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Thursday, April 15, 2010 11:36 am

Reuniting learning and labor

Redirecting Illinois spending on higher education

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Facing nearly half a billion dollars of unpaid bills from the State of Illinois, the University of Illinois says it will probably have to raise tuition nearly 20 percent over the next four years. Taking a page from the General Assembly accounting textbook, the university will pay its immediate bills by borrowing against tuition and promised state funding.

This is no way to run a higher education system, we all can agree. But by shaking its cup of change at passersby, the U of I and its cousin public colleges and universities make it hard to think about a more important (if less urgent) question – not how to fund the existing public higher ed system that Illinois ought to be talking about, but how to reinvent it.

The phrase usually used to describe graduates of our degree factories is “college-educated” or “college-trained.” Educated? No state university in Illinois requires its students to take courses in history, American government, literature or economics. Trained? Increasingly, the work skills that once were learned on the job or in the polytechnic institute or the union apprenticeship program now are learned (often less well) in the classroom, the place where outmoded ideas in a hundred fields go to die.

The resulting misallocation of resources, both human and financial, is huge. The system endures because desperate parents believe that even a kid unlikely to rise higher than a hardware store manager needs a degree to succeed, and are convinced that state schools are the only affordable way to buy her one.

Virtually every aspect of this anxiety is misplaced. Better private schools often offer better deals to deserving students, for example. More to my point, most jobs do not require a college degree to perform them, although nearly all white-collar jobs of any pretension require a degree to get them. This creeping credentialism has nothing to do with acquiring skills and everything to do with making labor artificially scarce and thus inflating the salaries it can demand.

My own field is a good example. I used to tell would-be Carl Bernsteins (this was a long time ago) that studying journalism in college equips one to write only about journalism. The larger frame within which public events must be understood and described – history, economics, science – is missing from too much reporting, because too many reporters spent four years learning how reporting works when they should have been learning how the world works. As for the nuts and bolts, they are easily learned on the job and the experience gained on the student newspaper would be better learned as an intern at a real paper.

Yes, people with degrees earn more money. It does not necessarily follow that people with degrees earn more because they have degrees. Such worthies tend to have degrees because they are future-oriented, were already educated enough to make sense of college, and were determined enough to put up with four years of grind. Those are traits that make for successful people, however many credits they piled up in The Sociology of Rap.

Illinois needs public-funded education past high school, of course. But that doesn’t mean college for every kid. Under Germany’s “dual system,” high-schoolers can apply for places in three-year programs combining classroom learning with practical on-the-job experience as interns or trainees at cooperating businesses. In Massachusetts the path to a career leads not to second-rate universities but first-rate vocational, technical and agriculture schools.

Training workers at public expense is a massive subsidy for the private sector. If the private business needs trained people, it should pay to produce them, through industry-funded technical institutes or through tax-privileged grants – as indeed already being done to some extent – paid by business consortia to community colleges.

Such reforms would leave the state spending as much as it does now, maybe more. The difference is that less of that money would go to colleges and universities, and more to institutions whose programs match the need. That includes spending more on what we must call the lower-education system. In March, the libertarian Illinois Policy Institute released its blueprint for the fiscal lifeboat that might float the State of Illinois out of dangerous budget waters. The Institute would have the state spend its education money where it is most needed, which is the classrooms of our elementary and high schools, and cut everywhere else, including higher education.

The weight of interests that would have to be shifted to achieve a redirection of state spending on education is enormous. It will not be easy to convince the public that a state hoping to build an advanced economy needs people who can read, calculate and reason, and who are self-disciplined in their work and personal habits, and that college is not the only place to learn these things. But then the public doesn’t run public higher ed in Illinois. And most of the people who do run it have college degrees. Which, come to think of it, explains a lot.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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