It is commonplace in today’s discourse regarding higher education to hear critics proclaim that the criterion by which the value of an education should be judged rests, almost exclusively, on the ability of the graduate to secure employment. Last year, Governor Rick Scott of Florida famously, or infamously, stated that Florida did not need “more anthropologists in this state” and that degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) are more valuable because “when [students] get out of school, they can get a job.”
Scott’s position is a curious one for several reasons. From a purely pragmatic perspective, government studies based on US Census data have shown that although unemployment is lower in engineering fields, there are plenty of unemployed engineers. A 2010 American Community Survey found that more than 101,000 U.S.-born individuals with an engineering degree are unemployed. Additionally, 1.47 million U.S.-born individuals reported having an engineering degree but did not work as engineers. The Survey concluded that low pay and an influx of foreign workers accounted for much of the labor situation in engineering. The Wall Street Journal also looked at 2010 Census data and found that although some areas in the sciences exhibited lower unemployment rates relative to the general population, other areas did not. At the time of their analysis, the unemployment rate for all college graduates was 5% (in contrast to the population unemployment rate which was closer to 9%). Given a more proper comparison standard, STEM fields look less like the golden ticket to employment that Scott paints. The unemployment rate for graduates in STEM fields frequently exceeded the unemployment rate for other college graduates: biological engineering (6.8%), biology (5.6%), botany (6.9%), chemistry (5.1%), computer and information systems (5.6%), engineering and industrial management (9.2%), engineering mechanics (6.5%), engineering technologies (5.3%), and so forth. You get the idea.
The point is that receiving a degree in a STEM field does not inevitably translate into a job, but this should hardly surprise us. Graduates of some majors are more successful than others at finding employment and this is true both inside and outside the STEM fields. For example, the unemployment rate for mechanical engineers in 2010 was a promising 3.8%, in biochemical sciences it was 7.1%. By comparison, the unemployment rate for music majors was 5.2%, about the national average for college graduates.
The real issue at stake, however, is not the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. As important as that is to students and family members, the “job criterion” is a dubious one. Most obviously, securing employment depends on a host of factors that graduates and higher educational institutions cannot control: the strength of the economy, governmental policies that either promote or inhibit economic growth, the value of the dollar, and so on. In fact, if one thinks about it, many of those extrinsic factors that affect employment are influenced by politicians to a greater degree than perhaps Governor Scott would care to admit.
At a fundamental level, the reasoning itself is flawed. If the sole purpose of an education were vocational, then job attainment might well be considered the most important criterion of a successful education. Of course, those of us in higher education, especially the liberal arts, would like to think that our students are much more than statistics in a labor pool. To be productive citizens and members of a democracy, we all must be able to think critically, understand divergent perspectives, appreciate the role of culture in our collective development as a society, and behave in civil ways to promote both our self-interests and the interests of our community. Governor Scott would have us believe that an education is akin to something you might purchase with an expected return on investment, in this case a job. If you buy an engineering degree, then one should expect a job in return.
Those of us at liberal arts institutions take a different perspective. A liberal arts education is not so much a commodity as a transformative process that fundamentally changes an individual over time. In this way, a liberal arts education affects individuals the way great social and spiritual institutions like the family, the church, synagogues, or mosques affect individuals. We trade in the currency of ideas and experience to help our students explore the world around them, to ask new questions, and to search for meaningful answers. To reduce the purpose of an education to “getting a job” is to elevate the utilitarian value of a degree above the individual – to say that the student’s investment in self-improvement and discovery amounts to nothing more than a work visa.
To see how fully ludicrous the “get-a-job” criterion is to a liberal arts education, one need only apply the same logic to any of those other great social institutions that people have found so important in their formative experiences. One might say, for example, that the purpose of the family is to help individuals get a job. That we don’t need the church anymore because going to church really doesn’t translate into getting a good job. And, by gosh, let’s rethink synagogues and mosques because it is not at all clear that what happens there translates into a job down the road.
Now, if we’re really clever, we will follow up our criticism with the observation that it might be better to put the entire family “training” program online to be more cost-effective. So, let’s replace real families with online families in the hope that we can dispense with the unimportant stuff (you know, knowledgeable discussions with other family members) so as to streamline the credentialing process in order to get those non-existent jobs faster. Of course, we’ll produce educated persons without the effort required to truly educate, give our students degrees in the absence of meaningful social interactions, and then watch with some incredulity as employers shy away from these graduates in droves. Think I’m kidding? David Deming and colleagues at Harvard University recently produced data showing that graduates of for-profit online schools had much higher unemployment rates and lower earnings (8-9% lower) six years after entering degree programs when compared to students from other schools like Rollins. Students at for-profit schools also reported significantly lower satisfaction than students in public and non-profit schools and were more likely to drop out of their programs before graduation. These schools received “more than 80% of their revenues from federal Title IV student aid in 2008-2009,” according to Deming and colleagues.
So, let’s get this straight. Online programs that sell themselves as being particularly good at helping people get jobs actually: a) produce students who are more likely to be unemployed after six years; b) survive through federal grants and loans; c) produce lower student satisfaction; d) have higher dropout rates; and e) are associated with lower student earning power.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a superior model of education. At Rollins, our goal is admittedly a bit more noble. We aim to promote intellectual development in students by putting them in contact with accomplished faculty and engaging them in discussions with other students from diverse backgrounds. Only in this context can a truly well-educated, respectful, and curious person develop. Everything else will come in due course.
Of course, we are sensitive to the relationship between one’s education and subsequent employment. We are not naïve in that regard. But in a world filled with countless cultural challenges and social strife, we need people who can think broadly, creatively, and outside the box. We need people who are wise, patient, and good-spirited. We need people who encourage, inspire, and are persistent in making the world a better place for themselves and others. In short, we need more anthropologists.