One of the central issues in this year’s presidential election is education and opportunity. John Kerry, the now all-but-certain Democratic nominee, insists on the need for equality of opportunity for all Americans. According to his campaign Web site, “every student should have the opportunity to prepare for, pay for, and complete four years of college. We deserve a president who will fight for the parents who know that their children deserve higher education and a chance at a lifetime of good-paying jobs.”
Grand rhetoric of this sort appeals to everybody — that’s what makes it such great material for political campaigns. It is the stuff of the American Dream, the veritable promise of a better life for oneself and one’s children. Unfortunately, this utopian vision of college-educated masses simply does not work.
What’s the problem? Kerry would have us believe that “today’s students will be the engine of the new economy.” But what is this “new economy”? It’s a bit difficult to pin down, but it goes something like this: If the world economy was one giant person, then the “new” American economy would be the head. In the “new economy” the millions of American college graduates will easily find jobs in the ranks of the increasingly global business world. And why will these corporations hire Americans instead of Indian or Chinese employees who are willing to work for a fraction of the price? According to Kerry, four years of college will make American students “more innovative and productive than our competitors.” In other words, universal four-year college education will set Americans apart from the rest of the world work force, ensuring that white-collar jobs remain in the United States.
Yet Kerry’s dream of a “new economy” is out of touch with reality. More and more corporations are realizing that a college-educated employee in America and a college-educated employee in India or China are qualitatively the same. Faced with a choice between American and foreign white-collar workers, corporations consistently choose the lower paid foreign workers. Indeed, tens of thousands of white-collar jobs have already been shipped abroad, and the future promises devastating job losses. In one frequently cited 2002 study, Forrester Research predicted that approximately 500,000 jobs in computer software and services will move offshore by 2015: that’s almost one quarter of the number of professional software developers currently employed in the United States.
If Kerry is elected president, his administration will futilely attempt to prepare the entire American work force for the white-collar jobs of the “new economy.” Kerry has proposed significant tax credits on college tuition and a free ride to public universities for all students who spend two years “serving their community and country in national service.” Kerry should be using the government’s money to send the best and brightest Americans to college regardless of their ability to pay — not wasting resources on sending unqualified young Americans to school.
Four years of college is not meant for everyone, nor is everyone meant for four years of college. College is intended for gifted and determined students: A liberal arts education prepares students for the professions and for leadership; a science and engineering education prepares students for careers in technology or research. Many students will inevitably lack the intelligence or perseverance to successfully compete for positions in these occupations. and these students should not go to college.
There is nothing wrong with this elitist understanding of college. Indeed, every society is a gradation of prosperity, with some people on the bottom, some people in the middle, and some people on the top. Kerry promises to create a top heavy society, a society where everone is a college graduate, where everyone is a white-collar worker, where everyone is paid a white-collar salary. But these visions are impractical — America cannot and will not become the sole “head” of the global economy. An America where everyone receives a college education will be much like the America of today, except everyone — janitors, waiters, and unemployed persons included — will have a college degree. If Kerry truly wishes to help our country, he should use his proposed college fund to encourage American business and provide targeted training for jobs that are not being shipped abroad. Indeed, universal college education may sound nice on a political platform, but it has no place in the practical policy of government.
Steven Starr is a junior in Saybrook College.