is it time to rethink what we mean by higher ed?
College education seems due for an overhaul and the first step may be admitting that not everyone needs it.
Do you remember the relatively recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education suggesting that a newly minted high school grad should peruse humanities and liberal arts majors with zero consideration for their potential indebtedness and job prospects at the end of their programs, caring only about intellectual freedom and personal interest? After criticizing it for its irresponsible advice, which was perhaps one of the absolute worst suggestions for post-secondary education reform in an already extremely bad article, I thought I would just leave it at that. But there is one thing in it that still bothers me and should probably merit another post as the reasoning behind it just screams of how college education is treated in the U.S. Despite the fact that just having a degree doesn’t mean you now have the ticket to a well paid and rewarding career, we’re all too often told that the answer to all that ails us is another degree. With that in mind, we say that everyone should go to college, everyone should get a degree, and it’s our duty to make sure everyone has a college education.
Now, since this is written by someone in grad school, my opinion that college might not be for everyone might trigger a mixed reaction. It’s true that those with an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree earn much more than a high school graduate, and that pretty much every job today requires some sort of specialized education. But at the same time, note what happens when you survey an average workplace. You’ll find people with degrees in political science, communications, psychology, sociology, physics, chemistry, or marketing, doing jobs which don’t require these degrees, or to which their degrees are completely unrelated. And when you get above six years of experience in any particular field, your college degree is just a certificate of completion and every job wanted ad says it’s willing to overlook the lack of a degree in a specific area if you put in enough time in a very closely related job capacity. I’ve lived this myself. My undergraduate degree is actually in social sciences, but my entire working life, all I’ve ever done was IT. When I went back, I decided to pursue computer science and merge it with what I knew about cognition and behavioral psychology, placing me firmly into the AI realm.
Ok, you might be thinking, what’s so bad about that? It turned out fine for you, didn’t it? I was lucky to an extent, but I’m absolutely sure that with a matching degree I could’ve achieved much more right out of college. And as my education is lining up with what I actually do for a living, I can’t help but wonder why companies are looking at degrees unrelated to the positions they offer when they only care about experience. Why spend four years in disciplines that you won’t actually use? Why not get some hands on experience first, then get education fitting what you actually want to do for a living? Expecting a 17 or 18 year old and her parents to figure out a possible future career based on little more than BLS reports and anecdotes from family and friends is like asking them to gaze in a crystal ball. Then, after four years and tens of thousands in toxic debt that’ll only be discharged if you pay it off in full or flee to another planet, our hypothetical grad finds herself in the working world, where her new degree will quickly be treated more like a formality. No wonder the earnings advantage of college grads has been slowly but surely slipping. The more people have a degree that’s not really related to what they do, the more it becomes like a simple prerequisite for an interview.
So what’s the alternative? Vocational schools? Probably not, since they usually leave students in higher debt and a degree which either won’t let them continue their education, will be viewed negatively by managers, or completely unnecessary since all the skills they’ll actually learn, they’ll learn on the job. But a better way to go may be to bring back apprenticeships at which high school grads can get a taste of what their future careers will be like, learn what skills are actually required to advance, and get some real world experience under their belts. Then, rather than perusing the standard degree in the closest discipline, they could complete relevant, fully accredited certification programs administered by non-profit colleges, unless of course, their jobs require a full bachelor’s or beyond, or they want to be researchers, in which case they’d need to go for a full PhD. After working for a year in their field of choice, the prospective students would get a feel for their opportunities and maybe even secure potential jobs. They’d spend less time getting up to speed, have more flexibility to take a series of electives when their core certifications are done, and they can find work to fund their learning, while colleges would be able to free up more resources for students seeking a degree for research positions or for educating those in careers that require a lot of specialized and complex skills.
Maybe giving everybody a degree isn’t really necessary. Of course, companies that list bachelor’s degrees as a requirement for every open position would need to change the way they hire new employees and work with the educational system to expose high school grads to the corporate world. But why shouldn’t we reconsider how to judge educational credentials when we see countless people in careers to which their college degrees barely relate, if at all, and choosing their majors often without spending a while actually seeing what it would be like to work in their chosen field day in, day out? Why not teach students the skills they need and then, after they have good prospects for finding a job and continuing their education at their own pace, offer electives to expand their minds? After all, when the basic needs are met, the mind is more receptive to abstract ideas…