On Sunday afternoon, December 13, 2015, Bernie Sanders posted on Facebook:
At the end of the day, providing a path to go to college is a helluva lot cheaper than putting people on a path to jail.
He included a graphic reading, “$80 billion: the amount we spend every year to lock up 2.2 million fellow Americans. Share if you support investing in education rather than incarceration.”
When Sanders tweeted a similar statement, without the graphic, on Sunday evening, it caught the eye of television host Mike Rowe, who criticized Sanders on Facebook.
Rowe perceived that Sanders sought to “imply that a path to prison is the most likely alternative to a path to college.” He questions “the increasingly dangerous idea that a college education is the best path for the most people,” lambasting “misguided parents” and others who perpetuate the idea that work that doesn’t require a college degree is inferior.
As if the fear of falling into an inferior career wasn’t bad enough, Rowe writes,
…it seems the proponents of “college for all” need something even more frightening than the prospect of a career in the trades to frighten the next class into signing on the dotted line. According to Senator Sanders, that “something,” is a path to jail.
Rowe implies Sanders is a “knucklehead” showcasing “arrogance and elitism,” reminds Sanders of “the number of college graduates with criminal records” and people in vocational careers without a degree who do not go to jail, insists Sanders’ post implies there is “no hope” for you if you don’t go to college, and that it
…will encourage more kids who are better suited for an alternative path to borrow vast sums of money they’ll never be able to pay back in order to pay for a degree that won’t get them a job.
To his credit, Rowe shares his thoughts in a mostly respectful, thoughtful manner, even acknowledging that “Maybe the 140 character limit has doomed [Sanders] to be misunderstood or taken out of context. Certainly, it’s happened to me.”
He speaks rightly of the need to dispel the idea that vocational, physical, or trade work is somehow inferior, a “consolation prize.” Further, there is truth in his claim that a college degree is not a surefire way to gainful employment.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, unemployment for young college graduates is 7.2% (14.9% work part-time but want full-time work) and their wages have fallen 2.5% since 2000. In 2014, a massive 46% of employed college graduates under 27 were working in a job that did not require a college degree. Further, a “non college” job is more likely, compared to 2000, to be cashier, server, or bartender than electrician, dental hygienist, or mechanic, a reflection of “a decline in the demand for ‘cognitive skills.’”
This is something Rowe should keep in mind: while the demand for “college jobs” may weaken, so can the demand for jobs he favors that require vocational training, leaving an army of young people in fast food or otherwise unskilled jobs they neither desire nor enjoy.
Sadly, Rowe doesn’t seem to understand what Bernie Sanders means when he writes about “providing a path to college.” Sanders wants to make public colleges and universities tuition free, saying elsewhere:
It is a national disgrace that hundreds of thousands of young Americans today do not go to college, not because they are unqualified, but because they cannot afford it… We have got to make sure that every qualified American in this country who wants to go to college can go to college—regardless of income.
Either Rowe didn’t know this, which is surely the case, or his post is full of contradictions. Remember, he writes that Sanders and others should not encourage young people to take on vast sums of debt; he rightly calls the $1.3 trillion in student loans an “obscenity.”
But of course, where Sanders is concerned, “college for all” is not a call for everyone to go to college because any alternative is inferior. It is a call to use the vast wealth of the nation to end the massive waste of human talent, potential, and freedom inherent in a system where Americans who want to go to college cannot because of finances or the fear of the huge loans Rowe condemns. Hence, college as a right offered free of cost, like K-12 public school education. In other words, it should be available for those who desire it.
Though the graphic Sanders included on Facebook was not on the Twitter post Rowe saw, it clarifies his point: the U.S. spends huge sums to lock people up, which could be used to cover the cost of college, which implies Sanders sees a need for prison reform. Anyone who knows anything about Sanders, for example, knows he opposes the mass imprisonment of nonviolent offenders, supporting the legalization of marijuana. He says:
Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That’s wrong. That has got to change.
States tend to spend more on housing inmates than educating K-12 students, and some spend more on prisons than colleges and universities. In recent decades, expenses on prisons have skyrocketed, largely to make room for drug offenders.
One study found that while 48.8% of the U.S. population had some college credits or a degree, only 12.7% of the incarcerated population had the same. This is largely because high school dropouts are far more likely to end up in prison than high school graduates; the large majority of prisoners tend to have no high school diploma. Factors that lead students to drop out of school, mostly overly harsh punishments and barriers to re-entering school, are called the “school to prison pipeline.”
Rowe is correct that prison isn’t the most likely alternative to college, something Sanders did not say, though we can understand why Rowe thought he implied it. And of course, not graduating high school is a much larger part of the problem than not going to college, to a greater degree perpetuating poverty, which breeds crime. Sanders is likely alluding to the fact so many of our prisoners are poor and uneducated, factors closely bound together.
Still, there is no reason to not seek to widen opportunities and make improvements in both K-12 schools and colleges, and ease social conditions for those who attend both. Despite the fact that there is, as Rowe says, vocational work that can make people happy and financially secure, Americans with college degrees still earn higher incomes, are more likely to have a pension and health insurance provided by an employer, and are less likely to be unemployed.
It might be wise to listen to Sanders for a way to broaden opportunities for lower- and middle-income people and eliminate crippling student debt, by using resources for free college, not to lock up nonviolent people. It might be wise to listen to Rowe to end stigmatization surrounding workers without college degrees: they are not inferior, lazy, foolish, or any other harmful descriptor.