Poorer by Degrees

Here is a link to Poorer by Degrees, a new short documentary by Jennifer Shuberth, a former faculty member at Portland State University: http://vimeo.com/95828754.

The documentary questions the premise that our economic growth requires a dramatic increase in the number of college graduates. Indeed, it suggests that the increased emphasis on completing degrees may actually just be increasing the pool of over-qualified applicants for all levels of employment and forcing less educated workers out of the workforce. In effect, a college degree has become increasingly necessary to find employment, but that employment is no longer guaranteed to provide a sufficient salary to offset the personal debt that increasingly must be incurred to complete the degree.

The documentary shows that the biggest proponent of increased college completion rates has been the Lumina Foundation, which, not coincidentally, has been funded by Sallie Mae, the largest holder of student debt.

The documentary also makes the very noteworthy point that the Lumina Foundation has not advocated any increased public investment in—spending on–public higher education.

The following point is not made in the documentary, but given the broader observations that the documentary makes about on the impact of economic class on who is winning and losing in the competition for employment, it seems especially troubling that Lumina has placed particular emphasis on increasing degree completion among economically disadvantaged groups, when those groups are the most likely to incur debt and the least likely to find well-paying employment immediately after graduating.

In any case, whether you completely agree with the documentary’s view of Lumina or not, it does very convincingly make the case that simply increasing the number of people with college degrees is not going to solve the broader issues with employment and wages that are critical to the future of the U.S. economy and of the American middle-class.


3 thoughts on “Poorer by Degrees

  1. I think this is a terribly misguided video: It combines the elitist right-wing attack that too many Americans go to college with a left-wing conspiracy theory about the Lumina Foundation. Yes, Lumina is a mainstream corporate establishment foundation that is doing far too little to promote equality in higher education, but they aren’t the source of the evil. Yes, their money comes from the vile student loan industry, and they aren’t going to criticize the loan industry, but that doesn’t mean that promoting higher education is wrong.

    More college graduates will not, in itself, provide the solution to fixing inequality in America. But having fewer college graduates will probably make matters even worse. This video also buys into the nonsense that the sole purpose of college is to benefit students economically. Encouraging students to skip college isn’t going to reduce inequality or help those individual students be more financially successful.

    • It’s a documentary and it’s going to have some provocative angle, but I don’t think that it simply synthesizes the worst inclinations on the Far Right and the Left.

      In fact, even though the documentary is questioning the whole apparatus by which people are being encouraged to take on enormous debt to complete degrees, I don’t think that it is at all suggesting that people stop getting degrees. In fact, the businessman from Portland is very clearly stating that even though college graduates are over-qualified for most of the positions within his company, they are the only applicants that he now typically considers.

      So I think that the central point is much more nuanced than you suggest: if we are going to place an increased emphasis on being college-educated, we need to place less of the financial burden on the students themselves–that is, we need to provide more public financing, which is definitely not an option that the Far Right entertains–and we need to invest in developing economic opportunities that make fuller use of what college graduates bring to their jobs. This last point is at the center of my re-post from earlier today of the Labor Day post from the Campaign for America’s Future.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.