An old student of mine, Edward Runyon, once said, “If everyone had a million dollars, a cup of coffee would cost fifty bucks.” You have to understand that Ed was in the military*, and this was his defense of capitalism against my pseudo-socialist rantings. Besides being a valid point, it has the benefit of being based on an ironclad economic law.
Move this discussion from the money supply to the labor market and this same law explains why more skilled labor will only bring everyone’s wages down. I’ve used this quote from Andrew Carnegie (which I actually took out of my dissertation) before, but it seems like a good time to bring it back:
“When labor is plentiful, men do a great deal more work; at least 30 per cent more by my estimate. When wages are high and men are scarce, they do not do the work. The reason is this (I am not blaming the men for it; it is human nature): when labor is plentiful, a man is zealous to keep his job. When labor is very scarce, and you can not get other men, the man will be a great deal less attentive to his duties. That is my experience, and it is that of every employer of labor I think.”
That’s why when it comes to higher education, I consider equality of opportunity to be best for societies everywhere. If MOOCs actually educated everyone in the world, it would be very difficult for the economy to absorb all of those skilled workers, and the whole world would have a terrible underemployment problem. Heck, it’s hard enough for the American economy to absorb all the skilled workers it has right now. I’d rather organize the unorganized than unemploy the currently employed. Less disruption. More unions. There’s a direct means to economic equality that won’t destroy anyone’s job.
Despite all of our economic troubles, a college education is still an asset in the labor market because it signifies something. Educate everyone and employers will start making distinctions between real colleges and online substitutes, because they have to make distinctions somehow. After all, we can’t MOOC our way to full employment.
Which brings us to the question of educational quality. Nobody’s education will be worth very much if they aren’t educated particularly well. Via Profology (Thanks Bob!), here are some Canadian professors who are actually concerned about this issue:
The survey, of 2,015 university professors and librarians, found that a majority of them are wary of potential changes to post-secondary education the Ontario government has considered, including cutting the time of an undergraduate degree from four years to three, offering year-round studies and moving 60 per cent of undergraduate courses online.
“In a competitive and knowledge-based economy, our students don’t need less education,” said [Constance] Adamson of Queen’s University [President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations]. “Any policy that potentially reduces the quantity and quality of curriculum taught in universities has to be met with extreme caution and concern.”
Aren’t those professors and librarians just being self-interested? Of course they are. But their interests and the economic prospects of their students perfectly align. Too bad administrations racing to get all courses online and the professors who are rushing to help them get there aren’t thinking more about the students they have now too.
* The last time I saw him he was on his way to Iraq to defuse bombs. Ed, if you ever Google yourself and read this, drop me a note to tell me you got through that alright, OK?