On the Purported Essentiality of Higher Education for the Adult Learner

Written on January 29, 2017 for an assignment in my Spring 2017 course, IDS 6504: Adult Learning, at University of Central Florida.

1. StatementQuote: The transformation of the world economy over the past several decades has put a premium on an educated workforce. A more fluid and volatile global economy is characterized by more frequent job and career change, which is an important factor in the growing demand for continual learning and skill enhancement. Because of these changes, it is clear that current and future generations of adult workers seeking employment and better quality of life will require more education credentials. Thus 2- and 4-year degrees, certificate programs, and workforce educational and training opportunities are becoming increasingly essential for all workers. (Hansman & Mott, 2010, pp. 19–20)

2. Explanation – There is a lot to unpack in this statement. First, we have to take Hansman and Mott’s arguments with a grain of salt—they are university professors and administrators, who are obviously not a neutral source to ask about the necessity of their practice. It is difficult to imagine them saying that higher education is becoming increasing irrelevant, even if it were true.

Next, we can contrast this 2010 book chapter, having been published after the 2008 financial crisis, with the Reach Higher, America report (National Commission on Adult Literacy, 2008), which was published just three months before the worst part of the financial crisis. The Reach Higher report complains that American adults are less educated than the generation before, unlike every other OECD free-market country. While it is unfair and inaccurate to blame the financial crisis primarily on Americans’ lack of education, in a time of economic recession, high-value skills are essential to obtaining a living wage. I would contend that Hansman and Mott (2010) would not have worded their arguments as strongly had they been writing a few years earlier, when times were good.

However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2009), in 2009, of adults aged 25 and older, 85% reported having a high school diploma or equivalent and 28% reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher. These statistics are higher than ever before. To say that Americans are less educated is a misnomer, at least with respect to formal attainment. Nonetheless, it is possible they are completing secondary and post-secondary education yet coming away poorly educated or educated in subjects that do not provide value to employers. If so, educators, administrators, and policymakers share much of the blame.

Economically, globalization is characterized as a foregone conclusion, except perhaps by nationalists like President Trump. However, in lieu of protectionist policies, it becomes necessary for adult learners to develop increasingly specialized and high-value skills to merit a living wage in the open market. Under globalization-friendly policies, coupled with mechanical and technological advancements, jobs can be outsourced to foreigners at a small fraction of the cost of an American worker. First, this applied to durable goods, and now, in the Internet age, it applies even to U.S.-based technical positions, and certainly any jobs that can be performed remotely (e.g., customer service). For example, Americans working in information technology (I.T.) frequently complain about reduced wages or unemployment due to skilled foreigners with H-1B visas flooding the American workforce. These foreign workers are willing to work for far lower wages than Americans were previously accustomed to.

Fundamentally, however, a significant component of the “growing demand for continual learning” (Hansman & Mott, 2010, p. 19) is induced demand. If not for Pell grants, student loans, tax money, and government guarantees, it is unlikely that many of the faculty and staff—even those employed at University of Central Florida (UCF)—would be able to sustain their tenure, salaries, or quality of life. Moreover, the federal government offers student loans at unnaturally low interest rates even to non-creditworthy borrowers pursuing unsalable degrees, further incentivizing perverse educational choices among Americans. Ironically, this may be even more destructive with respect to private institutions. For example, private universities like Keiser University and University of Phoenix are over-priced and fairly pointless compared to public institutions like UCF, and yet ill-advised Americans can be suckered into ridiculous and unnecessary debt burdens due to the illogical availability of student loans for private institutions with low return-on-investment (ROI).

The burgeoning sector of the American economy that operates with relative independence from market forces—government and government-sponsored or government-like enterprises (healthcare, education, large corporations, etc.)—is now the ticket to the American dream. Yes, advanced degrees are usually required. However, I contend that in many cases, the day-to-day duties in a surprising proportion of these positions could be performed by high-functioning high school dropouts with a few months of well-executed training.

3. Statement – “Nearly half of new job growth in the first decade of the 21st century required college or other postsecondary education” (Hansman & Mott, 2010, p. 19).

4. Explanation – Once again, the temptation to conflate formal education with real education is strong. What may really be happening here is that employers are requiring a 4-year degree as a weed-out. My Psychology B.S. does not make me any better an office worker, but in an employer’s market, employers are flooded with desperate applicants. Thus, they use shortcuts to thin the herd. This may be one of the antecedents of the bizarre credential-inflation phenomenon we have seen over the past 50 years. Even quite recently, new advanced degrees like the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) have emerged, arguably to pander to this phenomenon. The cost to the adult learner is staggering. If a job that required 12 years education (Grades 1–12) in my grandfather’s time now requires 17 (Grades K–12 + Bachelor’s), the costs are huge, even to young adults who push straight through. (In truth, completing a 4-year degree in 4 years or less has actually become somewhat unusual.) Entering the workforce at Age 22 with $50,000 in debt versus Age 18 with no debt is a massive handicap, and this is a fairly conservative debt estimate. The 18-year-old can invest in retirement funds and brokerage accounts perhaps 10 years ahead of his/her college-educated counterpart, which can consistently produce a 7% inflation-adjusted annual return. Obviously, a 10-year head start yields an increase of 1.07^10 = 1.97× in retirement, which is almost double.

Consequently, the full-time adult learner pursues education at a massive opportunity cost. It is important for learners and educators to internalize this knowledge and act accordingly. If Americans desire the overwhelming, comprehensive advantages that high socioeconomic status (SES) delivers for themselves and their progeny, then as adult learners, it may be necessary to curate their programs of study with actuarial ruthlessness.

References (Note: Certain references are only included in the narrative as hyperlinks)

United States Census Bureau (2009). Educational attainment in the United States: 2009. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p20-566.pdf

Hansman, C. A., & Mott, V. W. (2010). Adult learners. In C. E. Kasworm, A. D. Rose, & J. M. Ross-Gordon (Eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education (2010 ed.; pp. 13–23). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/34503_Chapter1.pdf

National Commission on Adult Literacy. (2008, June). Reach higher, America: Overcoming crisis in the U.S. workforce. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED506605.pdf

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