Do yourself a solid and read anything Tressie McMillan Cottom writes.
Here, in the newest issue of Dissent, on “The University and the Company Man:”
The U.S. higher education crisis has been well documented. College is overpriced, over-valued, and ripe for disruption (preferably, for some critics, by the outcome-driven private sector). At the same time, many Americans are flailing in the post-recession economy. With rising income inequality, persistent long-term unemployment, and declining real wages, Americans are searching for purchase on shifting ground. Not so long ago, the social contract between workers, government, and employers made college a calculable bet. But when the social contract was broken and policymakers didn’t step in, the only prescription for insecurity was the product that had been built on the assumption of security. We built a university system for the way we worked. What happens to college when we work not just differently but for less? And what if the crisis in higher education is related to the broader failures that have left so many workers struggling?
There is a lot of talk right now about how we will work in the future, but it’s mostly based on the realities of how we work today. Many express concerns about the quality and quantity of “good jobs,” which sociologist Arne Kalleberg has characterized as jobs that pay a living wage, are on a ladder of career opportunity, and provide all the material benefits that make for economic security (such as retirement funds and health care). Beneath the surface of debates about yawning income inequality are empirical arguments about job polarization—the idea that the labor market is being pulled at both ends like taffy by global competition, technological change, and policy. At one end are high-skill, high-paying “good” jobs. At the other end are low-skill, low-paying “bad” jobs. The middle, meanwhile, is getting thinner and thinner. And job creation—as underwhelming as it is—is not evenly distributed among the jobs people want and the jobs people have to take. There are more bad new jobs than good. […]
So even though college is “now open to more Americans not born to wealth than ever before…they are [still] better at moving people from bad jobs to the better jobs in the middle than to the shrinking number of good jobs.” Tressie asks what happens when that middle starts to disappear. I don’t know.
The student body is more diverse, but the class composition of college attendance is still progressive. Then, it was a gateway for privilege to a corporate social contract. Now, it’s an investment in the portfolio of the self in order to hit “a moving target” in the economy of jobs. College used to have a function, for a select few. Now it has a different function. For a select few. It was a “product that had been built on the assumption of security” for the former, and now is a “prescription for insecurity” for those generally left out of the latter.
This is college in the hourglass economy. It looks a lot like other social structures in the hourglass economy — a means to an end open to more folks than ever but still the functional purview of those with the resources to pursue it.