Friday, December 16, 2011

Is there an Education Bubble?

I have read some theories about this, and I find I sympathize with them.

To be clear, I believe strongly in education and in an educated society.  I support education and higher education.

With that said, is there really enough demand for all the institutions that exist here in the U.S.?  Are there jobs for all the people attending these institutions?  There are state sponsored universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges and online universities.  That's not including  technical schools (I'll get to that later).

I have read many people who claim the U.S. doesn't have enough talent, enough graduates for the next few decades.  I am skeptical of this claim.

I suspect if we looked closely at the data, we might see that it's not that we don't have enough institutions of higher learning.  It's that the free market of education is not working.  Ideally, people would go to schools and get an education in a field that was marketable.  They might learn critical thinking skills along the way.  The market would correct itself - to not have more majors than it needs, to not have more graduates than it needs.  It would not have more schools than needed.

I wish I could be an idealist about this.  But our society needs a wide range of disciplines to survive. Higher education is not the right fit for everyone, and not necessarily right for people between the ages of 18 - 22. 

It becomes a sacred cow of sorts.  By suggesting reforms to this system, it threatens many entrenched positions.  Fewer majors in philosphy mean fewer professors - less time to focus on research and publication.  Less prestige for everyone - students, parents, professors.  That was an argument that I read that I agree with.  High school teachers and counselors inspire students to go to the best school possible, sometimes the most expensive school possible.  Counselors at that school encourage students to stay in school, continue paying the high tuition costs.  Professors at that school encourage students to major in their discipline because they believe in the importance of their subject and because it makes their department seem successful.  This was my experience, and I think it's not an uncommon one.  Of course there are honest and realistic people along the way.  But the system isn't built to encourage realism, it's built to encourage idealism - that a person might hit the 5% chance of success.

Trade and technical schools must be a viable option. From what I've read, that's where a need is.  We don't need more history majors (speaking as a former history major), we need nurses, pharmacists and plumbers. Of course we need history majors as a society, but we need to have a successful mixture of all of these careers. 

Learning how to think is also very important. But at what cost?  Are we perpetuating stereotypes and unrealistic dreams? Are we teaching kids that after school ends they can't continue to learn and challenge themselves?

I may sound bitter, but I am still profoundly grateful to the graduate professor who laid out the facts for me in the 1990s about a graduate degree in Russian history.  I would have loved to get a PhD in Russian history, and I'm confident that I could have earned one. But I would be struggling under tens of thousands (perhaps more than a hundred thousand) dollars in debt.  There was a 5% chance that I could have succeeded, getting a job after graduation.  Five percent is not a great bet. 

Instead, I was able to find a field and career that is growing.  It fit my needs and abilities.  Again, it's not that the disciplines are not valuable.  It's that we don't need the number that are graduating in their specialty - they can't find work and everyone suffers.  How is that reasonable? 

The really gifted, talented people will always be needed, will always find work.  But it's disingenuous to imply that everyone can succeed in the current system.  It's not true.

Education used to be the ticket to the middle class, but no longer. 

So is there a bubble? There might be.  I think we may be due for some sort of market correction.  It's clear from some of the recent protests - students are realizing that what they were promised is no longer possible. 


Kathryn said...

I too can understand multiple viewpoints on these issues. It's distressing that a 4 year degree is the new high school diploma when it's so very expensive to get, and as you said, we definitely need more trade and technical school programs. I think another important point is that not all education is necessarily about getting a job, or at least, not in a direct way. You mentioned critical thinking, and that is definitely important. I think research skills are key too, writing, reading, etc. I also think there's nothing wrong with being educated in a particular area just to learn or pursue a passion, but it's important to be clear about the motivation. Having had some training in career counseling, I would love to see more career guidance at both the high school and college levels. A little bit more knowledge about what's out there and some clarity about how to identify transferable skills (like writing, research and critical thinking) and put those to work would be an awesome thing.

Freckle Face Girl said...

I believe there is a bubble too. I certainly see it in the construction industry. Lots of the men getting in have a degree in Construction Management and want to sit behind a desk making elaborate schedules or cost estimates. The ones that go right out of high school don't seem to be interested in learning a trade and become a real craftsman out of a love for what they do. They just want to make money. In Texas, it seems the void for now is being filled by Mexican immigrants both legal & illegal. There does seem to be an increase in salaries for skilled craftsmen though. Maybe the pendulum will swing.

Brandon Pearce said...

For some degrees, such as computer programming, I think a university degree is a waste of time. Only two out of the dozens of classes I took were useful in teaching me what I wanted to learn about. I would have been better off skipping college and learning on my own via the Internet. (And now I have an online business, travel the world with my family, and only work 5 hours per week. Seriously!) You can learn just about anything for free online these days. Classroom learning in general is outdated and less effective for many fields.