Saturday, March 21, 2015

American Students View College as Job-Training: Forsaking Education?

“What is your major?” is a mantra (and undoubtedly a pick-up line too) on college campuses. In giving students some exposure to a variety of academic disciplines, distribution requirements are meant in part to help students make more informed decisions of what to major in. According to an analysis of twelve randomly-chosen American colleges and universities in 2015, an increasing percentage of students since the recession of 2009 were circumventing this help by declaring their respective majors during their freshman year.[1] The reason, according to the business newspaper, is pragmatism, student debt-loads, and a difficult job market. “In 2012, nearly half of college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed or had jobs that didn’t use their degrees.”[2] In response, a higher proportion of students were going to college to get a job. Although The Wall Street Journal lauds the reduction of education to vocation, even more striking is how even academic administrators mischaracterize the intellectual mission of colleges and universities.  

The associate vice president for enrollment and marketing at DePaul, for example, told the journal, “People don’t go to college anymore to be fulfilled or to gain life perspective; they go to get a great job.  . . . There’s been a shift from hippie culture to corporate culture.”[3] In overgeneralizing becoming knowledgeable through formal learning being “fulfilled,” the administrator makes the benefits seem so vague they could be gained in other ways.

To claim that gaining knowledge in, say, chemistry or mathematics gives a person “life perspective” treats a distant byproduct as if it were the main point. A survey of freshman at American colleges and universities in 2014 found that 45% of them believed that “an essential or very important objective of college was to develop a meaningful life philosophy.”[4] In 1971, 73% had that belief. Those students who cited the belief got higher education wrong because they missed the obvious point that an education makes a person knowledgeable whether or not he or she uses the knowledge to develop a life philosophy.

Were higher education primarily to give students a meaningful life philosophy, the benefit would hardly be worth the cost in student loans alone. It is no surprise, given this “understanding” of the purpose of a liberal arts and science education, that 82% of the surveyed freshman in 2014 said college is essential to being very well off financially. In 1971, 37% thought so, and in 2006 the percent was up to 73.[5] In other words, shortchanging the real benefits of being knowledgeable as distinct from being skilled has facilitated the shift to declaring a major in one of the professional schools early.

Of course, studying chemistry, for example, can result in a job. In fact, the higher-order analytical and synthetic thinking that goes beyond the critical thinking (skills-training and problem-solving) in professional schools can actually be extremely valuable on the job as well as in virtually any domain in life. A student might major in accounting, for example, only to find that he is bored to death on audits. Having used his electives for business classes so he could graduate on time—having switched majors after his sophomore year from biology—he would have had no inkling that his mind was most suited to philosophy. Meanwhile, he would never use the skills he had learned in all the accounting courses he took.

I submit that resisting the temptation to reduce a college education to vocational training at least until the student has had some exposure to a variety of academic fields through distribution requirements is not “hippie culture.” As the assistant dean for academic advising and career counseling at UT-Austin puts the problem, “How do you know that you don’t want to major in say, anthropology, if you’ve never taken an anthropology class?”[6] He points out that students who choose a major during their freshman year are likely to switch, and this can delay their graduation date or make it more likely they will drop out.

In fact, the hippies of the late 1960s trivialized knowledge by presuming that they could teach themselves in “teach-ins.” These were not only a pragmatic part of the Vietnam-War protests on college campuses such as UC-Berkeley and UW-Madison; rather, the egalitarians decided that being well-learned is not a prerequisite for teaching the knowledge. Such an attitude toward knowledge is perhaps even more dismissive than that of the job-oriented freshmen who view academic knowledge as worthwhile only or primarily for developing a life perspective.

1 Douglas Belkin, “Freshman Are Picking Their Majors Earlier,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2015.
2 A 2014 paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Quote taken from Belkin, “Freshman.”
3 Belkin, “Freshman.”
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.