When I was the same age my kids are now, I was a giant Carl Sagan fan. Cosmos had begun airing on PBS, and for my birthday there was just one thing I wanted: a $50 donation to the Buffalo PBS affiliate. That was the only way to get the not-available-in-any-store (especially not a Canadian store) Cosmos companion book featuring lots of photos of Cornell’s least modest professor of astronomy and space sciences. My friends got Gretzky jerseys so they could skate like stars, but this nerd wanted Cosmos because we’re all star stuff (especially Carl).
For me, the most electrifying part of Cosmos — the highest-rated show in public television history until Ken Burns came along — was Sagan’s exposition of the Drake equation, which estimates the number of detectable technical extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way via seven discrete factors. The answer, Sagan expounded, could be in the millions, which raises a question: “Shouldn’t some of them have voyaged to earth?”
As evidenced by increased UFO sightings around the time of Cosmos, many people thought they had. Lots still do. A 2019 poll found about a quarter of Americans believe aliens have visited the U.S. and the government is keeping it a secret. But with President Trump out of office for a month and continued silence on this conspiracy, we now have Sagan-caliber proof that the U.S. government has no such evidence. For if it did, Trump would have surely spilled the beans by now in an incoherent, attention-seeking fit of pique.
Sagan even had a signature phrase, not from Cosmos, but rather Johnny Carson’s Cosmos parody: “Billions and billions” (overemphasizing the B). It was nonetheless richly deserved given the many, many times he used large numbers to make us all feel small. Sagan’s celebrity was well worn by Cornell, which featured him prominently in promotional materials, suggesting students would have frequent contact with America’s most telegenic scientist. Naturally, Sagan only taught one seminar each year, prompting the Cornell Review to launch an “I touched Carl Sagan” contest; students who had “physical contact” could win a prize by submitting essays on their “experience.”
Cornell tuition may not be in the billions and billions, but it’s galactically higher than when Cosmos first aired. In 1980, annual tuition at Cornell was $4,090. This year, students paid $59,331: nearly five times, adjusted for inflation. In endlessly increasing tuition far above the rate of inflation, Cornell is in good company. The predictable results are the progressive free college and student debt forgiveness movements that dominate higher education policy discourse as the Biden administration takes flight.
But one major critique of so-called free college is that it wouldn’t actually be free. Students need to live while they’re studying. Rent, food and other expenses range from 30 percent of total student budgets at schools like Cornell to 60 percent at state universities and 80 percent at community colleges. Since the Great Recession, these costs have been rising just as fast as tuition. Cornell now charges $15,706 for room and board for its 235-day academic calendar, and has students budget an additional $3,000 for books and living expenses.
Thanks to the former conspiracist in chief, Democrats dominate America’s political scene and will for the foreseeable future. But while President and Dr. Biden promote free community college, students still need to be able to afford to live while they learn. That means more of the same borrowing that has led to progressives putting pressure on the administration to forgive student debt. One solution is earn-while-you-learn models. Paying students a living wage while they learn is the best way to address cost of living and truly level the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
You won’t be surprised to learn there’s a federal program for this. It’s called Federal Work-Study (FWS), and each year 3,400 colleges and universities receive $1.2 billion in wage subsidies to employ about 700,000 students. So it’s surprising that neither FWS nor any other earn-while-you-learn model (e.g., apprenticeships) shows up on the list of progressive policy priorities. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign platform didn’t mention FWS, and President Biden’s platform references FWS only in the context of reforming the program. Progressives should be all over FWS and other earn-while-you-learn models. But they’re not, and I’m wondering why.
Earn-while-you-learn programs are popping up more frequently than Carl Sagan on the Cornell campus. Launched last fall with CARES Act funding, the Digital Upskill Sacramento Program pays students from disadvantaged communities $600 per week to participate in free last-mile training. Students are given a laptop and trained for data analytics or software support roles. Said one participant who gave birth days before the start of training, “Not having to use my credit card to pay for groceries, because I had the money, that was amazing. I didn’t have a reason not to go forward, because they provided me with tools to go forward.” In November, San Antonio voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to allocate sales tax proceeds to workforce development, and programs like Project Quest are now paying students $15 per hour for short-term training.
Of course, earn-while-you-learn is more realistic for short workforce development programs than paying students for years as they pursue degrees. But as federal workforce development funding pales in comparison with government support for colleges and universities, paying wages for job training is still not a layup. For every $100 spent on accredited higher education, only $1 is spent on job training, spread across 43 uncoordinated programs. Public support for apprenticeships works out to less than $100 per apprentice each year and is a fraction of what other developed nations spend. The proposed $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan includes billions and billions more for colleges and universities ($35 billion to be exact), but no additional funding for workforce development or apprenticeships. Just as Cornell collegians were kept clear of Sagan, it’s as though grubby job training must be segregated from the big money of Title IV of the Higher Education Act.
At current spending levels, federal workforce funds only flow to a million Americans each year, and there are only about half a million apprentices (with little government support). So moving the needle with earn-while-you-learn means reaching the 20 million students enrolled at colleges and universities, specifically in multiyear degree programs. But a new program on the scale of free college would require a massive expansion of Federal Work-Study, which could be hard, seeing as colleges and universities don’t need thousands of student dining hall workers and custodians — not this year, and not any year.
Unfortunately, that’s how FWS works. The current structure incentivizes colleges and universities to employ students to wash dishes and clean toilets rather than connect them with private sector jobs. The FWS handbook provides a 75 percent wage subsidy for any on-campus job but only 50 percent “for off-campus … jobs with private for-profit organizations.” FWS also disincentivizes private sector employment in two other ways: (1) by requiring that private sector jobs “must be relevant to your course of study” and (2) by limiting schools from using more than 25 percent of FWS funding to subsidize private sector employment. Not surprisingly, 92 percent of FWS funds are used for on-campus jobs. The rest goes to off-campus jobs at not-for-profit or community services organizations. Less than 0.1 percent subsidizes work at “private for-profit organizations.” This warped structure has come into focus via COVID as tens of thousands of students who might have been able to perform subsidized private sector work remotely have had campus jobs canceled, resulting in hardship and dropouts.
In non-pandemic years, washing dishes and cleaning toilets may help support 700,000 students through college, but it’s not scalable and much less likely to help launch careers than relevant work experience. Of the approximately 150 million jobs in the U.S., less than 25 percent — approximately 36 million — are in the public and nonprofit sectors. Over 75 percent of jobs are in the private sector. And it’s private sector employers that have become much pickier in job descriptions for entry-level positions, increasingly listing digital and business skill requirements that realistically are only obtained through relevant work experience. This explains why less than a third of students are confident they’ll get a good job after graduation. So if we’re serious about not only solving the short-term problem of paying for college, but also the long-term problem of socioeconomic mobility, expanding earn-while-you-learn to colleges and universities means deeper and more sustained engagement with the private sector.
This is where progressives get nervous. It may be an unconscious block. After all, how may progressive leaders — public officials and policy makers — have worked outside government, think tanks, foundations and universities? Looking at the Biden administration’s 24 appointees to the U.S. Department of Education, only six have held private sector jobs. Three are counsel who trained at law firms. The other three average 2.5 years in private sector jobs in careers than span decades. Fully 18 of the 24 have never worked in the private sector since graduating from college. Come to think of it, this may also explain other federal higher education policies that are skewed against private sector employment.
By now, it may also be a reflex. For too many years, progressive leaders have characterized “for-profit” companies as “predatory” and maligned the motivations of private sector actors as unethical rent seeking rather than serving customers, growth and building value for shareholders. In many ways, it’s hard to blame them. After all, the constituents progressives try hardest to protect are front-line workers in dead-end jobs and at-risk Americans who have been victimized by bad actors in pharmaceuticals, financial services and — yes — postsecondary education (creating a natural aversion to short-term job training from private sector providers).
Even more than their forebearers of a century ago, progressives take a dim view of private sector employers and employment. This allergy to private sector employment may also explain why progressives aren’t counting on unions to close the education-to-employment gap. For while many private sector unions — particularly in the building and construction trades — run earn-while-you-learn apprenticeships, public sector unions do virtually nothing. Progressives aren’t sure how they feel about career trajectories outside government and nonprofits. That’s their Achilles heel, and that’s why we’re not hearing more about earn-while-you-learn.
There is a place where “the best-educated and most highly skilled members of the work force are in government-controlled jobs.” Unfortunately for progressives, I’m quoting last week’s New York Times report on Cuba. If progressives want New Deal-level investment for education and employment, the current political configuration isn’t likely to yield a Depression-era government-funded, government-run WPA or NYA (National Youth Administration). They’ll need to embrace the private sector.
If they can, the opportunity is huge. If there’s any area where progressives can find common ground with moderates and conservatives, it’s here. A grand earn-while-you-learn bargain could incorporate not only FWS, but also apprenticeships, public-funded internships and work-integrated learning. There’s broad public support for spending on solving unemployment and underemployment. A recent Rutgers University survey found 74 percent of Americans support spending more money on job training for laid-off workers. To paraphrase FDR, the only thing we have to fear is fear of the private sector itself.
Right before he passed away in 1996, Carl Sagan appeared on Charlie Rose and warned America might be “up for grabs for the next charlatan political or religious who comes ambling along.” Sagan’s fear was lack of scientific literacy, which has never been clearer than it is now (see e.g., COVID pandemic). But he might also have been talking about economic opportunity. If the American dream is dead — if there aren’t clear pathways for our children to do better than we did — maybe it’s worth selecting conspiracy-spinning leaders for sheer entertainment value.
Sagan believed we’re not alone in the universe. And although he was progressive for his time — working at universities and nonprofits like PBS, combating nuclear proliferation — I bet he also understood that the public and nonprofit sectors aren’t alone, either: there’s a universe of companies and employers out there, not all of which mean harm to customers and employees. And that a quest for economic development that disregards the private sector is likely to yield something like Cuba.
If progressives are going to play a constructive role in rekindling the American dream, they’ll need to overcome private sector phobia and understand that connections from publicly funded education to privately funded employment aren’t inherently perilous like the Bridge of Death in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Short of creating tens of millions of new jobs at the Department of Education, failing to make peace with the private sector (aka the United States economy) will damn Gen Z to a rinse-and-repeat doom loop of underemployment and student debt forgiveness. And the fault won’t be in our stars — or aliens or Trump or Fidel Castro — but in ourselves.