Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 3: The Relationship between a College Education and a Well-Paying Job; Reconciling a Liberal Arts Education with the Needs of Employers

Historically, the universities of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the colleges of Colonial Age America, had almost nothing to do with preparing young men for the world of work. (There were almost no women in college until well into the 19th century). Rather, the universities served to introduce the next generation of society’s expected leaders to classic Greek and Roman writers and thinkers, and to sharpen their skills in grammar, logic and debate.

To be sure, some students became lawyers, doctors or theologians, but for the most part the traditional college or university education focused almost entirely on teaching people how to reason, analyze and communicate.

Things began to change after the Revolutionary War, with the establishment of the first public universities. But even these were relatively scarce until the Morrill Act of 1862 established land grant colleges that were specifically devoted to agriculture and engineering — applied fields in which the acquisition of certain skills and knowledge connected an area of study to a particular line of work.

No longer were college students limited to the sons of wealthy merchants and landowners. Some now prepared for jobs in industry (as the Industrial Age came into its own) — and some college students were women!

In 1870, Johns Hopkins University, established on the German model, introduced the idea that graduate education and research should be within the scope of what universities do. The resulting production of students at the graduate level provided the faculty needed to allow new colleges to be established, and to permit existing institutions to grow.

Even with these changes, however, most college students still majored in the liberal arts, and many colleges taught only the liberal arts (as some do to this day). Liberal arts colleges, and liberal arts faculty, continued to emphasize the non-economic purpose of higher education: to instill a love of learning, and a life of the mind, as one of society’s loftiest goals—and a goal that needed to be nurtured and protected.

However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it had occurred to business leaders that people who had attended college must be quite smart, and they began preferentially hiring college graduates. They hired them not necessarily for what they knew, but because they had demonstrated that they were bright and could learn and reason with ease. Businesses were content to train these young graduates in the specifics of what they needed to know to contribute to the business, recognizing that they learned quickly and were likely to stay with the company for their working lives.

Liberal arts faculty and liberal arts colleges looked askance at such blatant commercial use of the education they had provided to their students, but since neither the colleges nor the businesses asked anything more of the other, both were content to let matters run their course.

Increasing educational opportunity

With the passage of the GI Bill in 1944, and the work of the Truman Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy in 1946/47, the doors of colleges and universities were flung open to people from all walks of life. These new students from the working class were far more successful than many believed they would be, and higher education in America was forever changed. The percentage of adult Americans with a baccalaureate increased from 5 percent in 1945 to more than 30 percent today.

Growth in the economy allowed the ready absorption of newly minted college graduates into that economy, and growing numbers of college graduates in turn contributed to economic growth — a kind of virtuous circle, where supply and demand for college graduates stayed roughly in balance, even as the economy grew and the nation prospered.

What should be the focus of education?

But everything changed with the Great Recession that began in 2008.

Almost immediately, demand for newly minted college graduates plummeted, even as the production of graduates continued, throwing the balance between supply and demand out of equilibrium. Those few businesses that were hiring could limit their search to individuals not only with a college degree but also with relevant experience — something that the typical new college graduate did not possess.

Businesses promptly canceled their training programs for new employees because newly hired but experienced employees needed very little training. Almost overnight, new college graduates — especially in the liberal arts — found themselves with few job offers, and obliged to accept temporary or part-time jobs. The college graduate working as a coffee shop barista became the image etched in the minds of the parents of college-age young people everywhere, and they wondered aloud whether a college degree was still the ticket needed to join the middle class — or even whether a college degree was worth the price.

Conservative governors of several states openly challenged the notion that public (i.e., taxpayer-supported) institutions should engage in producing liberal arts graduates with no marketable skills (conveniently forgetting, of course, about the “soft skills” possessed by the typical liberal arts graduate, such as the ability to think, reason, synthesize, collaborate and communicate, among others). We need more STEM graduates! We need more graduates in the trades! Even President Obama questioned  the wisdom of students who elected to major in art history.

The liberal arts faculty pushed back hard. Hundreds of years of history were on their side. As I have noted, the traditional college education was never about preparing people for careers. Businesses chose to hire college graduates and then train them. Now, they were saying that businesses no longer wished (or needed) to shoulder the expenses of training, so the task of preparing students for the workplace must, by default, fall on the colleges.

In the intervening years, the job market has improved and more colleges have seen the virtue of students’ combining a liberal arts education with specific skills in one or more of the professional schools (and/or of gaining relevant experience while an undergraduate through internships or other examples of project-based learning). [1] So the tension between the wishes and expectations of the businesses and of the parents of college students on the one hand, and the liberal arts faculty on the other, has diminished — but not vanished.

Neither side has relinquished its position. We await only another recession for a resumption of hostilities.

In the meantime, here are two things to consider:

First, a powerful case can be made that the best reason for obtaining a college education today is because of the strong interrelationship among being well educated, getting a great job and living a great life. [2]

Thinking about a college education only in terms of how it prepares you for a job can cause you to undervalue the other factors in living a great life, as well as tempt you to try to “time” the market — that is, to choose a major based on the needs of the job market at the moment. The problem is that the job market is constantly changing and what is “hot” today might be ice cold tomorrow. Getting a good educational foundation on which additional education can be built as and when needed is the better strategy.

Second, lifetime earnings in different job sectors broadly overlap. Engineers generally have higher lifetime earnings that English majors, for example — but some English majors earn more than some engineers. The point is, median salary for a particular major does not tell you the range of salary for that major, nor does it predict the actual salary of any one individual. [3]

The takeaway is that college students should not abandon their commitment to an area of study that ignites their passions to make themselves into something they are not in hopes of a potentially bigger paycheck. Lifetime salaries by major are not chiseled in granite, and the future is too uncertain.

But failing to appreciate what employers are looking for in a new hire is an equally serious mistake. To repeat, the better response is to combine the strengths of professional study with the breadth that comes from the study of the liberal arts by balancing your major (primary interest) with a minor in a completely different area that extends your skill set. For example, majors in graphic design or dance may be very well served by taking a minor in marketing or management.

Graduates in professional fields tend to be hired quickly (assuming that their area is in demand when they graduate), whereas liberal arts graduates often drift from job to job for several years before getting on track. Liberal arts graduates with some defined professional skills, on the other hand, tend to get started on their careers more quickly, because those skills are attractive to employers — and their liberal arts skills allow them to be successful once hired, and to advance their careers.

Final point: The traditions of the academy should be respected, if only because their ultimate value is proven by virtue of their longevity. Only certain religions can claim a longer history than can the oldest of our universities (in marked contrast to the relatively rapid turnover of businesses and corporations, for example).

But it’s true that, as our society evolves, certain factors that support our society must evolve along with it. Higher education today plays a very different (and arguably much more important) role in supporting and strengthening our society than it did four centuries ago. And we in higher education should not be so in love with our traditions and history that we blind ourselves to the need for us to adapt to current demands and expectations of our society. Our challenge is not to reject these demands outright but to respond to them even as we honor the values and traditions that are the basis of what we do.

Next time: How many Americans should have a college degree — and how (and by whom) is that question answered?

[1] “From Liberal Arts to Making a Living,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 22, 2017

[2] Great Jobs, Great Lives. Gallup Organization, 2015

[3] “Six Myths About Choosing a Major,” The New York Times Education Supplement, Nov. 5, 2017

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