Higher education, conventional wisdom has it, is the key to success. We know we simply can’t get good jobs without a college degree, so we spend late nights cramming for orgo exams and spewing out 10-page papers that hopefully at least appear intricately researched. Gov. Jennifer Granholm must think we’re doing something right, since she’s proposed plans to double the number of college graduates in Michigan.

Angela Cesere

I’m not so sure, however, that a college education is always the best use of time and resources. It’s no secret that few people end up working in the field of their majors. Four years of college might help a student explore his interests or at least hone his skills at beer pong. But I feel employers often end up viewing a bachelor’s degree mainly as an assurance that a potential hire was good enough at following directions to graduate.

With the exception of careers that already require extensive professional training beyond an undergraduate degree, there aren’t that many jobs out there that couldn’t be learned in a few months or a year of on-the-job training. Most other industrialized countries recognize this fact and, compared to the United States, send few of their young adults to college. The rest typically end up in a trade school or apprenticeship, gaining skills directly relevant to their careers.

There’s a fair criticism that these systems, as seen in France or Germany, rely on tracked educational systems and high-stakes tests that set the course of a person’s life at an early age. Such strict determinism goes against the egalitarianism embedded in the American psyche, and we wouldn’t tolerate it here. Rather than separate winners from losers after high school, we increasingly treat undergraduate education as our weeder. (Our egalitarian spirit, curiously, doesn’t seem to cover those who can’t afford the financial drain associated with a bachelor’s degree.).

Sure, there are benefits to sending a large proportion of people to college. More people experience a full liberal-arts education under such a system, and broad access to higher education can help balance out the chronic inequities in primary and secondary education in this country.

But all this education doesn’t come cheap. As a society, we already spend more on education, as a proportion of gross domestic product, than every industrialized nation except South Korea. Our level of access to higher education is a large part of the reason why. College students spend some of the most active, productive years of their lives ultimately not contributing to the economy. There must be some greater societal benefit to having young adults write term papers in a library instead of TPS reports in a cubicle.

Talk of increasing the number of college graduates is usually based on the supposed economic benefits of a highly educated workforce. Certainly, there are fields where the knowledge one gains as an undergraduate is crucial to one’s ability to work. I really don’t think, though, that Granholm means to revitalize our state’s ailing economy by doubling the number of citizens trained as philosophers.

The argument that a highly educated workforce is needed for America to be competitive in the 21st century hinges on the assumption that educating more people means more people gain expertise in the technical fields that drive an information-based economy. These fields — basically, math, science and engineering — require students to actually work hard in college at the expense of their drinking habits. As such, they’re not so popular. A study last year by the National Science Board noted that the number of science and engineering degrees awarded to U.S. citizens has been falling for over a decade.

Thus far, we’ve made up the gap with bright, highly-educated immigrants attracted to our streets paved with gold and our boundless freedoms. However, as countries such as India and China that have provided these workers continue to develop, there will be fewer incentives for their citizens to remain in the United States after graduation — or even to come here for an education in the first place.

If there’s a crisis in the direction of American higher education, it’s that too few people are gaining the skills our country’s economy will need in the upcoming decades. Rather than investing in increasing the overall number of college graduates, we would do well to encourage more students to go into science and engineering — perhaps by offering retroactive scholarships, upon graduation, to those who choose something more challenging than an English degree. Maintaining our technological edge will be crucial to maintaining our standard of living in the globalized economy, and, this time around, there won’t be a Sputnik to scare us into pushing science education.

 

Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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