My wife Yahlin is a screenwriter and her family’s from Taiwan. So she was understandably excited about China-born Chloé Zhao’s Academy Award win for Best Director and Nomadland’s corresponding win for Best Picture. When she urged me to write about Nomadland, I responded that I wouldn’t want to disappoint readers by failing to write about a movie none of them have seen. After all, The Atlantic called Nomadland “a movie that appeals to the four quadrants of the show-business apocalypse: menopausal women, people with life-threatening illnesses, people interested in poverty, and anyone with time on her hands who can’t find the remote.” But then I watched it. And, although I’m at least in the third quadrant, as usual, Yahlin was right.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2018 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s film is an outsider’s perspective on the American dream. Francis McDormand plays a “houseless” – notably, not homeless – woman struggling to make her way in an America that isn’t the same as the one she grew up in. She lives in a van. Things we take for granted – sleeping, eating, laundry, bathrooms – are hard-fought. We meet her during the holiday season as she’s picking and packing at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Reno, NV. When the Amazon gig comes to an end, she seeks help from the local workforce board:
Fran: My husband worked at the USG mine in Empire [NV] and I worked in human resources there for a few years. That was my last full-time job. I did a lot of part-time jobs. I cashiered at the Empire store. I was a substitute teacher at the school for five years.
Counselor: Didn’t the Empire mine shut down and then all of the resident workers had to relocate?
Fran: Yeah, about a year ago.
Counselor: Wow. So when do you need to get back to work?
Counselor: It is a tough time right now. You might want to consider registering for early retirement.
Fran: I don’t think I can get by on the benefits. And I need work. I like work.
Counselor: I’m not sure exactly what you would be eligible for.
She picks up a few other odd jobs like picking up trash and cleaning bathrooms at an RV park in the Badlands and working in the kitchen at Wall Drug. But these marginal jobs aren’t going to get her out of her van. She attends an RV show and asks one exhibitor:
Fran: Do you take résumés?
Fran: I’ll leave it with you, just in case.
Exhibitor: No. Just go online.
Nomadland follows her over the course of a year. At the end, she’s back at the Amazon fulfillment center – a servant of the digital economy, never a master. In fact, we don’t see her interacting with technology at all until, towards the end of the film, it turns out she does have a phone.
“Economic times are changing.
My goal is to get the lifeboats out and to get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.”
- Bob Wells in Nomadland
Bob Wells, an author and expert on “vandwelling,” makes a cameo in Nomadland. Wells’ “lifeboats” are vans. Although vans aren’t anyone’s solution to America’s crisis of socioeconomic immobility, there can be no question that economic times have changed. In Covid’s wake, five tech companies now constitute 5% of America’s GDP. It just so happens that one of the five has a program to recruit seasonal workers who live in vans, helping them find and fund a nearby campground to park so they can pick and pack. Amazon promotes its CamperForce program, in which Francis McDormand’s character participates, as bringing together “a community of enthusiastic RV’ers for seasonal workamping job opportunities. Come help make our Amazon customers smile by working in one of our state-of-the-art fulfillment centers. You could be picking, packing, and shipping customer orders…”
As evidenced by the proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, the Biden administration agrees that economic times have changed. Even if Amazon is building some itself, we need a lot more clearly demarked pathways to lift up Amazon fulfillment center workers (and RV park and kitchen workers) and their “workamping” brothers and sisters. (And if CamperForce/workamping isn’t a sign that the Revolution is nigh, I don’t know what is.)
Approximately $200 billion of the American Families Plan is allocated to accredited postsecondary institutions, with over half pegged to eliminate tuition at community colleges. While specifics aren’t yet clear (first-dollar or last-dollar plan?), and while there’s actually no such thing as “free college” (students still need to fund fees, books, cost of living – a recent Georgetown CEW report says this adds up to over $30K annually for older students – not to mention the opportunity cost of not working or working part-time instead of full-time), free community college is this administration’s primary response to the tens of millions of dislocated older and younger Americans living literally or figuratively in Nomadland.
Free is a powerful word. Since launching in January, Michigan’s free community college program has received 67,000 applications. As Willamette College of Law professor David Friedman has noted, “Cognitive psychology and reciprocity theory demonstrate that the power of a free offer will induce consumers to behave differently, making them more likely to engage in a transaction with a free offer than a transaction without a free offer.” Which explains why the FTC regulates free offers. So free community college certainly has the potential to rouse nomads from their doldrums.
But the digital economy (besides picking and packing) isn’t the only thing missing from Nomadland. So are community colleges – never mentioned or discussed as an option. There’s a reason community college enrollment is down by double digits this year. It’s not unaffordable tuition. It’s because too few community colleges have acknowledged that the economy has changed. While digital transformation has transformed the world of work, most community colleges don’t look much different than they did a generation ago. Even nomads like Fran intuit that most good jobs are digital jobs. And as digital transformation has accelerated, it’s become less and less clear that enrolling at a community college is a pathway to a good digital job.
So while the impetus for free community college is understandable, what’s remarkable is that the proposal isn’t to fund free college for (or living expenses or – dare to dream – a living wage while students pursue) programs and courses that directly address employer demand, or that correspond to a minimum number of open or even projected jobs. Instead, we’re talking about blanket funding for the set of programs and courses that accreditors want to accredit, administrators want to offer, and faculty want to teach. There’s some intersection between these two sets, but not enough to warrant $100 billion of additional funding, let alone to bet America’s democratic future on it.
Following my last column, I received an e-mail from a reader named Donnie informing me that my attempt to describe the systemic racism in higher education’s most valuable (scientific and technical) degree programs was off-base. Why? Because “the reason people in the United States either succeed or fail is based upon one factor.” “Want to know what that is?” Donnie asked. (Not really, I thought, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to tell me.) “It is called personal accountability,” Donnie continued. “The only person who will make my life better is me. The only person who will make your life better is you. Bottom line. You are perpetuating a false narrative and should shut your yapper and stop making excuses for people who have only themselves to blame for their failures.” The subject line of Donnie’s missive? “Your Article Stinks.”
With the Republican Party doubling down on President Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, there appears to be no return from its “transformation into a populist party of cultural and racial grievance.” So there’s little chance educated professionals and economically-motivated suburbanites will drift rightward anytime soon. All Democrats need to do to sustain a governing majority is take back voters like Donnie. If they can manage a modest shift of 5-10 points, Republicans have no shot.
Republicans have invested years that could have been profitably spent lowering taxes (talk about opportunity cost) painting four-year colleges as bastions of woke liberal judginess. So free community college is a much better idea than free college for winning Donnie. It’s harder for Republicans to play the elitism card and exacerbate the social divide. But they’re already trying. And community colleges are full of liberal faculty members – including Dr. Jill Biden – many of whom teach subjects susceptible to Republican agitprop. Hundreds of community colleges offer associate’s degrees and certificates in the art history, women’s studies, and ethnic studies programs that Fox News loves to hate. So it’s a risky strategy for Democrats to put all their eggs in the community college basket.
Free community college would be a sure political bet if it were “free training (within reason) until you get a good job.” But such a proposition would require investing in the development of new training programs and changing incentives so thousands of colleges and universities would offer more programs leading directly to jobs.
I recognize two huge challenges here. First, there’s no easily identifiable alternative to community college training programs. Workforce development and workforce boards only serve low skill workers, and not well, as shown in Nomadland. But taking the easy way out is like calling Mastercard and demanding a credit card number that’s the same as your social security number because your current card number is too hard to remember; easy doesn’t make it a good idea.
Second, there’s no interest group pushing for it. Incumbent colleges and their constituencies agree it’s a really good idea to give them more money, unharried by bothersome outcome metrics. There aren’t any other interest groups of remotely comparable size and stature in Democratic education-training-workforceland. Even if there were, they’d be constrained by for-profit college boogeyman-prompted phobia-bordering-on-mania concerning public education and training spending. Democratic orthodoxy says it’s OK to give public money to private actors to save American lives, but not to help Americans get good jobs.
In the Tampa Bay Times last week, the last acceptable Republican, Jeb Bush, hailed a raft of new laws passed by the Florida legislature that will ostensibly transform the state’s postsecondary system into “a highway with multiple on-ramps and off-ramps.” One new statute “demands that to get access to funding, [community colleges]… show that their graduates gain in-demand skills and good paying jobs.” A second mandates audits of community colleges, requiring them to track graduate employment outcomes. A third provides a money-back guarantee to students who enroll in community college “programs focused on certain higher-skill, higher-wage and in-demand occupations. If a student completes the program and is unable to find a job in that field within six months, their tuition will be refunded.”
While DC Democrats find such alternatives to free community college abhorrent, impractical, or just silly (all the nuts roll downhill to Florida), these ideas are probably winners in purple and some red states. How close can Democrats realistically get to a politically winning formula for postsecondary education? They might start by recognizing that all community colleges and programs are not created equal, that some do a much better job than others of providing pathways for nomads.
DC Democrats Shalin Jyotishi and Iris Palmer at New America acknowledge “people want shorter, more affordable non-degree training” and applaud six community colleges with quality non-degree workforce programs that lead to quality jobs and careers. These include:
In a town where the Democrat didn’t make the runoff for an open congressional seat, Dallas College Chancellor Joe May is launching a “Certificate First” initiative. So far, he’s integrated the Google IT support professional certificate into an existing IT program and embedded a Salesforce certificate into a project management course. Applying the upside-down degree model to community colleges and focusing on industry-recognized certifications, Chancellor May is now seeking to make many Dallas College programs “Certificate First.”
Politically, models like May’s are consistent with what we know works. A memo from Third Way cites Democrats who succeed in winning voters like Donnie: Democrats like Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Governor Roy Cooper in North Carolina. Neither campaigns on education or free community college, but rather on the primacy of jobs and job training.
But in foregrounding work and training, we can’t forget the critical role of digital technology. Digital jobs are desirable jobs, not least because they weren’t disrupted by the pandemic, and Americans who don’t have them are thinking twice about returning to their analog jobs. That’s why Joe May is focused on digital certificates. So it was sobering to read last week’s report from Paul Fain that, whether due to unease with Big Tech or bad PR from Obama-era “coding for coal miners” projects, “tech jobs have been largely written out of workforce solutions the Biden administration is touting.” What the Biden team should understand is that the digital skills that matter most aren’t coding, but rather the ability to interact professionally on increasingly common and complex digital platforms (including being able to apply for jobs online). So even if it’s not politically feasible to limit new funding to community college programs that produce demonstrable employment outcomes, it will be politically beneficial for Democrats to lift up and highlight such institutions and programs.
While free community college finds its way home, if Democrats are serious about turning Republicans into political nomads, we need a better plan to get Fran out of the van.