Phi Beta Cons

Another Dissent from ‘Put More People Through College’

Inside Higher Ed ran a piece on July 26 that included an interview with Prof. John Marsh, author of a new book entitled Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality. Marsh is an egalitarian leftist, but has come to the conclusion that the standard leftist notion that putting more people through college would alleviate inequality (the principal idea in Anthony Carnevale’s recent paper “The Undereducated American,” which I criticized here) won’t work.

He says in the interview, “Education can help some people escape poverty and low incomes, but that road will very quickly get bottlenecked. Although economists and scholars debate it, it is not clear that the United States needs or will need many more college graduates than it already generates. . . . For the foreseeable future, the U.S. economy will continue to produce many jobs — a majority, in fact — that do not require college degrees. In general, those jobs pay low wages and an education will not make them pay more than they do. . . . Education plays a role in where people end up on the ladder of incomes, but it cannot much change the distance between the rungs on the ladder.”

Absolutely right.

Alas, Marsh wants to solve what he thinks is the problem of income distribution by somehow reinvigorating labor unions and more “progressive” taxes. He’s an English professor, and holds with the standard view that unions significantly raise the level of worker income. That view is mistaken. Union collective bargaining and strike threats can make some workers temporarily better off, but only by imposing costs on other workers, on consumers, and ultimately everyone to the extent that they deter capital formation. And as for more progressive taxation, when the government confiscates more money from “the rich,” it does nothing to make the poor better off. In fact, they’ll probably be worse off, because the government is apt to squander the resources on programs politicians like, whereas the rich people might have started or expanded businesses, made donations to charities that accomplish good things, or spent their money in ways that create demand for labor.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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