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Valley Perspective

The Wisdom of a College Degree

CSUN study indicates that dated attitudes toward higher education trap many minorities in unskilled jobs.

June 08, 1997|JACK SOLOMON | Jack Solomon is a professor of English at Cal State Northridge

A recently released demographic study conducted by two colleagues at Cal State Northridge provides an implicit answer to that rhetorical question commonly uttered by Southern California high school students: "Why should I bore myself by going to college when I can get a job and start earning money now?"

The answer can be found in professors James Allen's and Eugene Turner's discovery that from 1959 to 1989, the median income of Mexican Americans and African Americans in Southern California has dropped in relation to that of white workers, both for male and female and native-born and immigrant workers. This drop in relative income levels, according to Turner, contradicts "many people's belief that greater emphasis on civil rights and an expanded economy has lifted all boats." And so it may, but the question is, why haven't all boats been lifted in spite of some 30 years of affirmative action programs that ought to have reduced, not increased, the gap between white and nonwhite median incomes?

No matter which side of the affirmative-action controversy one may be on, a rather inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the data is that affirmative action has in some part failed. If one is a champion, the conclusion to be drawn is that we need more, not less affirmative action to level the playing field.

If one is an opponent, the new data demonstrate the futility of affirmative action and the need for a different approach. Arguments, of course, can be made for both positions. But since the question of affirmative action is one to be decided by the courts rather than public debate, I would suggest approaching the problem from a different perspective. That is, rather than focusing on the politics, we might look at the underlying economic conditions and cultural attitudes that go with them.

Consider then the kinds of jobs that most Mexican American and African American workers hold today, according to Turner's and Allen's data. These include jobs as sewing machine operators, groundskeepers, busboys, bus drivers, farm workers, security guards and other low-skilled, low-paying occupations. Jobs, in short, that do not require higher education.

Many people who hold such jobs once had better options, especially in the now-collapsed aerospace and automotive industries. In the days when one could find work, say, at the GM plant in Van Nuys, or a McDonnell Douglas assembly line, it made more sense for a working-class man or woman to skip college to start making good money right after high school. But it doesn't make much sense now, because high-paying jobs require at least a college degree.

So why do students, especially black and Latino students, still believe that going to work right after high school is to their advantage?

The answer may well lie in the past. The fact that one once could find good work without a higher education is part of the cultural background of many Southern Californians. Higher education was not so valued because it wasn't so necessary. The fact that many potential college students still believe that it isn't necessary suggests a kind of cultural time lag that needs to be reduced before the median incomes of nonwhite Californians can be brought into parity with white incomes.

If one were to doubt the place of higher education in today's economy, consider Turner's and Allen's revelation that nearly 90% of Southern California's lawyers are white. Such a datum skews the median income of white workers relative to nonwhite workers profoundly upward.

Although it is a small part of the picture, this "lawyer gap" is a dramatic illustration of the economic advantage of pursuing an undergraduate and post-graduate degree. Not everyone can be a lawyer, of course, but one can work in the entertainment industry or high tech or in the field of education itself--three of the brighter areas in the Southern California economy--but only if one has first pursued the necessary education.

So why should someone go to college, as boring as it might seem? Because in California's postindustrial, service-oriented economy, the high-paying jobs go to those who have higher education.

Will getting a college and / or post-graduate degree guarantee a sunny economic future? Not at all; the competition is ferocious, and in this regard an argument for affirmative-action programs does have force given the generally greater access to quality education that whites enjoy. But with or without affirmative action the boats aren't going to rise unless those in them realize the importance of college.

Rather than waiting for political solutions to economic inequity, we should work both to change attitudes and to make certain that the avenue to higher education is open to everyone who seeks it. At a time when the only certainty for the future of California's higher education system seems to be reduced resources, it is hard to be optimistic about this, however. Two kinds of attitudes need to be changed: those of students who think that college is a useless bore, and those of taxpayers who regard higher education as an expensive luxury.

Turner's and Allen's report suggests that it is no luxury at all, for if enough boats don't rise, the whole ship can be in danger of sinking.

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