The Education/Business Fallacy

Recently, a semi-prominent president of an educational institution told a group of music professors that they shouldn’t complain about the fact that they were paid less than professors in other disciplines or that they were required by the institution to work longer hours and more days than most other professors because they “knew what they were getting into.” Besides the arrogance of the statement, I also found the sheer ignorance behind those words even more disturbing.

First off, when the vast majority of students on the collegiate or graduate level begin their academic preparation for their careers – whatever those careers may be – they have only the vaguest understanding of the scope of that career or of the demands it will make on them. Those only become truly apparent AFTER students graduate and move into the professional fields. That’s one of the reasons why something like 50% of all teachers drop out of teaching within five years. It’s why professionals change careers or leave them behind totally.

Second, this kind of attitude is typical of those who regard education from the “business” mindset and contributes to such factors as pushing to obtain as many students as possible, regardless of whether the students are ready or suited for college and where there’s a huge push to “steer” students toward “STEM” education and careers, as if students are organic robots that can simply be programmed toward the most lucrative careers, or those that will at least allow them to repay their often-massive student loans. As both a parent of a number of children who have been successful in various fields and careers and as a former faculty member on the collegiate level, I find the idea that students can be successfully “programmed” for specific careers or even careers in a general field totally ludicrous. People have different levels of ability in differing fields and different mind-sets.

For someone to have suggested that I might have a career in music because pop music stars make lots of money would have been both criminal and deceptive, given that I can’t carry a tune and have no sense of rhythm. In turn, to suggest that a good music student who can barely pass basic chemistry or physics, and for whom calculus is akin to magic, would be better served by going into a science or technology career would also be criminal and deceptive.

Third, the emphasis on college as vocational training, particularly on the undergraduate level, ignores reality. Even today, most college-educated individuals change jobs and often entire career paths seven to ten times in their professional lives. Those who make those transitions most successfully are those who have learned how to keep learning. Even those who remain in the same field have found that the requirements of their positions continue to change as technology advances.

Fourth, available jobs and job requirements are constantly changing as the result of shifting economic factors and technological advancement, and “guiding” students to the current “jobs du jour” may serve those not strongly motivated to enter that field poorly indeed.

Fifth, while employment “supply and demand” does in fact determine compensation levels, those levels have increasingly less and less to do with the skills needed by society. At least at present, scarce skills, even those that aren’t all that necessary to the functioning of society, are more highly valued than many necessary occupations and services. No matter what the financial types say, we need very few hedge fund managers for a successful civilization. We need a lot more of the practical and mundane skills, from electricians and plumbers to good classroom teachers and more doctors in general practice, but fewer and fewer doctors want to be in internal medicine or general practice because those fields usually pay half what specialized medical fields do and require longer hours, making it far harder to pay off the medical school loans.

Finally, what drives personal success in any field is the love of what one is doing combined with the education and capability to do the job at hand. “Training” a student for a theoretically more remunerative field that disregards the student’s abilities and interests serves neither the society’s interests nor the student’s. It’s a sad commentary on higher education when a university president suggests that because economics lowers the comparative compensation of professionals in certain disciplines and because the university takes advantage of that to the point of requiring more of those individuals, it’s all the fault of those professionals because they “chose” to pursue the field in which their talents lie.

This administrative mindset is also why more and more universities hire fewer and fewer expert and dedicated full-time professionals and more and more underpaid part-time adjuncts, because the quality of the instruction has become increasingly less and less important than the push to lower “people” costs, or at least the people costs associated with actual learning, as opposed to those associated with collegiate athletics.

5 thoughts on “The Education/Business Fallacy”

  1. C Keith says:

    I could not agree more 40+ years ago when I went to collage I wanted to be an Aerospace Engineer, so I got a Physics degree. I knew if would be harder to get my first job, but i knew that physics would be a better foundation for all the learning I would need to do during a career. After working as an Aerospace Engineer for 38 years in a wide variety of assignments I am still happy I got a solid foundation in collage.

  2. darcherd says:

    And I happily studied History and Psychology because they interested me, knowing that they were not necessarily good choices for a career. And I’ve spent the last 40 years in high tech, though admittedly not as an engineer. But surprise! High tech companies need people who can think, absorb information, and write, too.

    Having said that, in today’s climate and hyperinflated tuition, I’m not sure I would have had that luxury were I entering college today.

    But yes, I agree with LEM’s characterization of the administrator’s arrogance. “You knew the trail was dusty when you signed on,” might be a cute aphorism, but the upshot is that if they pay music teachers crap, they’re going to end up with crappy music teachers.

  3. Tom says:

    Ending up with crappy teachers is bad enough but ending up with poorly educated dysfunctional citizens is worse. But then business is all about profit and too many business people equate profit only with money. We need someway of assessing the administrators and ceos and paying them accordinly; they may then understand life somewhat better.

  4. Devildog says:

    I used to be a recruiter and I always told prospective college student to study what they love and do well in it. I was more interested in their level of success than what they studied. Of course professional jobs required professional degrees. But the portion of those jobs that are like that out there is pretty small. However, I also do agree that with the high price tuition, a certain ROI analysis needs to be done when considering what one is going to study.

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