The Link Between “Free” College and Automation

By Rio Stockton

Support for so-called “free” college tuition is at all-time highs among the democratic party and will likely rank as one of the quintessential policy proposals in an attempt to defeat president Trump come 2020. The first open calls for “free” college has its roots in the 2016 primaries when today’s longest-serving independent in congressional history, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, tapped into voters’ (particularly young people’s) deep-seated fears of rapidly increasing tuition costs.

On the surface, abolishing college tuition and perhaps even additional expenses from accommodation, books and food, which is essentially an expansion into a debt-free college initiative, would eradicate crippling student debt and augment the option of higher education to more low-income families; in a sense pushing towards universality. But there are also some serious problems with this type of proposal. Take it from fellow Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who aligns with many of Sanders’ views on policy spanning from “Medicare for all” to “Human-centred capitalism.” In Yang’s own words “College isn’t the be all and end all, it doesn’t solve the employment problems of young people … many students are studying to obtain jobs that won’t exist in the future.”

Here, Yang is referring to the newly transpired digital age where technology and industries are advancing at such rates to the point where the current workforce will need to adapt faster than ever before or risk being left behind. No job or industry is safe anymore; by as early as 2030 between 20 and 30 per cent of American jobs will become automated, displacing millions of workers, many of whom will be today’s college graduates. Not to mention, the under-employment rate for graduates is at a shocking 44%, meaning close to half are not employed in jobs requiring their specific degree.

Part of this can be explained by the excessive number of students taking courses in the liberal arts as well as business and finance fields resulting in a heavily skewed and unbalanced ratio of employers to graduates. Now, 48% of 25-34-year-olds have attained at least an associate degree and that figure has risen steadily; but, despite that, the college completion rate has suffered a sharp decline with 59% of students over a 6-year period not finishing their degree. If “free” college is implemented, the bridge widens and a sea of high school graduates will be stacked on top of already stacked and highly competitive fields. This will not only drive up demand for jobs that are in the preliminaries of decline but will also have the double-edge effect of driving down the overall quality of graduates.

It is a basic rule that making something free will always reduce its quality. In a sense, this is only flushing much of the government costs of “free” college down the drain when a vast array of those additional graduates will be rendered under-employed anyway.

So the question is, why are so many young, naive Americans taking on the task of higher education? Well, most notably this decision is partly due to lack of direction and parental influence, which I myself have first-hand experience in. Our elders grew up in an age when going to university was an accomplishment, something to be cherished. By just travelling back as far as 1990, only 30% of the 23-year-old population had a degree. As of 2018, that figure has reached nearly 70%. Now college has become the norm with many students who do not possess the intellectual capability or albeit motivation to pursue a degree and yet have been relentlessly influenced and pressured to go along with the false narrative that it is the only path to financial freedom. Tuition costs alone have risen by an astonishing 213% since 1988 according to college boards, perhaps reflecting a profound misunderstanding between past generations and the current one. Back then it was considered feasible to be able to pay your way through college whilst working a part-time job. But with today’s rising costs, without grants via scholarships, sponsorships or your parents’ help, good luck paying your way through even a fraction of an average of over $37,000 in student loan debt as of 2018 with no guarantee of a respectable income to follow. It can be said now more than ever before, college isn’t for everyone and never will be.

But what other viable paths are there for those who don’t see College as a way forward? There are of course apprenticeship training schemes, which can facilitate careers in the trades and craftsmanship, however, only around 6% of Americans are currently in technical or vocational training. In Germany that’s at 59%, giving you a distinct picture of the substantial lack of demand in these fields. But perhaps what’s even more critical is the vulnerability and volatility of these careers. Your everyday plumber, electrician or diesel mechanic is much more challenging to fully automate and replace and so as of now are considered safe, financially stable career paths, although the amount of stigma attached to them when compared to a law or doctorate degree has sufficiently driven down their demand. In short, the supposed more remunerative career paths are being flooded with competition to the extent where hundreds of thousands of Americans are competing for tens of thousands of places. Inevitably, many are falling short at the stake, sitting in a giant pit of debt without the 6-figure income their degree “promised” to pay it off.

This is far from the first massive technological change society has endured and the industries currently becoming increasingly automated weren’t the first either. Over the last two-and-a-half score years, America’s manufacturing industry has been decimated in part due to offshoring and globalization, but mostly via automation. This has lead to over 4 million workers being made redundant in a severe case of widespread frictional unemployment and, in some respects, has resulted in fuel being added to the giant boiling pot that elected Donald Trump. On this turn of the clock, however, the consequences will be far far worse with many more millions being displaced without the opportune skills to find another job of the same calibre if nothing is done.

“Free” college will only further incentivise young people to dive blindly into fields which are becoming increasingly automated and are shrinking in sheer employment size whilst other fields in trade and craftsmanship have a much healthier demand for workers, but only a mere 6% of Americans are in. This one-sided skew of worker distribution has developed in part due to a lack of proper education throughout middle and high school where students are taught to only value the so-called high-status fields requiring years of further education and to in a sense vilify more physical, hands-on work when in an ideal world you need the best of both. Discussion around tuition costs being the consequential issue perhaps illustrates a supreme lack of discernment and evades the importance of promoting all types of career paths in an equally credible light. No student is the same and never will be.

The UK is also in the midst of its biggest skills shortage in a generation. From plumbers to builders to engineers, a fundamental lack of promotion of the fruitful nature of these jobs has threatened to derail the economy. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t just one or two bad apples; it’s a phenomenon that has swept the developed world into a frenzy. And it’s not just in these fields either. A college education alone just isn’t providing the required skills and experience employers demand. It used to, but reminiscing over the past isn’t going to drag civilisation through a 4th major industrial revolution.

But who has the right solution? If we take another look at Andrew Yang, his policy proposal of UBI (universal basic income) dubbed the “freedom dividend” would essentially gift every American $1000 per month; and looking at the rest of the 2020 presidential candidates, none have stated any clear propositions to tackle worker skill shortages, a shrinking labour force, all in an increasingly automated world. Trump continues to say the biggest problems with the US economy lie at the border, where drug cartels and illegal immigrants threaten American livelihoods. Then you have Sanders saying that the root of the middles class’s affliction is the rapid rise of a powerful oligarchy, wealth and income inequality. But a rigid dichotomy between venality and nationalism only makes for an intensely divided and interesting campaign, not the wholesale solution we ultimately need. Nonetheless, Andrew Yang has, as of now been at the forefront in disseminating awareness of this issue and thus attains maximum points.

You can read more from Rio Stockton at Renaissance Central.

Image credit: Pixabay

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