Looking back at John Marsh’s “Class Dismissed”

The 2012 book challenges prevailing thinking on college & inequality

In assessing the US’ broadbased policy drive to increase higher education enrollment, one supporting reason that seemed odd was the belief that it could shrink income inequality. There is history of writers and scholars debunking this belief. One of those scholars, John Marsh, published Class Dismissed in 2012, subtitled “Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality.” Marsh is a leftist whose teaching an evening class to underserved adult students led to him questioning this belief. Class Dismissed flows from that experience.

Marsh traces support for the idea that college attendance is the best solution to combat inequality to a truly bipartisan set of public figures. Barack Obama. Melinda Gates. Larry Summers. George W. Bush. Henry Paulson. All of them espoused the position. Marsh argues that this solution stems from “naïveté about how the economy and labor markets work or a disheartening inability to imagine how they might work differently.”

Some Marsh lines:

  • “Conferring a degree on someone does not magically generate a job in the labor market into which the newly credentialed person steps.”
  • “A Waitress with a B.A. still hustles for tips.”
  • “An is (‘education pays’) is not an ought (‘everyone ought to get an education’).”
  • “Think of it as the narcissism of the meritocracy.” Those in charge of educational policy ‘‘concluded that what worked for them (college education) must work for others… especially the poor.”
  • “Instead of robbing from the rich (the college educated) and giving to the poor (the high school educated), with more college graduates we would conceivably rob from the rich (the college educated) and give to the richer still (stockholders).” This on the topic of rising intra-group inequality, which always needs to be factored into thinking about the issue. Financial differences have widened within Harvard MBA classes, law school graduating classes, doctors – not just between those with different degrees.
  • Comparing the US to other developed countries, Marsh sees no relationship between increased education and inequality. Canada, “despite one of the largest increases in the proportion of young people with college degrees, also saw its [inequality as measured by the] Gini coefficient rise.”
  • Writing of poverty: “the only way that advances in education will lessen the number of poor is if [this] leads to widely shared economic growth, and the evidence that it does so is very much in doubt.”

Why not address labor demand rather than supply?

Marsh takes a step back and considers why improving US labor outcomes has come to be dominated by improving supply (the number and quality of educated workers), rather than improving demand through the structure of the labor market. He logically makes the point that, if the problem is poverty and inequality, why not directly fix those problems, instead of trying to solve the problem secondhand, by encouraging school attendance? Marsh’s proposals — fostering unionization and income redistribution — have of course been staples in leftist thought for decades but since the book’s publication, his positions have become more popular. Whatever one’s economic views, his criticism of the proposed solution – more educational attainment – is clear-eyed.

The lost tradition

One the most interesting sections of Class Dismissed covers a trio of contrarian writers from the early 1970s who contended that education could not solve poverty or inequality, gaining noteworthy attention in that time:

  • Ivar Berg observed that historically worker pay and gains in educational levels bore little relationship with each other, that government subsidies to colleges advantaged the rich (who attended them) at the expense of the poor (who didn’t) and that use of education as a screening device was used to intellectually justify consigning poor students to a life of impoverishment. (1971, in the wittily titled “Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery.”)
  • Christopher Jencks argued that schools succeeded based on the social and intellectual makeup of its students, summarized in his catchphrase “limits to schooling”, and that they “failed to equalize or even alter the distribution of economic opportunity.” (1972, in “Inequality”, co-authored by Jencks with his Harvard colleagues and released to widespread publicity.)
  • Richard Freeman noted the sharp decrease in income returns to college in the late 60s and early 70s and commented that it had become a “marginal rather than a highly profitable endeavor.” Freeman believed that “new routes to socioeconomic progress” needed to be developed. This, in 1976 (The Overeducated American), almost half a century ago.

But these arguments have disappeared down a memory hole; scholars can’t compete with public statements by US Presidents and highly-placed economic advisors. Given what has transpired since the 1970s, one is reminded of the Illiad and the legend of Cassandra, the goddess granted the ability to see the future and cursed never to be believed.

Class Dismissed isn’t perfect. The discussion of the de-unionization’s effect on inequality conspicuously fails to grapple with David Card’s 2001 paper on unions and wages. A broader criticism is that Marsh doesn’t fully “steel-man” the position he criticizes. The sophisticated form of “college diminishes inequality” holds that more college education spills over into greater innovation and business and job growth, benefitting all Americans. This proposition is very difficult to test quantitatively and looks dubious in the face of college grads’ underemployment and increased concentrations of wealth and power within the economy. But it is the strong version of the argument and should have been addressed — and maybe criticized as a thin, unproven thread to serve as a basis for a multi-decade national educational strategy.

On the plus side, Marsh thinks carefully, provides all kinds of interesting historical references and has a gift for writing very clear accounts of logical arguments. His paragraph-by-paragraph exploration of ideas is in fact exemplary, so he scores high marks as a pure writer.

In the end, the way the “college diminishes inequality” argument crumbles into dust when scrutinized supports the view that it isn’t so much an ideological position as a result of two other factors: the bipartisan drive to limit regulation of the labor market – which Marsh examines in depth – and the clamoring of the higher ed system for subsidies – which he does not. A confluence of brute political power, not rational reasoning nor assessment of results.

You can also read this post and others at our CTAS Higher Ed Business blog.