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June 15, 2011

Under-educated State Legislatures? (Part I): Do They Explain Funding Cuts to Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education this week released data summarizing the tertiary education (or lack thereof) of state legislators across the country.  An interactive map is available here, permitting you to see the percentage of lawmakers in each state who attended college, completed college, and/or completed a graduate or professional degree.  The map also tracks whether lawmakers attended public schools or private ones, and it features some data about whether they went to college within their state or outside it.

The big headline is that about 75% of all state lawmakers have four-year college degrees, compared to 94% of those serving in the U.S. Congress.  The percentage of state legislators with such a degree varies considerably by state, however, from a high of 89.9% in California to a low of 53.4% in New Hampshire (where the Chronicle acknowledges it had greatest difficulty verifying educational attainment of the numerous legislators, who serve part time for just $100/year!).  South Carolina leads states in percentage of lawmakers who attended some college but did not receive degrees (97.7%), while Arkansas makes the poorest showing on this metric, with only 67% of its legislators having completed any college at all.  Stated another way, that means that a full third of Arkansas’s lawmakers have only a high school diploma.

The New York Times reports that the Chronicle’s editor, Jeffrey J. Selingo, explained that the publication decided to gather the data “after hearing complaints from college administrators that they were losing state aid and scholarship money because legislators had never been to college themselves and did not understand higher education.”  What they found, however, is that “even in statehouses with an abundance of college degrees, ‘that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher support for higher institutions.’”

While this Chronicle data may not easily explain recent and often precipitous drops in public funding for higher education, they are interesting for so many reasons—not least because they can provide insights about class, budgeting priorities and law-making.  The significance of state-controlled spending in comparison to federal spending has increased dramatically in this era of devolution, so we should care more about the decisions being made by state legislatures—and about the profiles of those who are making them.  Over the course of several posts, I am going to discuss a few reasons why critical class scholars should be interested in the Chronicle’s  findings.

First, education level is often considered the single best proxy for class.  In particular, having earned at least a bachelor’s degree is generally seen as the broad and fuzzy dividing line between the upper/professional/managerial class on the one hand, and the lower middle class/working class on the other.  To the extent that more than a handful of legislators in a given state do not have college degrees, then, critical masses of lawmakers of different classes are serving together.  We well-educated folks might initially shudder that so few legislators have college degrees, especially in states where the less educated comprise a significant minority.  But if a critical mass of working-class folks are present in statehouses, this is surely a good thing in the sense that it makes these legislatures more truly diverse and representative of the state’s populace.   After all, just about 28% of U.S. residents have a bachelor’s degree or better, which means that people without four-year degrees represent a much larger faction of each and every state’s population than do those with college degrees.  So, if each state’s better educated lawmakers must rub elbows, negotiate and compromise with some less-educated colleagues—colleagues who in many instances are also sure to be less affluent—this cannot be all bad. It seems more likely that a range of views and life experiences are represented.   Indeed, this related Chronicle story features an interview with Maine lawmaker, Emily Ann Cain, a part-time administrator at the University of Maine who holds a Masters from Harvard.  Cain explains the opportunity represented by such cross-class interaction:

 Ms. Cain, 30, says her background gives her insight into a world too often misunderstood by other legislators. … ‘The stereotype is that faculty members are aloof, ivory-tower people who work on problems that don't concern average people in Maine,' she says.

But she doesn't have a bias against representatives without degrees. In fact, she says, state legislatures ought to comprise members with a wide array of backgrounds—small-business owners, millworkers, union leaders—including people from fields or career paths that may not require education beyond high school.

Ms. Cain provided an example of her efforts to bridge the divide between her legislative colleagues and her academic ones:  Last year, when a Maine legislator was pushing for legislation to eliminate gender studies programs from public universities, she changed his mind by sending him information on the importance of these programs.  Ms. Cain calls for legislators with expertise in education to reach out to "education skeptics."

A number of state legislators interviewed for the same piece reiterate the value of diversity of viewpoints and experiences.  But then, it would not be politic for well-educated legislators to suggest that their less educated colleagues add no value, which would highlight the ivory tower phenomenon.  Perhaps more persuasive for intellectuals are the views of four highly educated academic types interviewed for this related Chronicle story.  Most acknowledge that a college degree is hardly indispensable for serving a legislature and that many skills learned outside college contribute to lawmakers’ effectiveness.

In future posts, I plan to discuss elitism in education as related to state law-makers; rural-urban differences and education levels among state legislatures; and some unanswered questions these data raise.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits and SALTLaw.Blog.