Nothing for Something

For the Obama administration, expanding access to college is necessary to stop America from falling behind in the global economy. "Lifting graduation rates. Preparing our graduates to succeed in this economy. Making college affordable. That's how we'll put a higher education within reach for anyone who wants it," the president said in an August speech.

But when talking about expanding access to college and increasing the number of Americans with degrees, it's useful to ask, to paraphrase another president: "Is our children learning?" According to a new study by two sociologists, the answer for students enrolled in college is "No, not really." The researchers -- Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia -- tested 2,300 students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities and found they didn't do much better on measures of critical and analytic reasoning after four years than when they started.

Students are told that they need transferable critical-thinking skills to compete in the global workforce and weather technological shifts, and an increasing number of employers now require a degree or some other type of certification for entry into a field. But if the point is to equip students with the skills to be global "innovators," then according to this research, we're failing.

Moreover, by requiring college courses in trades like heating and air installation and massage therapy that were once learned through an apprenticeship, students -- especially poor students -- end up wasting a lot of money and taking time out of their careers for little added benefit. If traditional colleges and universities aren't teaching all students generalized, high-level skills that enable them to adapt to whatever working environment they find themselves in, then it's hard to see what the value of obtaining a college degree is. We either need to start making sure all students leave college with those skills, or re-evaluate why it's important for some career-oriented programs to be part of a college course and not an on-the-job training program.

In the study, the results were correlated with a student's course of study. Students who took liberal-arts courses with more required reading and writing scored the best; students enrolled in courses of study like business, communications, education, or social work geared toward teaching marketable skills did the worst. That's troubling, because most of the college-enrollment leap in the last decade has been driven by for-profit and community colleges, which tend to offer career-oriented education and serve a larger percentage of poor and minority students than do four-year universities or liberal-arts colleges.

Students most worried about their job prospects right after school often choose a course of study that will give them concrete technical skills, which in good times tends to pay off. But if those students are not learning the types of skills necessary to see them through job or career changes, is a traditional college the best way to train future accountants or business managers?

That's not a question many are asking, because we're too busy adding to the list of career-oriented college majors. But there was a time when plumbers, electricians, and police officers could all enter those jobs with high school degrees or less, study under a professional or through a union-based course and become licensed. Now -- in part because of a decline in unions and the evisceration of vocational education in high school -- many community colleges have begun to fill the need, offering plumbing and electrician courses, and municipalities require that police officers attend some college.

If that trend continues, it's only a matter of time until we start requiring even more schooling for careers that not long ago required only on-the-job training and licensing. This sort of degree inflation has already happened in some fields. Right now there are associate degree programs for some types of nurses, but there's a rising call for all nurses to have four-year degrees. Some cities require teachers to have master's degrees -- nearly all states create economic incentives for teachers to get advanced degrees, even though there's not much proof that they make teachers better. And the United States also routinely requires four-year degrees for careers, like accounting, that in other countries require only one- or two-year certification programs.

Most recently, Wal-Mart entered the education game by teaming up with a for-profit, online college called American Public University. The partnership allows full-time employees to apply their work experience for up to 45 percent of the college credits needed for an associate's or bachelor's degree. Wal-Mart negotiated a tuition reduction for the remainder of the credits, which students would have to pay. Because the credits are most applicable to a degree in retail management, it's hard to imagine many students getting degrees that are transferable to jobs outside the retail sector. Wal-Mart said in June, when the partnership was announced, that the move would allow workers to climb the corporate ladder. But workers could climb the corporate ladder before: The management staff was often promoted from within the hourly staff. What Wal-Mart has actually done is create a system in which workers who once got promoted simply by doing their job well are now tacitly required to pay for a degree in addition to doing their job well.

The Wal-Mart problem is emblematic of the bigger issue: By expanding the types of careers for which college is considered necessary, are we actually creating barriers that previously didn't exist? That's a bigger problem if students are going to college only to find themselves with a job they could have gotten without a college degree a few years ago and without, as this research suggests, the critical thinking skills that allow them to enter the educated class. There's nothing wrong with making higher education open to everyone, but perhaps it's time to ask what we want colleges to do. If students are meant to get high-level skills that make them adaptable in an ever-shifting job market, then we need to do that better. If college is career-oriented, then we really need to reconsider which kinds of jobs actually require classroom training. If students are going off to college and coming out no more educated in the long run, we're actually doing them a disservice.

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