D. Dowd Muska


Skipping College? 10-4, Good Buddy

July 09, 2015

Financial child abuse takes many forms. Washington’s unfunded liabilities grab the most attention -- the greedy-geezer lobby’s maintenance of the Medicaid-Medicare-Social Security complex ensures that younger generations surrender an ever-larger portion of their incomes to age-based welfare programs.

But a subtler, scarcely discussed economic crime against youth rivals the damage inflicted by runaway entitlements: go-to-college groupthink.

The share of U.S. 25-to-29-year-olds with at least a four-year degree rose from 23 percent in 1995 to 34 percent today. The explosion in “higher learning” hasn’t come cheap. In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate, the Brookings Institution’s Beth Akers noted that in the last 20 years, “there’s been a dramatic increase in the share of young U.S. households with education debt. The incidence has more than doubled, from 14 percent in 1989 to 38 percent in 2013.” The nation’s barrel of collegiate red ink surpassed $1 trillion in 2012. And bankruptcy is no solution -- filing for Chapter 7 does not absolve borrowers of their obligations.

If everyone who earned a B.A. landed a lucrative career, the college surge might make sense. But as a 2013 paper by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity documented, “barely half of … graduates are in occupations requiring bachelor’s degrees or more. Some 37 percent, in fact, are in jobs requiring a high-school diploma or less, and about 11 percent in jobs typically requiring some postsecondary training, usually an associate’s degree.”

The prevalence of overeducated workers is mighty disturbing, but the college-dropout rate is arguably worse. Multiple studies have revealed that nearly half of enrollees fail to complete their degrees within six years. Some eventually get a sheepskin, but most leave campus and never return. “American higher education,” Slate’s Jordan Weissmann observed, “continues to set a global standard for inefficiency.”

Meanwhile, there’s a dearth of truck drivers. In April, the industry’s trade association reported that the “driver shortage -- which we now estimate to be between 35,000 to 40,000 drivers -- is getting more pervasive.” One estimate puts the personnel gap at 240,000 by 2022.

Trucking, The Wall Street Journal reported, is “driving headlong into demographic reality: its workforce is getting older, and younger Americans are showing less interest in a career on the highway.” It’s a mystifying development. Those who drive “a tractor-trailer combination or a truck with a capacity of at least 26,000 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight,” estimates the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, earn an average annual wage of $41,930. Not much money for a Manhattanite or Georgetowner or Malibu-dweller, but a respectable sum out in “flyover country.”

Truckers move nearly 70 percent of all domestic freight, and in 2014, the industry’s revenue topped $700 billion. It’s an essential part of our globalized economy, and thanks to Jimmy Carter, barriers to entry are tiny. Yes, it was one of the conservative entertainment complex’s favorite whipping boys who signed the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. Prior to deregulation, economist Thomas Gale Moore explained, a New Deal-era mandate “required motor carriers to file all rates -- also called tariffs -- with the Interstate Commerce Commission thirty days before they became effective. … If the proposed tariffs were protested by another carrier (such as a trucker, a regulated water carrier, or a railroad), the ICC normally suspended the rates pending an investigation of their legality. In 1948 Congress authorized truckers to fix rates in concert with one another … . From 1940 to 1980, new or expanded authority to transport goods was almost impossible to secure unless no one opposed an application. Even if the proposed service was not being offered by existing carriers, the ICC held that a certificated trucker who expressed a desire to carry the goods should be given the opportunity to do so; the new applicant was denied.”

Deregulation was deadly for trucking cartelists and the unions they coddled, but even liberals admit that it was a boon for consumers. In addition, it opened the industry to drivers who didn’t “know a guy.”

Trucking isn’t glamorous, but the work is honest and steady, and the pay’s not bad. The same can be said for many blue-collar positions that continue to provide a middle-class standard of living without the encumbrance of tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of dollars in student loans.

If you’re a young American looking for a career with job security, a mortarboard might not be for you. Perhaps a trucker hat is a better fit. The open road, free of angry calls from college-debt creditors, awaits.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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