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It was a crisp Fall day in San Francisco when I found myself driving on 19th Avenue while a large crowd blocked traffic in front of the campus of San Francisco State University. The crowd carried signs and some covered their faces with handkerchiefs and they chanted in unison the mantra of the anti-Vietnam War protesters –“Hell No, We Won’t Go.”

But this had very little to do with the Vietnam War. The Black Student Union and a coalition of other student groups known as the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) led the strike, which began in November 1968 and ended in March 1969. I was present at the birth of academic multiculturalism, totally unaware of its significance, just unhappy that I would be late to work.

In what became known as “the strike”, students, some faculty and community activists demanded equal access to public higher education, –including financial assistance– more senior faculty of color and a new curriculum that would embrace the history and culture of all people including ethnic minorities. As a result, the College of Ethnic Studies was instituted in 1969 and by 1978, 439 colleges in the country offered a total of 8,805 courses on ethnic minorities.

In a television broadcast from the BBC last week, I saw a sign being carried by a protesting student in London which contained the “Hell No” message and when I finally reached Aaron Porter, the President of the National Student’s Union of England about the protest, he had not heard about the pedigree.

The NSU-sponsored protest which saw 50,000 students (his estimate) take to the streets, surrounding government buildings, crashing inside the Conservative Party’s building and occupying it for several hours, was all about access to higher education. The “Hell No” message was about leaving the building they had taken over.

We want only peaceful demonstrations, this incident was not part of our planning. We are retreating for a new (this time) peaceful demonstration next week all over England. This is about an entire generation opting out of higher education. He explained. Their parents may have just lost their child benefit for these very same children (our dependent tax deduction) and this generation will now be asked to start their adult life already owing as much as £40k?

I told Mr. Porter about our situation in the United States where the average student has a college debt of $38,000.00. What’s wrong with our leaders, have they forgotten how they got here? He wondered.

Think about it –he urged me–
at a time when graduate employment is so bleak, what does this mean for the generation currently in school and perhaps starting to think about going to university? The prospects now are of starting their adult life already owing as much as £40k, struggling to get onto the housing ladder, getting married, having children and possibly working into their seventies with little prospect of a state pension. They can’t see spending five years getting a worthless degree, and this is the beginning of the end of our society as we know it.

Is Mr. Porter overstating his case? Hardly. A growing number of studies suggest that education has a direct effect on social outcomes.[1] These include batteries of indicators such as income, life expectancy, mortality, obesity, depression, smoking, work-related sickness, as well as voting, political interest, trust, volunteering, donating and crime. The empirical analyses presented in these studies mostly use micro-data for a particular country, and many use data from the United Kingdom and the United States, but the results generally hold even after controlling for individual demographic and socioeconomic differences. [2]

In a previous post (Can the middle class afford higher education?) I argued that the state gets a better return than the individual from the knowledge and capability a degree brings and the decline in support of higher education will have a detrimental impact on the state’s income as well as on the individual income as his quality of life.

Perhaps we should “listen to the children” one more time.


[1] See, for example IMPROVING HEALTH AND SOCIAL COHESION THROUGH EDUCATION – OECD 2010 in particular Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the literature that sheds light on the causal relationships between education and social outcomes. However, it is important to note that there are also studies that find no statistically significant effects from education.

[2] Groot, W. and H. Maassen van den Brink (2007), “The health effects of education”, Economics of Education Review, Vol. 26, Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Grossman, M. (2006), “Education and Nonmarket Outcomes”, in E. Hanushek and F. Welch (eds.), Handbook of the Economics of Education, North-Holland, Amsterdam.

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