March 13, 2009

Recession-and-education humor

You know things are weird when late-night comics start channeling socialist intellectuals:

"The president said we can't stick with the school calendar that was created during a time when most Americans were farmers, and he is right. We need a new school calendar for a time when most Americans are unemployed." Jimmy Fallon, March 11, 2009
"The postponement of school leaving to an average age of eighteen has become indispensable for keeping unemployment within reasonable bounds. In the interest of working parents (the two-parent-job-holding family having become ever more common during this period), and in the interest of social stability and the orderly management of an increasingly rootless urban population, the schools have developed into immense teen-sitting organizations, ..." Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), p. 439

And then there's the pseudonymous community college dean's great quip:

"Surest sign of recession: our Admissions staff reports that it's raining men." Dean Dad, March 5, 2009

In the early 1990s, I collected a number of cartoons tied to my dissertation research (which eventually became Creating the Dropout), and the "what good is education?" theme was behind many of them. I forget who drew the 1993 or 1994 cartoon that had graduates walking across the stage, receiving parchment scrolls, and unrolling the scrolls to discover that each read, "Will work for food." Expect more along these lines in the next year or so.

Back to the serious issue here: The problem with arguing about the value of education is that the human-capital arguments are all at the level of a population. From a population standpoint, more education is a great thing. From a family or individual perspective, it's likely to be a good thing on balance, but you always take risks in individual choices.

As I pointed out in December (revised for One-Blog Schoolhouse), there currently is no mechanism for reducing risk of educational choices, but there are both costs and risks--students who attend or return to college face the opportunity costs of foregone income as well as the possibility/probability of having a lot more debt upon graduation. And we all know quite vividly now how graduation does not guarantee one a job. Recessions encourage people to return to school because the opportunity costs are much lower. Laid off? Hey, then there's no downside to attending community college for a few classes. That pattern also demonstrates why it's dangerous to ignore opportunity costs when discussing student debt, but the larger point is that recessions make it all too clear how educational choices involve calculations of risk and probabilities, not average rates of return.

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Tags: human capital, humor
Posted in Out of Left Field Friday on March 13, 2009 2:32 PM |