By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D.
A new publication Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report illustrates that the most popular undergraduate programs remain in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and journalism. However, they are also the least employed of college graduates. The best employed are the STEM graduates: those in engineering, manufacturing, and construction. They are employed at a rate of 88 percent compared to only 30 percent of the former group.
What does this tell us?
To be clear, it does not tell us that the liberal arts are bad degrees and a waste of time. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What it does say is that perhaps we feed too many people into programs that do not have a direct link with the work force and gainful employment.
In the end, this leads to an age-old philosophical dilemma in American higher education: is higher education vocational or avocational?
(ANSWER: It’s both. Even when it isn’t)
It is difficult to simplify such a complex issue, but at the same time it makes sense. We push—literally push—our children out the door into higher education. The obvious reality there is that not everyone has the advantage of the aforesaid “push.” Low-income, first-generation, and other youth, as well as many adults, do not or have not had the same advantages to “go to college.” To them, it is an aspiration more attune to fantasy. It just isn’t for them and society has made that abundantly clear.
For others, college is a right of passage. Even with the constant pressure of college cost and student debt, a truckload of students matriculates to college every year to enter that exciting audition to adulthood.
As you well know, some of these students don’t make it. In fact, half of students who enter higher education leave without a degree. Some of them swiftly, others along the way. Fifty percent. At the university level, a full third of entering students leave without a degree after six years of counting. One-for-three. Good in baseball; less good in college. But that’s what we are dealing with.
The real challenge is in gainful employment, a term that was popularized a few congresses ago on the attack on private, for-profit higher education. The Senate—Tom Harken to be precise—took it upon himself to take on an argument that began in the early 1990s against for-profit higher education. To be fair, it was a pretty solid argument: many of these providers were fleecing students and taxpayers of money: federally-supported money, like Pell Grants and subsidized loans. Without a doubt, this was a big business for for-profit colleges. Congress came down on them in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 1992. And then Harken took a few more swipes at them in 2014. That’s where gainful employment came in.
As data would support, graduates and non-graduates of for-profit programs were under employed. They either were not working or were working much less than was hoped, very often in jobs that had little or anything to do with their degree. These students were typically burdened with student loan debt well beyond what they could afford to pay. For about a quarter of these students, the story ends with loan default and personal bankruptcy. Not a pretty picture for an individual who once thought they were subscribing to the promised land.
Much of the western world outside of the United States has some type of filter for higher education to try and regulate certain professions and higher education programs from being over subscribed. They do this with high-stakes testing and other policies. In the US, we only do that for highly- and moderately highly-selective institutions via SAT and ACT scores, mostly. But our non-selective, open-admissions institutions do very little filtering of students. For the most part—with some exception—students can enter the program that they want, with little or no regard for gainful employment at the end of their career.
For colleges, they are “pushing tin,” a term used by air traffic controllers for pushing aluminum airplanes through takeoff and landing vortex at airports. Our admissions professionals do this, too. It isn’t their fault. This is just how it is done. If there is an error in the system, it is purely at the policy level.
The argument of liberal arts makes this issue very complex. We certainly understand that if you plan to be an accountant, you will go to business school. If you want to go into engineering, you go to engineering school. But what jobs do liberal arts programs prepare for? Probably the majority of jobs that are filled by college graduates are filled by liberal arts majors. They are the writers. The thinkers. But the line from liberal arts degree to job is less linear than the “professions.” I always thought my brothers had it made: one became an engineer and the other a chartered accountant (the Canadian/British equivalent to a CPA in the US). From day one, their pathway was extremely well articulated. But for others, that pathway is a long and winding road that can divert in many directions.
There clearly exists a problem when 70 percent of graduates in the humanities and related degree programs are un or underemployed, as reported by OECD. And conversely, we aren’t putting enough students through STEM degrees for jobs that are currently available and will increase in the next decade. Adding some insult to injury, the OECD report also found that women enter STEM degrees at half the rate as men.
What do we do? Policy makers can make incentives for certain programs through grants and deductions. I don’t always think those programs work very well, but they could help. For colleges and universities, it really comes to them, to a degree, to retool their programs. Gainful employment became a rallying cry against for-profit higher education. The reality is that all higher education institutions should be held to a similarly high standard. All colleges and universities should be able to accurately describe how their graduates (and non graduates) fare in the workforce. Most institutions can use the Wage Record Interchange System (WRIS) to get information on employment and earnings on their students, but not many do it. Each state has its own regulations on who can access this information, but, for example, all institutions in California can access the system to find out this information.
Wouldn’t it be great if could see the gainful employment for colleges and programs? Just a thought. Otherwise, we’re just pushing tin.