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The 'overrated' college option and the increasingly non-existent manufacturing option

May 29, 2012 - Mike Maneval
A recent trend in opinion journalism has pundits and commentary writers pontificating on whether college education is overrated. Cal Thomas, in a column to which I responded two weeks ago, argued new research showed elite private universities were overrated in the pursuit of a career. Glenn Reynolds of the New York Post argues Tuesday that the market for college education suffers from "too much demand, causing sky-high prices - all because of cheap government money." A day earlier, Robert Samuelson, writing for, went further in commentary titled "Ditch College for All," claiming, "we overdid it. The obsessive faith in college has backfired."

None of these writers could bring themselves to seriously address what career opportunities will exist in America's future without advanced education, and not a single one could acknowledge the decades of decline in manufacturing that closed a path to the middle class for millions of working Americans, or the policies - particularly trade policies, popular on both sides of the aisle - that led many of those jobs to be relocated where the labor could be paid disturbingly low wages.

In the past 20 years alone, the U.S. has shed another 6 million manufacturing jobs, according to the economix blog of the New York Times. The overall percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing slid from about 28 percent in 1962 to about 9 percent in 2011, according to University of Chicago instructors Gary Becker and Richard Posner. In light of the loss of work in manufacturing as an option for one-fifth of Americans, the increased demand for post-high school education Reynolds calls "too much" should've been expected.

If Reynolds, Samuelson, and Thomas really want to reduce the demand for college education, they should present a serious platform that addresses both how the U.S. can retain decent-paying jobs that a worker with a high school education realistically can fill, and how past policies have undermined the retention of middle-class jobs for hard-working Americans without a college diploma. Because until then, any American entering the workforce has the right to pursue a job that doesn't pit them against a 14-year-old in Central America in a race to see who can scrape by on the smallest paycheck. And since 1962, it has looked more and more like a college education is an essential part of that pursuit.


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