music, movies, microcode, and high-speed pizza delivery #futureEd

This is a reference to one of my favorite lines in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which offers a satiric, dystopian view of a future America.

When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else:
music
movies
microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery

So that’s probably not the future, though I think we definitely have a leg up on the pizza delivery thing. Nevertheless we like to predict the future and this Coursera course is filled with amateur prognosticators (and who, after all, is really a professional one?). Not surprisingly when you get thousands of people together in forums you end up with a lot of common tropes. Much of the conversation I’ve seen starts with the complaint/observation that a college education doesn’t lead to a good job (like it is apparently supposed to), that, as a result it is too expensive, and that these two facts mean that there is a crisis in higher education.

Here is my three part response.

  1. The historical relation between a college degree, lifelong earning potential, and job security is a correlational not a causal one. A college degree does not equal a good job.
  2. Once you realize that, then the argument about the expense of college doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying that college isn’t expensive or that there might be a social benefit to making it more affordable. I’m just saying that once you realize that college doesn’t equal job that making a cost-benefit analysis based on the job you did/didn’t get doesn’t make sense.
  3. If there is a crisis in higher education it’s that too many people want one for the current system to support, in part because they misunderstand what college does.

Think about how colleges work. They are increasingly tuition-driven as we know. They try to get the best students they can, but they also just need students. Then they make an effort to keep those students and ensure they graduate, because those statistics are significant for how their institutions are evaluated, but also because faculty and administrators (who are mostly former faculty) do care about students. We don’t control the economy or the job marketplace, and we don’t control the majors our students select. We could decide not to offer certain majors, but we are in a market with other institutions. We are in business just like everyone else.

We all understand that these are tough economic times and that even in good economic times there are plenty of people who are looking to improve their economic standing, looking for anything that might give them a chance. We can all see that better paying jobs require college degrees. But while not having a degree is a barrier, having a degree is not a magic key. I don’t know if we can change the motivations of people coming to college. We could try to better educate them about what college degrees really mean in relation to a career once they get here. But we can’t seem to do that with English phd students, so I’m not sure what shot we have with teenagers.

In Cathy Davidson’s Coursera course there are plenty of people rehearsing the argument about how various alternate credentialing mechanisms will put an end to higher education forever. I think those efforts could be higher education’s salvation, if they worked, which I am afraid they will not. There are nearly 22 million people enrolled in higher education this year. That’s a 50% increase since 1996. Maybe higher education would work better if half of those people did seek some alternate form of credentialing. To be a little crude, if we have millions of students getting four-year degrees and ending up in crappy low paying jobs anyway, then why not let them collect some badges and MOOC certificates on the way to those same crappy jobs instead? The point is that it doesn’t matter how many students get degrees, the job market is going to be the job market. So the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us there will be a growing number of jobs for nurses, elementary school teachers, accountants, various kinds of managers and software developers. Those are the growing occupations that require college degrees and pay a decent wage right now (over $50K as a median). There will be something like a million new jobs in these fields between now and 2022.  That’s great, except there are 22 million college students right now! How many of them are trying to get nursing, teaching, or business degrees? I’d say a high number of them. Of course a lot of them will wash out and end up with communications or psychology degrees (the two most common degrees in the US right now).  And they will probably end up in sales or customer service or something.  And you can make good money in sales if you’re good at it. Or you might work your way into management and a better salary. But along the way you’ll probably not be happy about the money you spent getting that degree because getting the degree didn’t lead you to the career you imagined.

I think it would be fantastic if some alternate credentialing mechanism that employers would accept came along. The problem is that if you really want to be a nurse, accountant, or software developer you are going to need some intensive, long-term postsecondary education. Employers who hire nurses, accountants, and software developers pay them a good salary. They want to be assured that the people they are hiring have more than the basic technical training required to do the job; they want people who are smart, good communicators, self-motivated, professional, and so on. They want the best and because the jobs are desirable they can demand the best. Maybe what we need to do is what we used to do 40 years ago: stop people at the gateway to higher education. Maybe we should moderate the number of students accepted into college based upon projections of the jobs available in those fields. Isn’t that the argument we are making now about accepting Phd students in English?

Of course we didn’t have this obsessive link between college and jobs back then. Think about The Graduate or 20 years later, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. All those college-educated slackers in the late 80s and early 90s (I was one). Where was the furor over jobs and degrees then? Maybe it was there, but we just didn’t have the internet to hype it up.

Maybe it will require some crisis, some shrinkage of colleges or something, but if we got to a future educational system where jobs and degrees were decoupled, or at the very least where the real relationship between a degree and a career was widely understood, then I think we’d be far better off. To me there is a subtle but crucial difference between saying that you are coming to college to study nursing (or engineering or accounting or whatever) and saying you are coming to college to get a job as a nurse, engineer or accountant. It is the subtle difference between reality and fantasy. Because universities invite many people to study these fields, but we don’t hire that many nurses, engineers, or accountants ourselves.

To bring it back to Neal Stephenson, which I should given the title, the future of the American economy is uncertain. Universities don’t control it. The America of Snow Crash is one that is rampant with market economies, corporate enclaves, and deregulated everything. It’s been a while since I read it but I remember even the FBI becomes a non-government agency or something. That’s the direction we have been heading for a while. I don’t know if things will get as bad as Snow Crash but we can see the effects of making higher education into a market-driven business over the last 30 years. I’m not saying we need to go backwards or that going backwards is possible. However, even if we did go back to the days when higher education was better subsidized, we still wouldn’t be the magical job and wealth creators that students wish we would be. You’re still going to have to figure out what the four things America will do well (pizza delivery or not) will be and compete like hell, because that’s the country we apparently want to live in. Maybe not.

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