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A College Education With Multiple Purposes

There seem to be a few unspoken rules among the ruling class in higher ed. Among them: Don’t say a purpose of a college education is to get a job, and don’t refer to students or employers as consumers of a college education.

I broke both rules in a recent post about how the American higher-ed system is in love with itself, and as a result, doesn’t believe that it needs to undergo some fundamental changes. And boy did I hear from readers. The post generated more than 90 comments and a response on The Huffington Post by Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College.

Obviously, there’s no shortage of opinions on the subject. So I want to return to the debate, particularly given some new ammunition supplied over the past week by the governor of Florida and a coalition of unemployed law-school graduates.

We often talk about the goal of college as learning a specific skill or growing intellectually. Both aims are not mutually exclusive, of course, although by framing it as an either/or question we have allowed two opposing camps to emerge. On one side is higher ed, which believes it’s educating future citizens by helping them grow personally and intellectually. On the other side are employers who have jobs they can’t fill because they’re unable to find skilled workers.

Politicians seem to be taking the side of the employers. Witness Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who last week said his state shouldn’t put more money into degrees that are unlikely to produce more jobs, such as anthropology.

What many of those in higher ed fail to realize is that as college has become more expensive, parents and students increasingly view a bachelor’s degree as a transaction. For many, education for education’s sake no longer cuts it. That doesn’t mean students shouldn’t major in French literature or philosophy, or anthropology, but institutions need to do better at connecting such academic programs to lifetime employment prospects. Otherwise, it’s going to be almost impossible to get students and parents to pay $200,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree.

At the same time, employers and politicians need to learn that if colleges provide training only for jobs that need to be filled now, those workers will probably be useless in about two years, given the rapid pace of change in most industries.

Colleges need to reframe the question when asking employers what they need. Instead of asking about the jobs they need to fill tomorrow, colleges should ask employers to describe the valuable skills of their best-performing and longest-serving employees. It’s likely the answer will be critical thinking, writing, team work, and problem solving—all attributes of a classic liberal-arts education.

Another reason that higher ed might be reluctant to tie an undergraduate education to job prospects is that it’s on the defensive right now over job-placement rates in law schools, as The Chronicle’s Katherine Mangan reported this week. As the article points out, college officials are nervous that the consumer-protection pressures facing law schools could spill over to other professional schools. It’s surprising to me that universities don’t face more scrutiny of their graduate programs in general, which reel in prospective Ph.D. students every year while providing very little data on the job prospects of their graduates.

So if a bachelor’s degree is sold as a ticket to a specific job much as the J.D. is in law schools, students and parents might begin to ask a lot more questions about the placement data supplied by colleges. The federal government might tie student-aid funds to the employment gains of students, as it has with many for-profit vocational programs. And some in higher ed might be forced to reconsider their disdain for the consumer moniker and to treat their academic programs as products that sometimes need to be refreshed, or even retired, rather than just assume student demand will always be there.

In his thoughtful response to my original post, Rosenberg, the Macalester College president, recounts the story of Steve Jobs’s brief stint at Reed College and how he didn’t realize until much later in life how the study of calligraphy and music had any practical application to his success as a business leader and visionary. Often left unsaid in the retelling of that famous story, however, is that Jobs received part of that education by simply hanging around the Reed campus after he had dropped out. I’m sure Reed College would have preferred him to have stayed as a paying customer.

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