costs; those who look forward see dividends.
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