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In America, college degrees are at least as much about conferring class identity as they are about certifying knowledge and skill. The push for College For All, then, is a push for universal class ascension. It ought to be about reform of higher education.

(thread) #YangGang
College For All is not purely economic; it’s an implicit rejection of traditional working class identity. Being a blue collar worker, even one with a trade, does not confer the class status that college students are promised.
Knowledge and skill are attainable outside university, but class status is not. In American culture, an Amazon warehouse worker with a degree has cause to consider herself superior to her co-worker who only holds a diploma.
Remember, the American colleges began as a way to train Christian ministers — to set them apart from the common folk. Even the term “degrees” is a hint at a cultish purpose: graduation is a ritual of socioeconomic class ascension, an investiture in secular priesthood.
Perhaps this is why some interlocutors are far more driven to establish free College For All and student debt forgiveness than the direct abolition of poverty through a universal basic income. UBI lacks the sacramental power of a college degree, so it is “merely” money.
To socialists who oppose UBI, an unconditional transfer of wealth is a “bribe.” If their primary concern was material, this would be incoherent; the data favors abolishing poverty through direct access to capital. But their concern is with class — more to the point, status.
For Gen X and younger, college costs have inflated while class anxiety has risen. At the same time, the Information Age has reduced the material benefits of higher education — namely, knowledge and skill — while the narrow job market demands higher and higher degrees to compete.
The net effect? More young people than ever pursue economic security and class status through increasingly costly — and increasingly *devalued* — education. You end up with generations of would-be secular priests saddled with debt and the same bad jobs as their common neighbors.
Instead of reforming the American college system to better face the challenges of the 21st century, well-meaning politicians have proposed making this broken system “free.” But would greater access to this gatekeeping institution fix its socially dysfunctional effects?
If every American has free access to the secular priesthood, but nothing about its economic value fundamentally changes, what good does holding a degree now have for the debt-free Amazon worker, compared to her coworker with a mere diploma? Apparently, she’s still superior.
And since everyone without a college degree would no longer have an excuse not to get one, the social status conferred by academia would be heightened, even as the economic value of non-STEM degrees continues to shrink. It’s one more hoop to jump through, an extension of K-12.
Yet, if most degrees do not create a material advantage, where does this leave the socioeconomic underclass who will be stuck working the same soul-crushing labor as before, even if guaranteed a clerk job by the federal government? Back to square one.
Without unconditional capital for all, free College For All is a bribe for the working class. For most, it’s a promise of class transcendence without material benefit. For doctors, lawyers, and engineers, it will give them greater advantage as they have no debt.
A better idea is Higher Education For All — invest in and expand our library system to provide classes on a leisurely schedule that are free to the public. Raise the resolution of liberal arts for everyone, as an ongoing enrichment of our lives in the Information Age.
At the same time, streamline traditional colleges to fit their shrinking material benefit. Focus them on what they do best — scientific research and training highly skilled fields — and stop using them to launder class identity.
As for poverty and class, I suggest giving everybody an unconditional economic foundation, a dividend that pays through our whole lives. Capital breeds capital, and capital is power. An underclass with organically growing economic power won’t stay underfoot for long.

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