Volume VII, #20
One of the most important lessons I learned in college is that labels matter a lot. Sophomore and junior year I dated a girl whose last name was Hong and who had the unfortunate habit of writing “HONG” with a black Sharpie in big block capital letters on literally everything she owned. Every book, clothing label, even her wastebasket were inescapably, inevitably HONG. Sometimes, sitting in her room looking at a plethora of HONG, it was all I could think about.
Back in the day, we listened to music on CD. Over the course of my relationship with HONG, our CD collections became intermingled and remained so even after we broke up. Senior year I began dating Yahlin. One day when Yahlin was in our common room, she came across a copy of Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits with the telltale black Sharpie “HONG” obscuring poor Cat Stevens’ face. Yahlin knew exactly what it was and, in front of my roommate Dave Friedman, spent the better part of the next hour alternatively asking questions and complaining about it. After a while, Dave had enough and took matters into his own hands. Taking a black Sharpie from his room, he grabbed the CD from Yahlin and vigorously covered HONG until all we could see was Sharpie. Then, immediately below, he wrote in equally large big block capital letters: FRIEDMAN.
Eight years later, Yahlin and I got married, ergo labels matter. Thanks for the lesson, FRIEDMAN.
If it’s important to have the right label, it can be debilitating to have the wrong one. Such is the stumbling block we’ve faced in the fight against climate change. Up until 2000, there was little political division on the topic in the U.S. Both political parties had similar views on climate change. In 2001, 49% of Republicans told Gallup they believed the effects of global warming had already begun.
What changed? By adopting global warming as his signature issue – particularly after leaving office, with the film An Inconvenient Truth – Vice President Al Gore managed to put a partisan label on what was previously a non-partisan issue. In addition, Gore and other activists set forth a range of prescriptive solutions that, while correct, boiled down to “stop digging up and burning fossil fuels.”
By 2010, climate change had acquired both political and prescriptive labels: political as in Democratic Party orthodoxy, and prescriptive as in “this is how you should live your life if you care about our planet.” While the politicization of climate change was the product of craven political opportunism by many conservatives, Al Gore gave them the opening. The damage has been incalculable. By 2010, only 29% of Republicans believed in global warming. Between 2001 and 2010, the gap between climate change believers in the two parties increased from 11% to 41%. By 2010, 23% of all Americans (representing nearly half of Republicans) thought the whole thing was a hoax.
What could Gore and other activists have done? They could have found prominent Republicans and conservatives to participate as partners in the movement. And instead of taking a prescriptive approach that was easily characterized as restricting freedom (and therefore un-American), they could have followed JFK’s example: set a moonshot-like goal of stopping climate change, and issued a call to service to America’s scientists, entrepreneurs and students to solve the problem by tapping American ingenuity and creativity, as we’ve always done.
Just as we’ve failed to address climate change over the past two decades, we’ve failed to address major changes in the labor market. There’s no question that America has a massive skills gap that’s hindering economic growth. There are over 6 million unfilled jobs and 90% of hiring managers report difficulty in finding and hiring the right technical talent. These aren’t all coding jobs; far from it. According to Burning Glass, jobs demanding Salesforce skills have quadrupled in the past five years; last year over 300,000 open positions called for Salesforce skills. 83% of hiring managers report that the shortage of technical talent is slowing revenue growth.
As with climate change in 2000, there’s little political debate over whether the problem exists. But repeating history, the Democratic Party has adopted another prescriptive solution for solving the problem. For the skills gap, the Democratic solution is Free College.
Birthed by Senator Bernie Sanders as part of his 2016 Presidential bid, and incorporated in part by Hillary Clinton into the Democratic Party platform, Free College has become Democratic Party orthodoxy. Many leading candidates for the 2020 nomination have felt compelled to announce free college platforms or programs.
What’s wrong with Free College? The cost of the new entitlement aside, since approximately 45% of students who undertake bachelor’s degree programs fail to complete, a significant percentage of the population now views a college degree as inaccessible. While affordability and student loan debt play a major role, a bigger factor is time and the fact that life tends to get in the way. It’s a sad reality that for an increasing percentage of low-income students with more family obligations than family support, asking them to undertake a multi-year project seems increasingly unrealistic. Over a four-year period – or even a two-year period – everything needs to go exactly right for life not to get in the way.
Keep in mind that a recent poll of white working class voters found that 57% believe a college degree would result in more debt and little likelihood of landing a good-paying job. Not unrelated, between 2016 and 2017, the percentage of self-identified Republicans who said colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country increased from 45% to 58%. As a result, like Al Gore’s prescriptive approach to climate change, Free College as the sole prescriptive approach to closing the skills gap seems destined to alienate a significant slice of the population.
It’s bad enough that white working class and self-identified Republican voters are down on college. But, similar to the climate change experience, what’s worse is the risk that the “college” label gets affixed to all reskilling and retraining, thereby inhibiting the ambitions of those who most need new skills.
It may already be happening. Only 62.9% of working age Americans are working or looking for work – down 3% from a decade ago; 7 million working age men are currently disengaged from the labor market. A recent Inside Higher Education article on short-term accelerated certificate programs at community colleges finds prospective students are choosing “to not go forward” with these shorter programs even though they understand there are plenty of good jobs on the other side. In his terrific new book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen chronicles the sad loss of urgency and momentum across American society. Cowen’s complacency also applies to the skills gap, and the “college” label for all upskilling could very well result in further reification of the labor market.
It’s ironic that America is at risk of falling out of love with self-improvement and skill-building at a time when relevant content and courses are more readily available than ever. But as the Democratic pollster who conducted the survey of white working class voters concluded, “when these voters hear people tell them that the answer to their concerns is college, their reaction is to essentially say – don’t force your version of the American dream on me.” In other words, when the sole path to middle- and high-skill jobs ostensibly involves FAFSA forms, transfer credits, and multiple years, don’t be surprised when millions of Americans duck their heads and plow forward, trying to make ends meet as best they can in low-skill jobs.
I get why Democrats talk about Free College. Having had the benefit of a college education, it must be good for everyone. It’s understandable and natural. But it’s also misguided paternalism in the same way that Vice President Gore’s carbon admonitions backfired.
Labels matter. I was much better off with a Cat Stevens CD that said FRIEDMAN instead of HONG. And instead of continuing to push Free College as the solution for closing the skills gap, Democrats should join Republicans, expand their education priority beyond colleges and universities, and label it “Free Credentials,” or – even better – “Free Pathways to Good Jobs.”
If Democrats can cross this bridge, they’ll also address the other major shortcoming of Free College: the cost. Because the most successful pathways to good jobs won’t require funding from the Government or students. They’ll distinguish themselves in the market and provide a superior value proposition to students via income share and employer-pay models.