Even without the effects of the current crisis, there would be every reason to expect us to fall further in these rankings, if only because we make it so hard for those with limited financial means to stay in school. In America, with its weak social safety net and limited student aid, students are far more likely than their counterparts in, say, France to hold part-time jobs while still attending classes. Not surprisingly, given the financial pressures, young Americans are also less likely to stay in school and more likely to become full-time workers instead.
But the crisis has placed huge additional stress on our creaking educational system.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States economy lost 273,000 jobs last month. Of those lost jobs, 29,000 were in state and local education, bringing the total losses in that category over the past five months to 143,000. That may not sound like much, but education is one of those areas that should, and normally does, keep growing even during a recession. Markets may be troubled, but that’s no reason to stop teaching our children. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing.
I sometimes wonder if something a little darker isn't going on. We've always had a paranoid anti-intellectual streak in this country, but we've usually been pragmatic enough to make good use of what the eggheads come up with. And despite the distaste for intellectuals (not entirely unjustified; they can be insufferable), education was always valued for social advancement, economic opportunity, and self improvement. As class divisions become more pronounced and rigid in this country, I wonder if there isn't something afoot to exploit the resulting class divisions in order to create a permanent privileged overclass and a permanent set of employee classes kept in a perpetual state of ignorance and compliance. Resentment is becoming the substitute for the initiative and self-advancement, especially after those avenues are closed off. Resentment can be exploited. Knowledge can't be.
The obstacles put in the path of people without the means to pay the tuition bill (almost everybody) are so enormous. I'd say Krugman understates the problem. I have lots of students who work full time, raise families, and go to school full time. Many of them do not have the moral support of family and friends. Some families are actively hostile to their children, especially their daughters, getting higher education. And across the board in popular culture from the white suburbs to the minority inner cities, jackass stupid and dumb-as-dirt are cool. I had hoped that would change with Obama's election. Maybe it might still, but it hasn't happened yet. This country wastes talent like it wastes everything else.
Even back in the good ol' days when I went through art school, and tuition was not quite so outrageously high, and grants and scholarships were much more generous, I still had to work in restaurant kitchens all through school and take out loans (however those loans were not nearly as big as what students have to borrow now to pay tuition and expenses).
I watch anxiously California's meltdown. Certainly there are a lot of dysfunctions peculiar to California, but frequently as California goes, so goes the nation. California used to have the finest public education system in the world between WWII and the 1980s. The community college was invented in California. California once boasted public colleges and universities that were as fine as the elite private Ivy Leagues on the east coast. Since Proposition 13 and the end of Cold War defense spending, all of that is coming undone.
Without education and a real commitment to support it and take advantage of it, our future will be to serve as a vast pool of cheap labor for the tiny plutocratic junta that rules us, and for the Asian and European markets that will dominate the future.