To be clear, we’re a long way from returning to the days when enrollments were tiny, and cutting-edge technology firms were founded by ambitious machinists rather than Harvard dropouts. But our reverence for the college diploma is a social norm, not an economic necessity, as economist Bryan Caplan cogently argued in his recent book, “The Case Against Education.” There are better ways, such as apprenticeships or management training programs, to sort out workers who are bright and conscientious — especially given the barriers this throws up for talented people without the financial or social capital to obtain a four-year degree.
Social norms can change, and surprisingly rapidly; after all, in 2000, “marriage is between a man and a woman” was so widely agreed upon that one could hardly call it a debate. So we should consider what a world without mandatory college diplomas would look like.
In many ways, better than this one. The endless ratchet of diploma requirements for jobs that can be learned in other ways is a recipe for firms losing talent, and workers, especially those from lower-income families, losing opportunities. And thus, for America losing the economic and social mobility that is our birthright.
That world is apt to be hard, however, on people who work in higher education. Colleges and universities have largely evaded the economic disruption that has whipsawed the rest of us; there’s little threat from foreign competition or automation, and they control the main gateway to secure and remunerative work. True, feckless graduate programs producing too many PhDs have led to ferocious competition for tenure-track jobs — but the competition is so fierce precisely because the work is so secure and attractive compared with the rest of the economy.
Those people will lose a lot if “everyone should go to college” stops being a universal mantra. But they’re not the only ones who should be shaking. A lot of vital research goes on at those schools. They’re also repositories of enormous left-wing cultural and political power that would be scattered if enrollments began to precipitously decline. Indeed, enrollments already are falling in the humanities, where most of that political and cultural power is held.
What does feminism look like without a nationwide network of women’s studies departments organizing conferences and doing research? What would our current debate about racism look like without the vocabulary and theoretical work supplied by critical race theorists? What would the rest of left-wing politics look like if many academics had to get jobs that didn’t leave them so much time to think and write? And more broadly, what would left-wing activism look like without the critical nexus of student groups that organize protests and indoctrinate future graduates?
In another era, the left might have looked to trade unions, or the media. But unionism, never particularly strong here, has been gutted by deindustrialization. And journalism’s business model is crumbling under assault from the tech companies, which have grabbed all the advertising dollars. If cracks start appearing in the university system, what, to coin a phrase, is left?
That probably sounds like a joyous prospect for conservatives, who endlessly bemoan left-wing cultural hegemony. Most of that energy would be better spent shoring up their own bases of power, such as churches, for they are in no better shape.
The increasing interlinkage of partisan leanings and cultural identity has allowed both sides of the political spectrum to consolidate control over key cultural institutions, which they can leverage to foment policy change. But it’s also concentrated partisan power within those nodes, leaving both sides dependent on them — and vulnerable to their decline.
And while tearing down the other side’s redoubts may seem like a win for your own, recent experience should give everyone pause. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a columnist at the Week, pointed out last year, liberals who thought they hated the Christian right were shocked to find that they disliked the post-Christian right even more. And in the twilight of the universities, conservatives might equally well find themselves trembling before an opposition that is no longer sheltered in institutions, nor constrained by institutional norms.