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Why the Higher Education Short Didn’t Work

Why the Higher Education Short Didn’t Work


I had dinner with a local friend of mine last week. He’s a contractor, a fix-and-flip guy, but he said he’s getting a bit old for all that manual labor. He wants to stop working with his hands, basically.

“What do you want to do?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “I want a white-collar job.” Though he didn’t sound too enthusiastic about it.

My man, there is zero chance you are going to get a white-collar job that will replace your income flipping houses. What is available to you? You might be a receptionist at a dentist’s office for $35,000. Or you might get an administration job at the university for $35,000. White-collar jobs make less than blue-collar jobs. By a lot.

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I told him the story of the beer distributor I knew who was hiring high school dropouts to drive trucks for $110,000 a year and college graduates to do sales for $55,000 a year. We simply don’t have enough blue-collar workers, which is driving wages up, and we have too many white-collar workers, which is driving wages down. Quite simply, too many people went to college, which was central to the short higher education thesis.

“What do you really want to do?” I asked him.

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His eyes lit up. “I want to drive a truck!” he said.

“So why don’t you?” I asked.

Because I don’t want people to look down on me,” he said.

And then it hit me. This is all about class.

All the Way to the Bank

If my friend did end up driving a truck, he really would be laughing all the way to the bank. He’d be making six figures. And yet, he’s worried that people would look down on him, which is nuts—because he’s worried about people who make less money looking down on him. Most people think class is all about wealth, but it’s not—it’s mostly about education. In the old days, rich people looked down on poor people. Now, educated people look down on uneducated people—regardless of how much money they make. And by the way—my friend has a college degree.

We have a social caste system, of sorts. At the top, we have financiers and tech, but we also have journalists and academics. The journalists and academics don’t make any money, but they are considered high class because of their education. Someone with a graduate degree is above someone with an undergraduate degree. Someone with an undergraduate degree is above someone with a high school diploma. For an extreme example, Mark Zuckerberg would list “some college” on a job application, and he’s one of the richest people in the world. But in his case, getting into Harvard turned out to be a lot more important than graduating.

People go to college because they are motivated by class. They think that going to college will make them more money, but they know getting a degree is a ticket to being upper class—or middle class depending on the circumstances. A lot depends on where you went and what you studied, but no matter where you went to school, if you make it through, you are a college graduate.

This class motivation is very powerful, and it explains why people will continue to go to college until it makes absolutely zero economic sense. We are about there already. Nobody wants to be lower class, and they will do anything to avoid it. Nowadays, if you don’t go to college, it’s because you’re a deadbeat, a burnout, someone who’s destined to spend their lives—gasp—working with their hands. This belief persists, in spite of shows like Dirty Jobs and all we’ve done to encourage people to go into blue-collar work. But people will spend four years of their lives and go $300,000 into debt just to avoid it.

When This Reverses

This will only reverse when our culture changes—when we begin to view blue-collar labor as dignified work. And my guess is a cultural shift like that won’t happen until blue-collar wages are driven insanely high and white-collar wages are driven insanely low. You’re not hearing stories about people skipping college to go into plumbing. In most people’s minds, the worst thing in the world you could be is a plumber. Maybe when plumbers start making $200,000 a year, attitudes will change.

Personally, I am not cut out for blue-collar work. I can’t swing a hammer for the life of me. I’m better working with ideas. But I treat everyone with dignity and respect. I don’t know how to fix a wine fridge. It’s probably not super hard, but I’ve never taken the time to do it. That work is valuable. The amazing thing is most people don’t think so.

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