Rubio’s philosophy on higher education

21 Aug

I’ve written before (see 16 Feb 2014) on the new and dangerous trend in higher education policy in the U.S., which is to suggest that “college is not for everyone,” as if that general shaking out takes place meritocratically, independent of class and race.  Even the liberal wing of our mainstream political spectrum, in the form of President Obama, is comfortable going to high schools (but not affluent ones) and bringing this message.  The economist Robert Reich, to his credit, shows that a four-year college degree is currently the best predictor of higher income, and while he does argue that college shouldn’t be the only route to the middle class, he also says, significantly, “I don’t believe the main reason to go to college – or to choose one career over another – should be to make lots of money.  Hopefully, a college education gives young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.  Even if they don’t change the world for the better, I want my students to be responsible and engaged citizens.”  Let’s not forget the argument that more, and more critical, education is beneficial, if not necessary, to a functioning democracy, especially in countries that wield tremendous global power.

But this idea that expanded vocational training is the best way to reform higher education in the 21st century, and open up the middle class to more people, is much stronger on the right side of the spectrum, including leaders and presidential candidates who have gone after their state university systems, for example Governor Walker of Wisconsin.  This point of view bears examination.

Several days ago (18 Aug 2015), Senator Marco Rubio made a stump speech at the Iowa State Fair in which he reiterated several themes and policy suggestions about higher education that he had been making in previous speeches.  And yet, two nights of Google searches turn up no transcripts of his speech in any newspaper articles.  When I heard an excerpt on NPR, I wanted to stop in my tracks, because even the sound bite revealed so much about how conservatives see the need and potential for higher education.  But the speech itself warrants detailed, critical examination because it reveals not only what Republican conservatives (and economic neoliberals) think of the value of higher education, but how higher education can contribute to extending greater economic inequality, not ending it.

As a public service, I have transcribed several sections of the speech.  Early on, he says,

I want this to remain a country where parents can do for their children what my parents did for me. My parents were born on the island of Cuba, they came to the United States in 1956, they barely spoke the language at the time, had no money and very little education…. They were able to leave all four of their children better off than themselves…

This is a significant opening, because not only does he reveal that his parents came before the Cuban Revolution, but what his parents did for him – to his and their credit – was to enable him to graduate from a four-year college after transferring twice, first from a small college (just before it went bankrupt, by the way) where he went on a football scholarship, then from a community college before graduating from the University of Florida and then law school.  So in a way, even though the market failed him, he and his family had the means for him, with scholarship assistance, to go from community college through a post-graduate degree.  The question that lingers is whether he wants, as he claims, to be able to do this for young Americans as it had been possible for him.

But curiously, his speech takes a different turn:

We have to modernize higher education. We cannot continue stuck with a 20th century higher education system, that tells everyone you either get a four-year degree, or you get nothing at all… The first thing we have to do is more vocational training. We need more people trained to be welders, and airplane mechanics, and machinists. These are good-paying jobs… A welder makes more than a political science major, and we need to train more young Americans to do it…

Does he speak of more young people having access to a four-year political science degree (like the one he received) or more access to law school?  And when he says that “A welder makes more than a political science major” (which may, according to Reich, be factually untrue), I would ask, More what?  More money, or more decisions that affect other people’s lives?  There is the false dichotomy of the bachelor’s-or-nothing, which doesn’t even exist now, and then there is this fallacious promotion of the idea that most young people are better off with vocational training because their income will be higher.  Not only untrue in the aggregate, but also because it overlooks the value added of being in a position of social and political influence that a college degree makes more likely.

Then he continues,

For example, a single mother raising two kids, who works full-time for nine dollars an hour as a home health aide, the only way she’s ever going to get a raise is to become a dental hygienist or a paralegal, but to do that she has to go back to school. And she can’t, because she has to work full-time and raise a family. I believe we need to have alternative accredited programs that allow people to get the equivalent of a degree, from alternative institutions that allow them to package learning, no matter how they acquired it. Let people learn online for free. Give them credit for what they’ve learned on their own. And suddenly that receptionist, instead of making ten dollars an hour or twelve dollars an hour can be a paralegal making $65,000 a year. I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of four-year colleges, they’re going to remain part of our program – after all, how are we going to get college football without them? I am saying this: We can’t keep graduating people with degrees that don’t lead to jobs. That’s why I believe that before you take out a student loan, schools should tell you how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree. So you can decide if it’s worth borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy, because after all, the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for two thousand years.

Let’s just ignore the complete denigration of the use-value of basically all of the Western intellectual tradition at the end there, shall we?  More important, to our argument, is the disingenuous wiggling that at first suggests vocational training is not only the most cost-effective but the only available opportunity for working adult students, and then goes on to suggest that people should be able to get credit for watching online videos (or whatever “learning online for free” means) and what they’ve learned on their own – essentially no formal education whatsoever.

This is also incredibly insulting to the working four-year college undergraduates whom I teach, those who do manage to find the time to work towards a Bachelor’s degree (and sometimes a Master’s degree) while managing jobs, careers, children (sometimes grandchildren), spouses (or children without spouses), and loans because they want something more fulfilling to them than just a manual trade or unskilled labor.  I would never have the nerve to suggest that they settle for a career they don’t want, nor would I be so patronizing to assume they don’t want to know about Greek philosophy or film history because they don’t “need” it to discharge their work duties.  As Professor Reich says, I want them to have fulfilling lives, where dignity is worth a lot more than simply bringing home and spending a paycheck.

So there are clearly two tracks in Rubio’s educational vision for 21st century America.  Those who can afford to can attend college and support those college football games, preferably without loans unless the students have a guarantee their majors will get them good jobs, which as we know in fact is not the only thing majors are good for.  (And preferably not at colleges they have to leave because the schools go bankrupt or can’t afford to keep academic or even athletic programs funded.) Those who can’t afford school without costly loans can go to vocational schools, or even better, can “learn online for free,” and then go into the workforce in well-paying jobs, but jobs that, regrettably, have little social, economic, or political influence. It’s “the only way they’re going to get a raise,” as he says.  I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t become welders or dental hygienists or paralegals if they want or need to, only that if they want to enter a career where they will have more influence in the democratic process and the economy, or they want a career that they themselves find more fulfilling, they should be able to choose that path and have access to the funds to make that possible – rather than be ruled out because they come from a low-income background or went to an under-resourced high school.  Following Rubio’s logic, there will be less need for federal aid both to universities and colleges (whose enrollment base will provide the necessary revenue), and to students because there will be low-cost options available like vocational schools, training programs, and of course free Internet, so that they shouldn’t have to depend on the government to pay for degrees that won’t pay off financially.

This is not doing for America’s children what his parents did for him.  Maybe a little Greek philosophy would help him understand this.


One Response to “Rubio’s philosophy on higher education”


  1. Marco Rubio and the Mask of Empathy | Beyond Umwelt - October 18, 2015

    […] in Rubio’s speeches there’s a rift between the uplift of his rhetoric and downward pull of his regressive […]

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