“Get woke, go broke.” It’s a phrase people coined to describe the failure of Hollywood’s recent politics-drenched efforts at blockbuster films, from which viewers stayed away in droves. But now it applies to another field: higher education.
College and graduate degrees were comparatively rare before about 1970. People could be quite successful without them, and there was little stigma attached to their absence.
That changed as the baby boomers and the GI Bill hit colleges. By the 1970s, college became an essential ticket to entry in the managerial and professional classes (and even to military promotions). Where higher ed had once been a luxury, it became a necessity to membership in the middle, and especially the upper-middle, class.
Parents struggled to live in districts with “top” public schools so they could get their kids into good colleges. Once admitted, the students often borrowed huge sums (most of which went into the colleges’ pockets) to attend. The goal was a degree from a “prestige” school, which would guarantee a good job out of college or admission to a top law, medical or other professional school and thus a secure position among the haute bourgeoisie.
That system is falling apart. Higher education’s enormous costs, which have grown at a rate exceeding that of most other items in today’s budgets, have become such that even a good job as a doctor or lawyer often isn’t enough to justify them, and hardly any other professional jobs even come close.
As a result, college enrollments are plummeting — nationwide undergraduate enrollment fell by 650,000 in a single year, spring 2021 to 2022. It’s down 14% in the past decade, even as the US population grows.
But there’s a new wrinkle. It’s not just colleges that are “woke,” it’s also employers. And woke employers are pursuing a new strategy that may make colleges go broke faster, as notions of “equity” and “privilege” popular on campus spread to the corporate world.
As The Post reported recently, some employers are asking applicants to leave the colleges they attended off their applications. Instead of the school, they are simply to list the degree. Whether it came from Harvard or Slippery Rock won’t matter anymore because the employer doesn’t want to know. Prestige degrees confer “privilege,” you know, and that’s bad for equity.
Well, of course people know prestige degrees confer privilege. That’s why they pursue them. But now all that studying, all those contrived extracurricular activities, all those anguished nights spent writing a heartrending “personal essay” are for naught. You might as well have gone to a school whose admissions requirement was the ability to exhale warm air. The degree counts the same.
But wait, there’s more. The Gartner consulting firm recently recommended its 15,000 clients, in the name of equity, consider hiring people without degrees at all. The focus on degrees is bad for “underrepresented candidates” because they’re less likely to have attended, or finished, college. Gartner suggests employers instead focus on “assessing candidates solely on their ability to perform in the role,” rather than on their “formal education and experience.”
Far be it from me to criticize hiring people based on their ability to do the job instead of the polish of their résumés, but this is a huge departure from the past, and it spells bad news for the people who’ve been selling the polish. If employees are no longer hired based on credentials, the market for credentials is going to head south.
And there are problems on the other end, too. Why should parents struggle to get their kids into “top” public schools if they don’t need to get them into prestige colleges?
This goes double since some top public schools are embracing “equity,” too. At least seven high schools in tony Fairfax County, Va., turn out not to have told their students they’d won National Merit Scholarship awards. That sort of merit-based recognition is bad for “equity,” they felt, and the announcement might make the students who didn’t win feel bad.
So if working hard in a top high school won’t get you a scholarship to attend a prestige school that won’t get you a fancy job afterward, why bother? Why not start work sooner and develop skills and a track record employers will want?
Why not indeed? I don’t think there’s a happy ending for prestige colleges in this. Maybe pushing “equity” so hard was a mistake.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.