Too much college but not enough education

Gov. Malloy’s plan to throw another $1.5 billion at the University of Connecticut, this time for technical education, may not be received so enthusiastically outside the higher-education apparatus, and not just because the UConn men’s basketball team is disqualified from tournament play this year.

The governor’s underlying idea is sound: The chances of prosperous careers are better in science, technology, engineering and math than in English, philosophy, music and women’s studies, not that college should have no room at all for the latter. The governor indicated as much in 2011, when he criticized the state’s technical high schools for turning out too many hairdressers and not enough machinists.

The governor has heard complaints from Connecticut employers that they can’t find qualified people. But with his UConn proposal he seems to think that enough technical training will secure the state’s economy, even as he announced the proposal in East Hartford at Pratt & Whitney, which long has been dumping trained workers here and expanding in other states. Someone graduating from UConn this spring with an engineering degree may be more likely to find a job with Pratt in Florida than in Connecticut.

Connecticut’s business environment may be the worst in the country, and if the businesses aren’t here, college graduates aren’t going to stay or come here no matter how well trained they are.

Further, of course, with another billion-dollar state budget deficit exploding, with the highest per-capital bonded indebtedness in the country, with unfunded pension obligations promising insolvency, and with an estimated $3 billion in neglected transportation infrastructure maintenance, there’s the question of just where another $1.5 billion for UConn is to come from and at whose expense.

But the biggest flaw with the governor’s plan is that it simply accepts Connecticut’s expensive premise of educational inflation, wherein 12 years of basic education have been stretched to 16 without any increase in learning. Besides, because it has become such a lucrative special interest, college is overrated anyway. A recent study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that there are 46 percent more college graduates in the U.S. work force than there are jobs requiring a college degree and that college degrees now are held by 25 percent of sales clerks and even 15 percent of taxi drivers.

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The governor has acknowledged the educational inflation problem indirectly by having the state Education Department take over a few of the worst-performing municipal elementary schools in the state, schools overwhelmed by students from fatherless households. But many more elementary schools could use the extra attention, and most high schools could use enforcement of academic standards, replacing the social promotion now practiced.

All this suggests different policy approaches. Yes, nudge public higher education toward the scientific and technical study likely to lead to better careers, but do it within current resources. That is, liquidate women’s studies and such in favor of science.

But concentrate on improving not higher education but lower education, since while not everyone will go to college, and the slackers shouldn’t go until they have made up for their slacking, everyone will go to elementary school, middle school and high school.

Of course there would be little glory in such an approach — no shiny new buildings, no highly paid and tenured professors and extravagantly paid college administrators with fancy titles — just better education for the masses, who, as taxpayers, eventually might be able to see through the racket that higher education has become.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.