Credit: Amy Swan

There was a room in my high school where they kept the chopped-up carcass of an old car. You could take the engine apart and put it back together, or slice pieces off the door with a saw that made orange sparks fly. It was a dirty, greasy place in a building where most of the kids wore tied-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirts or early J.Crew.

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I rarely went there. Not because I didn’t like engines and sparks. I grew up watching my father, an electrical engineer by training, work with a soldering iron and a table saw in our garage. No, I stayed away—was, for all intents and purposes, kept away—because that wasn’t where people who were going to college were supposed to be. 

We lived in the prosperous suburbs of a decaying city in the postindustrial Northeast. The giant conglomerate my father worked for had stopped manufacturing things in town and built an R&D park nearby where they invented things that were manufactured somewhere else. The whole apparatus of local government, from municipal boundaries to tax rates to deployment of police, was built to funnel money into the suburban school system, where the children of the R&D park employees prepared to follow their parents into one of the good engineering schools or the Ivy League. Almost everyone was white. The room with the old car was for the few kids from the city who accidentally ended up on the wrong side of the school district line. 

In the decades that followed, America transformed itself into a continent-size version of my hometown. College graduates flourished while everyone else stagnated or fell behind. People were increasingly segregated by class, geography, and ideology. Higher education became a political fault line, particularly during the Trump years, when college-educated white suburbanites surged into the Democratic Party while white people without degrees ran toward the Republicans. 

This realignment, which is far from complete, leaves colleges and universities in a dangerous position. The strong bipartisan commitment to affordable public higher education is at risk if one party sees college as antithetical to its voters and beliefs. Democrats doing electoral math should be mindful that there are 60 million more voting-age white people without bachelor’s degrees than with them, and they are concentrated in states with disproportionate political power.

Most diagnoses of this shift are oddly indifferent to the structure of higher education itself. That’s a mistake. Many of the failures that led to our fractured political climate are rooted in biases set deep in the foundations of higher learning, which systematically discriminates against people who are most vulnerable to falling behind in the modern economy. We can build something better—but only if we’re honest about who benefits now, and what it will take to change. 

In the past five years, the political left has galvanized to make college free and forgive outstanding student loans. These are worthy goals. Twentieth-century middle-class prosperity was created, in part, with public colleges and universities that were once affordable but are no longer. It makes sense to restore that promise and help people who were financially injured by surging college prices. 

But free college and debt forgiveness by themselves leave much of the structural inequality of American higher education firmly intact. Take, for example, California’s widely emulated three-level higher education system. It gives $13,000 in state funding per undergraduate to students in the elite University of California system, which is disproportionately attended by children of the wealthy—kids who have been tracked since birth into prestigious programs. It gives out $8,000 to the less selective California State University campuses. It only gives $2,500 for undergrads at open-access community colleges, where most of the attendees are lower- and working-class students. Free college, then, could ultimately shell out far more money for rich kids than for the poor. (Many low-income community college students already pay no tuition at all.) It is like giving the people eating at Le Bernardin and Burger King the same voucher for a gratis meal. 

Private colleges don’t get direct state subsidies, so they make up for it with high prices. Sticker price tuition at the University of Southern California is more than $60,000. But that doesn’t mean no public money is involved. Endowment earnings are untaxed, and alumni get lucrative tax deductions for donations. Research universities often rake 60 percent or more off the top of federal grants for “overhead.” Add public funding and tuition together and you get a system that devotes vastly more resources to upper-class students pursuing bachelor’s and graduate degrees at selective four-year universities, public or private, than to students anywhere else. 

It’s not because elite four-year university courses inherently cost more. A technical film production course at Los Angeles City College requires expensive audio, video, and lighting equipment. A history class at UCLA requires a classroom and a historian. We give more money to privileged students because we think they deserve it more and the underprivileged deserve it less, and because the people who decide where the money goes are almost always themselves scions of the upper tier and want their children to be the same. We apply a veneer of so-called meritocracy to a system that is designed from the ground up to replicate power. 

Even within the elevated reaches of four-year colleges and universities, there are really two systems operating in parallel. One prepares people for jobs in fields like health care, teaching, accounting, engineering, and computer systems. While many of these students go on to master’s degrees and continue to learn on the job, they share the experience of having majored in subjects that match their careers. We’ll call these “Actual Job Majors.” 

Then there are the other people, the ones who take few if any courses that are designed to prepare them for a job, unless you define the job as “tenured professor in teaching this subject,” which, if you’ve been paying any attention to the state of the academic labor market, is pretty much the same as preparing for no job at all. We’ll call these “Not a Job Majors.” 

There are many examples, but the big four categories of Not a Job Majors are psychology, business, social science, and communications, which collectively grant more than 700,000 bachelor’s degrees per year. The math is pretty straightforward—there are more than three million people in the workforce with BAs in psychology, and only 192,000 psychologists. This category also includes the kinds of esoteric majors that politicians like to claim are wasting taxpayer dollars. But to a first order of approximation, these students don’t exist. They are hallucinations of anti-intellectual resentment. In 2019, more people graduated with a BA in business administration from Cal State Fullerton alone than got a BA in women’s studies, French literature, or linguistics from every college and university in America combined.

While we’re all familiar with the guy carrying $120,000 in loans for a liberal arts degree from NYU who struggles to make rent while freelancing in a Brooklyn co-op—mostly because he tweets a lot—the Not a Job Majors are, on average, doing fine. Often, more than fine! They’re the heart of the suburban upper-middle-class to lower-upper-class workforce, the car-buying single-family homeowners with 401(k)s, the people who rode out the pandemic from their converted home office. 

At American University, a wealthy private institution in Washington, D.C., more than 65 percent of undergraduates enroll in one of the big four Not a Job Majors. Many borrow significant sums to do so. They and their mostly well-off parents aren’t being irrational or self-destructive. They understand that American isn’t a job training place. Rather, it’s a means of class replication, a way station on the path to a certain kind of stability and prosperity. American degrees signify that bearers have been pre-sorted and selected, that they come from certain backgrounds and have been acculturated in certain ways. 

What jobs do they eventually get? The most common occupation of people with degrees in psychology, social science, communications, and business isn’t counselor, economist, writer, or entrepreneur. It is, in each case, “manager.” Part of a cadre of bosses 10 million strong. 

So let’s think about how all this looks to the very large number of people who did not fly on high-speed rails from the enclaves of college-educated wealth to a thriving post-collegiate career. 

Over the past several decades, these Americans have been caught in a deeply unenviable position. First, whole sections of the economy and labor market were hollowed out by a combination of neglect and deliberate policy choices. Private-sector unions disintegrated, wages stagnated, and stable jobs eroded, all in exchange for lower prices on consumer goods they still can’t afford. 

Then the vocational courses at the local high school started to disappear. Sometimes this was done with good intentions, to correct the notorious practice of keeping students of color off the college track and to open the path to higher education for all. But it had an effect: Federal funding for vocational education shrank along with the number of job-focused credits high schoolers took. There are now fewer clear pathways to fewer good jobs. 

They’re told: It’s okay! There’s a solution! I mean, probably not for you, to be honest, you’re just going to have to get by on $12.50 an hour until Social Security kicks in. But definitely for your kids. Just send them to college!

Except the elite colleges only accept one student a year from where you live (the valedictorian), so they can congratulate themselves on “regional diversity.” Even if you manage to be that student, you and your parents both have to borrow a mind-boggling sum of money to pay tuition. And ultimately succeeding in college means taking classes that your local high school doesn’t offer, because K–12 education in this country is chopped up into 13,500 districts that are mostly funded by a combination of state revenue and local property taxes, both of which are in short supply in places that don’t have many of the good white-collar jobs. 

If you can’t get in, you instead enroll in a college that, unlike the underfunded local community college, has a bunch of warm, friendly people on staff who quickly return your texts and phone calls and help you fill out all of the complicated federal financial aid forms. There are no waiting lists for enrollment and nobody hassles you about a missing high school transcript or not-so-great scores on the SAT. The program is starting up in just a few weeks, takes way less than four years to finish, and leads to a good job in a fast-paced, growing field. 

Except it doesn’t, because the “college” is a private equity–backed for-profit corporation that was engineered to harvest billions of federal financial aid dollars by defrauding students while easily evading a set of essentially nonexistent consumer protection regulations. Republican lawmakers don’t want to go after these schools because of generous campaign contributions, and Democrats can’t because new Department of Education rules get tied up in endless litigation. 

And even if you manage to stumble through the for-profit minefield unscathed and get all the way through to a real degree, which likely means navigating the Kafkaesque process of transferring credits from a community college to a four-year university, and enroll in an income-based loan repayment program that keeps debt payments affordable, and you’re lucky to not graduate into the teeth of recession caused by government mismanagement of Wall Street derivatives and/or infectious disease, and you emerge with an honest-to-goodness 40-hour-a-week gig with health benefits and vacation and a 401(k)—who’s really in charge? Where do most of the fruits of your labor go? Who’s your manager? Some guy with a Not a Job Major degree who was essentially promised the job at birth. 

You know what that sounds like? A racket. A cheap, knock-off version of opportunity. No one should be surprised that voters aren’t running into the arms of people who have nothing better to offer.

Here’s what they should offer instead. 

Education and training are a crucial part of most people’s path to stability and prosperity. The American economy needs many highly skilled workers to compete internationally. Colleges have a critical role to play in accomplishing these goals. All of these things are true. 

But education alone isn’t enough—not even close. Workers need power and leverage to demand better pay. In Washington State, for example, home health care workers who collectively bargain with the government make nearly $20 an hour plus health and retirement benefits. In Arkansas, people doing the same work make $9 an hour with no benefits. They don’t need a college-only agenda. They need strong labor laws, affordable child care, health insurance, and a robust minimum wage.

Other parts of the workforce would absolutely benefit from better education and credentials—but only if the job structure were changed to match. When my daughter turned three, she enrolled as a full-time student in the neighborhood public school. Her teacher had a bachelor’s degree, as all public school teachers do, with a specialization in early childhood education. The next year, the children moved to a classroom for four-year-olds, and then kindergarten a year later, always taught by a credentialed teacher. Same building, same profession. 

But that’s because Washington, D.C., chose to extend its public school system to include three- and four-year-olds, a policy President Biden has proposed expanding nationwide. Despite her college degree, my daughter’s pre-K–3 teacher wouldn’t have been able to get the same job in nearby Virginia or Maryland, because in those states, the job “pre-K–3 public school teacher” doesn’t exist. Instead, young children are left to the vagaries of the under-subsidized and under-regulated private child care market, where training, credentials, pay, safety, and learning are often in short supply. In the early childhood sector, and many others, education and jobs strategies only work if they work together. 

Progressives also need to take higher education funding justice seriously. The present distribution of public dollars reflects deep structural racism. As a rule, the more students of color are enrolled in a college, the less money it receives from all sources. Six states are under Department of Justice supervision because of systemic discrimination against historically Black colleges and universities, including chronic underfunding. In addition to generous, targeted tuition affordability and loan forgiveness policies, progressives should make the underlying structural inequality of higher education a major priority. 

Biden says he has a proposal for this. To some extent, he does. The American Families Plan, first introduced in April 2021 and now making its way through Congress, would make community college free as part of the biggest new federal investment in higher education in a generation. Biden’s focus on community colleges makes sense; these are the institutions that have been historically underfunded, and where most of the students in greatest need enroll. Key members of Congress have proposed doubling the Pell Grant, which would direct tens of billions of new dollars to low- and middle-income undergraduates. Biden has called for an additional $62 billion to help students not just enroll in college, but also graduate. Regulators in the Department of Education are working to reverse Betsy DeVos’s permissive treatment of for-profit schools. 

Yet for all its expense and ambition, the Biden plan leaves too much of the existing inequitable and unregulated system in place. For decades, states have had free rein to pull money out of public colleges and universities and replace it with federally guaranteed student loans. State funding schemes that give minority-serving institutions less money are treated as regrettable but immovable historical legacies, not policy choices that can be unmade. There’s a real danger that a wave of new federal money would be diverted from its intended recipients through budgetary shell games and political favoritism. We need much stronger federal laws and regulation of state spending and tuition policy to prevent this. (One alternative is giving a standard federal subsidy to any college, two- or four-year, public or private nonprofit, that agrees to make tuition free.) 

Colleges also need to be accountable for helping students prepare for careers. Democrats have spent the past decade struggling to regulate the for-profit college industry, and with good reason. But most job-focused programs are in public and nonprofit colleges, and nobody is even trying to hold them similarly accountable. A recent Third Way report found more than 500 accredited colleges where low-income students make less money than the average high school graduate 10 years after they initially enrolled. Fifty-seven percent were for-profit colleges, reflecting consistent poor outcomes in that sector. But most of the rest were public colleges and universities. 

The Department of Education now publishes program-level earnings information, so students can, in theory, avoid schools that do little more than take their borrowed money and hand them a worthless diploma or certificate in exchange. But there is no evidence that we can improve higher education quality through a pure consumer-information-based approach. Students and parents believe the promise implicit in being granted government loans to attend a government-approved school—that the government is paying attention to higher education quality. The government should really do that, and only lend students money to attend programs that help them pay their loans back. This policy should also be applied to the lucrative graduate school sector, particularly the wholly unregulated market for master’s degrees, which are intensely financed by loans and heavily marketed as the gateway to high-paying careers. The more new federal money flows into the system, the higher the consumer protection guardrails need to be. 

These policies aren’t a substitute for bringing tuition prices down and ameliorating the student debt crisis. Instead, they’re the second half of the equation—college needs to be both affordable and good. The amount of new money currently being proposed for higher learning is historic. It would be an enormous missed opportunity to spend that much and do little to change the underlying structures that keep too many students down.

Thankfully, there are models that states and communities can adopt. A growing number of programs have proved to be very effective in helping economically and academically at-risk students earn degrees. The City University of New York’s ASAP initiative, for example, offers full-time community college students free tuition, transportation, books, and advisers, among other wraparound supports, Participants have three-year graduation rates that are more than double their non-ASAP peers. 

Yet these models have not been quickly or widely adopted. In part that’s because the colleges that serve those students are strapped for money. But it’s also because the current model of funding and regulating colleges provides no incentives to do so. Colleges are paid for enrolling students, not educating or graduating them. Students who enroll in national service programs are more likely to graduate (see Paul Glastris, “Free College if You Serve,” page 22)—but service, too, is often a minor priority for status-obsessed schools. 

Would an “affordable and good” strategy that combines tuition and debt relief with funding fairness and accountability totally overhaul the prestige dynamics underlying different professions? No, it would not. White-collar managers will continue to have higher status than mechanics. Social class goes deep. What it would do is put different parts of the education and labor markets on more equal footings. It would treat people fairly who help our society prosper in different ways. It would help higher education live up to the promise that it makes more often than it keeps: to be a place that opens up opportunity for everyone, regardless of where they come from or where they decide to go.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.