“You’ve got to go to college if you want to make something of yourself,” goes the usual refrain. But is it true? If it is, why? And if it is, should it be?
The greatest generation didn’t seem to think it should be so. The postwar economic order that lasted well into the 1970s was engineered by a generation fed up with income inequality, depression and war. It was one where you could enjoy a middle-class standard of living with a high school diploma in hand. It was a time where a factory worker could earn enough (on his wages alone) to buy a new car every few years, own a home and put his kids through college – if the kids wanted to go, that is. Back then, you didn’t have to overload yourself with student loans to go to college either. In California and New York, it was almost (if not entirely) free of charge.
So what happened? Why did college, which was a choice in the past, become an unspoken requirement in today’s economy? The nature of the economy changed. No, I don’t mean that suddenly workers needed BAs to do the jobs they’d been doing already – the economy stopped working for the middle class and started working a hell of a lot better for the wealthiest Americans.
As the wealthy and their political allies in Washington mobilized to rewrite the rules that governed the economy in the 1980s – smashing unions, cutting their taxes and lowering oversight – getting an education started to get expensive. Ronald Reagan, the second-rate actor turned second-rate president, led the charge during his time as California’s governor to eliminate the state’s free university and community college system. Reaganomics certainly reshaped America, creating an economy that rewarded wealth over work, redistributed middle class wealth into the wealthy’s pocketbooks and dealt middle class America a deathblow.
The union-busting campaign pushed by Reagan and his corporate allies, combined with government support for low wage businesses like McDonald’s and Walmart (with special tax incentives to keep wages low, like the Earned Income Tax Credit) sent wages spiralling down. The high school graduate of 1963 could own a home; the high school graduate of 2013 has no such option, having little choice but to pile on student loan debt to buy themselves an education (even if it’s not what they enjoy or what they’d be best at doing) or try and survive on $7.25.
The new economy that Reaganomics gave us is one of both great want and great wealth. Those who wish to avoid the former must now buy their way out, thus further enriching the already wealthy. As education becomes a moneymaking operation, so do other services we take for granted. The United States Postal Service is as old as the republic, but that hasn’t stopped Reagan’s disciples from trying to tear it to pieces.
Call me old fashioned, but there are some things that just shouldn’t be for profit. Education is one of those things. You shouldn’t have to mortgage your future to have a decent living today. Everybody, no matter what they do for a living, or how much schooling they have, should at least have a decent standard of living free from starvation or destitution.
It’s time that we went beyond Reaganomics and build a new economic foundation – one that rewards those who work before it rewards those wealthy who have enough already.
Column by Devin Griggs, opinion editor. Devin serves as vice president of finances for the Murray State College Democrats.