Cutting Class

Former Labor Secretary (and current Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley) Robert Reich just posted an editorial for the Baltimore Sun that takes on the financial cuts afflicting public higher education and the implications for such cuts on social equity. As Reich notes:

Unemployment among college graduates is just under 5 percent nationally. It’s over 9 percent for those without a college degree. The median annual pay of people with a bachelor’s degree is 70 percent higher than those with a high school diploma, according to the latest available Census data.

Obviously, when we’re talking about access to higher education, we’re talking about the livelihoods of people who do, or don’t, have that access. Reich points to the parallel increase in tuition, loss in real wages (since 2000), decrease of funding sources (like Pell Grants), and increasing student debt and concludes that the middle class as we’ve come to know it is in serious danger. Arguments like John Marsh’s in Class Dismissed challenges the notion that education alone can solve problems of economic inequity, but doesn’t dismiss the problems of access. Whether you view access to higher education as a cause or symptom of social inequity, the disparities are meaningful.

The more we know about the political economy of higher education, the more our collective bonds with students (including graduate employees) and all other workers, inside and outside of universities, should be apparent. Universities have grown with (and through) the growth of the middle class, even as they have still denied their benefits to large segments of the population. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once noted, “Innocence is the privilege of those who move in their field of activity like fish in water,” and the middle class may have taken access to higher education for granted, not unlike the fish that doesn’t notice the friction of water. As the density of economic austerity measures increases, however, the middle classes are starting to drown, perhaps realizing that they’re not fish after all. Reich suggests we demand increasing taxes, especially on the wealthy, to better distribute the economic friction. I’m certainly not going to argue with that, but it might also be useful to look around at all the other non-fish in the tank and think about collectively changing the water.