College… or Vocational School… or ???

The headline read “Useless Degrees?”, and the newspaper story went on to tell about a state lawmaker who was upset about the fact that too many students, especially here in Utah, obtained degrees in areas of study for which there were either no careers or very few jobs for the number of students with academic degrees in those fields.

This sort of questioning raises a fundamental question about both the value of an undergraduate collegiate degree and the purpose of such a degree.  Is the principal purpose of an undergraduate degree to provide what amounts to vocational training or is it to teach the student how to think?

Immediately, of course, the response from most people would be:  “Why not both?”

The problem with the “both” answer is that learning “how” is often very different from learning how to ask “why.”  Asking why often requires challenging the status quo, and accepted beliefs, as well as examining what lies behind what created society, or a certain discipline, in its present form.  The original concept of the university was based on educating a comparatively small percentage of the population to question and to master a limited number of high-level skills, such as law and medicine, and later engineering. Other skills were learned on the job through what amounted to apprenticeship.  Today, however, many occupations require young people to have a much higher degree of knowledge and skill and some form of formal education in order even to be considered for employment. Part of this is because society has become more mobile and businesses are often reluctant to spend the money and time to train people in order for them to master skills and then leave and use those skills elsewhere

The problem that colleges and universities face is that, first, many are not equipped to operate as high-level vocational schools, nor to determine which students belong in what field of study, and even when they can, societal expectations essentially restrict their ability to determine which students take which courses.  Second, not all students are suited to all disciplines, and very few know their strengths and limitations.  Third, our society is changing rapidly enough that any “vocational” education provided to a student will be time-limited because the field itself will either change drastically over the course of a student’s later life or may even vanish.  This is one reason why many educators fight the idea of “vocational” education and emphasize trying to teach students to think. Another reason is simply that universities shouldn’t play occupational “god” and insist they know what a student should study, although it’s fair to say that they are equipped to determine, by allowing a student to try a course and fail, what a student should not study.  But, of course, giving students such a choice is expensive, both for the student and the institution.

As many of you know, my wife is a college professor, and I’ve taught at the collegiate level.  So it’s likely that I’m apt to see matters in a different light from that politician who wants more students to obtain degrees in math, sciences, health care, and computer-related fields.

From a student’s point of view, there’s one critical question that should drive a choice of a collegiate major or field of study:  Does the student have the aptitude for that field?  I’m not talking so much about preparation as the raw capability.  No matter how great the desire, in some fields, without certain basic aptitudes, a student will not succeed. I think it’s more than fair to say that, although I’m fairly bright, I’d never succeed as a music major.  I can’t tell whether I’m on pitch/key, whether I’m singing or playing an instrument.  Nor do I have any sense of rhythm.  It doesn’t matter how bright I am.  Without those capabilities, I’d fail at music.  Other students and relatives I’ve known simply have limited mathematical capabilities. Others didn’t develop linguistic skills early enough in life, and therefore will never succeed in areas requiring written skills.

Yet our collegiate system encourages students to follow what they think their “passion” may be, regardless of what their abilities may be.  This often results in a student taking far more courses than required to get a degree… and higher costs at state-supported schools… and law-makers wanting to mandate restrictions or higher costs.

Even if colleges become what amount to high-level vocational institutions – which I think would be a disaster for the United States – such a change wouldn’t address the problem of students not knowing what their capabilities and desires are.  The capability problem could be addressed by a secondary school system that demanded more rigor and course content, and less teaching to the tests, but less teaching to the tests would result in less certain assessment, etc., all of which points out the basic problem:  Education is being labeled as the cure for everything, and it’s not.  Education in itself cannot instill drive or ambition.  Nor can it provide discipline or self-discipline, not without the support of parents and community.  Nor can it provide the desire to learn, only the opportunity.

For all these reasons, among many others, while education is vital to society, what kind of education is best depends on the student, and no one kind of education, with a simple degree path of the sort that everyone from lawmakers to parents seem to be demanding, will suffice.  One size never did fit all, and neither will a simple fix, even one backed by law, achieve any real solution.

5 thoughts on “College… or Vocational School… or ???”

  1. Robert The Addled says:

    Useful or useless depends on the purposes of the person obtaining the degree. I myself have a ‘useless’ degree – I took advantage of my Navy Schooling (nuclear power) and obtained an Associates of Applied Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology. Useless in the sense that it isn’t enough for an engineering job proper – but is ‘proof’ of learning (most military schools do not release course content – the community college accepted that the Navy schools met or exceeded the requirements for the degree). For my purposes this degree was the ‘proof’ of experience for use on my resume. Considering that I was applying for non-engineering jobs in the nuclear industry at the time – It was VERY useful.

  2. Jamey says:

    “Education in itself cannot instill drive or ambition. Nor can it provide discipline or self-discipline, not without the support of parents and community. Nor can it provide the desire to learn, only the opportunity.”

    Mind if I ask if “drive” and “ambition” even *should* be something we seek to instill? Is the person who doesn’t *want* to become President of the US, or Nobel Laureate, or other great ambition, that much less than those who do aim for such goals?

    There’s something to be said for getting through, enjoying life. Competence is a good thing – but is the drive to become *more* always good?

    That’s something I think Ayn Rand got right in her novels. While the Roarkes and Dagneys and such were held up as the greats they were, she never seemed to look down on those who worked under them, so long as they actually worked, and didn’t leach.

  3. I’d agree with the point behind your question about whether education should instill ambition; my observation was merely that it’s something that education itself cannot do.

  4. As per usual, very thought-provoking and insightful article, Lee.

    I work a bachelor-level job, even though I only have a HS diploma, because I’ve worked my way up through the tech field on the strength of my experience and my ability to rapidly “re-tool” in the skills department. Especially where software is concerned. I also work in healthcare, which for tech people is a different type of work altogether compared to commercial enterprises. Healthcare tech work is all about maintenance and support, subservient to the needs of physicians and healthcare staff. (Though to be fair, the providers and staff don’t always see it like that. A bit of a political bicker point.)

    My key concern is with the whole, “everyone deserves a college education,” mantra. Because when literally everyone is getting college degrees, they become meaningless, very expensive pieces of paper.

    Not so during World War 2, when a BS or BA still meant something. Now, they’re de rigueur and companies are becoming blind to them — instead parsing candidates who have real-world experience. Because while everyone is busy jamming through Bachelors program, not everyone can come to a job with years of practical experience.

    When I came back to Utah after 10 years doing healthcare tech in Seattle, I am sure I beat out scads of college-degreed candidates whose only “flaw” was they didn’t have the same level of practical, on-the-job experience that I had. This is both a point of pride with me, and a point of concern. Because when we spend tens of thousands of dollars to put ourselves through BS, BA, MS, or even MBA programs, we should be getting more for our money than being turned down for jobs on account of our (lack of) experience.

    At the root of the whole problem is the very recent American belief that the Constitution granted us equal outcomes in addition to equal opportunity. I’m all for trying to give people opportunities, but the plain fact is there can never be equal outcomes because everyone is different and not everyone is suited for the same kinds of work. There are too many variables, and no, I do not think the answer is to pay garbage collectors the same salary we pay heart surgeons. This means we either massively over-pay our low-skill workers, or we massively under-pay our high-skill workers.

    Just look at how we’ve destroyed public education by under-paying our Masters-level teacher pool. Our best, most capable proto-teachers don’t ever bother to do it because there is no money in it. And unless someone feels it’s their calling, they won’t do it.

    Okay, I shall stop here. A very big subject, on which I could say more.

  5. Shannon says:

    I agree somewhat with Brad. In my field (geophysics) it is difficult to get a position with only a bachelor’s degree. The big oil companies require a masters to even get an interview. The service companies are not as picky, but my first position out of school was asking for 2-5 years experience. I got lucky. But I can also see now that experience is needed. My undergraduate degree gave me basic concepts but universities cannot teach all the skills tailored to individual positions available in a given field.
    As for the other issue of “useless” degrees, I think society undervalues most of them. Too be honest, I don’t value a general business degree, but liberal arts degrees are useful. Most people in hard or applied sciences are poor communicators in my experience, while those in liberal arts communicate regularly with the written word. Aside from language difficulties for non-native speakers, most can’t even write a grammatically correct sentence or spell. That may be a result a lack in primary and secondary education more than university level, though. I may be biased as I’m currently pursuing a history degree for fun.

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