Judging by the antics of our Legislature, it is unclear whether its members crave information or prefer to act solely on emotion. Consider the nettlesome problem of reallocating funds from TOPS to health care, or vice versa. Granted, there is no consensus solution, but we would do well to heed Mark Twain’s warning: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Everyone seems to believe that we live in a knowledge economy, i.e., that the key to a good job and prosperity is a college degree.
But facts indicate the demand for workers holding a college degree has been declining. The Census Department says 47 percent of workers possess a college degree; but the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, estimates only 27 percent of jobs require such a degree. The mismatch is glaring, and likely to get worse. College enrollments continue to rise in the face of shrinking jobs. It is estimated that over 40 percent of existing jobs are under threat of being automated, the pace of which surely will quicken in states that have recently raised the minimum wage without regard to unintended consequences.
The BLS says the U.S. economy created 2.45 million jobs in 2015, while U.S. colleges and universities are expected to pump out 2.75 million bachelor’s and associate degrees in 2015-16. Anyone can do the math: 2.75 million degree-holders can be expected to compete for 661,500 degree-requiring jobs. These surplus degree-holders will either join the ranks of the unemployed or take lower-skilled jobs, pushing the less educated further down the labor market, or out of it altogether.
Why is this ominous? Because it suggests that maintaining or extending TOPS may be hurting students, not helping them, especially when graduates are confronted by studies showing they receive little return on investment. One study cited in The Guardian shows that after two years, 45 percent of university students showed no significant improvement in their cognitive skills; and after four years, 36 percent of students had not improved their ability to think and analyze problems.
Legislative proposals for reforming TOPS don’t sound very smart. High cancellation rates should be a siren call that low admission standards waste scarce resources. And of those students who persist, we don’t know how many aren’t really interested, how many are being trained for jobs that don’t exist, and how many are not enhancing their intellectual ability.
I am not opposed to TOPS, but I am suggesting a return to its original vision, intent and purpose, before the state turned it into a middle-class subsidy of questionable value. Ultimately, the question is whether TOPS is a program to help students, or a political football to help legislators get re-elected?