October 12, 2011

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Mother Jones doesn’t like Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to cut back on support for liberal arts education in favor of more practical subjects. But I think this trend is inevitable anyway, given economic realities. Just look at all those unemployed and heavily-indebted #Occupy protesters. I didn’t notice any Petroleum Engineering graduates among them. Here’s what Scott said:

You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.

Even at Mother Jones we hear: “Scott’s reasoning could attract a lot of Floridians.” Ya think? But there’s this, too: “Is a degree’s intrinsic value really reducible to its marketability?”

After decades of selling college as an “investment” — and pricing it accordingly — it’s going to be hard for the higher education establishment to pivot to a college-as-personal-fulfillment argument. If it’s the latter, it’s a consumption good, priced on a par with a Porsche or Ferrari. Those shouldn’t be financed by debt, or bought by 18-year-olds. If college liberal-arts degrees, on the other hand, are to be sold as a public good, benefiting society so much that society should pay the freight, then (1) Society should have a much bigger say in what’s being taught; and (2) It might be nice to see some actual, you know, evidence of that. Also, students should be warned up front that they’ll be spending 4 years (or 5, or 6) of their lifespan doing something that’s good for society. The trust-funders may be okay with that, but that’s not a lot.

Regardless of what governors do, though, the market is likely to re-allocate resources on its own. The sight of those impoverished, indebted OWS folks sends a signal of its own to potential buyers and borrowers. . . .

UPDATE: Reader Bill Richmond writes: “The guy that makes my coffee just got his degree in Cultural Anthropology. And somehow, he’s still making coffee.” In college, I took a lot of anthropology courses. Fascinating stuff, and I’ve found it useful on occasion. But there weren’t many jobs then, and things have only gotten worse.

Meanwhile, reader Mary Wyss writes: “I understand the desire to cut back on liberal arts education. There has been a proliferation of degrees that are not useful in finding employment. I just don’t understand why more students don’t have 2 majors. History is my first major, but I did not wish to teach. It was easy to add a second major – business with lots of accounting classes. I used that second degree to support myself while working in the countries studied in my history classes.”

And reader Chris Fox writes: “I gave a nice loud ‘Heh’ when Mother Jones triumphantly proclaimed that majors don’t have much influence on job choices anyway. Well, YEAH, when you have a major in poli sci, you’re damn right it doesn’t matter much. Mother Jones isn’t exactly advancing its point here. On the other hand, I think the kids that graduate in engineering with honors will be a LOT more influenced by their majors.”

That’s likely. Meanwhile, somebody wrote a while back — I can’t find the email now — to note that liberal-artsy types who can’t find jobs in the States can often find gainful employment teaching English abroad. His daughter is teaching in China, earning okay money, and learning a lot herself. Not bad as a post-college interlude, and certainly better than camping out on Wall Street, or in your parent’s basement.

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