In Quebec, we have had massive student protests. Students were asking for free higher education. It seems that things have quieted down as the new government has vowed to freeze tuition in constant dollar. Though it is never spelled out as such, affordable higher education is viewed as a tool to favor social mobility.

Most of us are in favor of social mobility: it is a good thing if a kid from a poor background can grow to become wealthy.

Sociologists will argue that we have no other social engineering tool to favor social mobility like affordable higher education. That is what justifies massive government involvement in higher education even in countries as right-leaning as the United States. In more left-leaning countries like France, higher education is often entirely free.

Before I pursue this line of thought, there is another unstated assumption: college graduates are smarter and they make better citizens. While the first assumption (social mobility) is founded on solid research, this second one has much weaker support. Spending time in college will improve the mastery of your major, but your overall cognitive skills may not improve. For example, getting a degree in English will not help you if you need to learn software programming later. Arguably, a degree in mathematics might help you become a better programmer, but even that is doubtful.

In any case, it has been historically true that college degrees have translated into better jobs, especially for the poorer half of the population. But, at some point, we have confused the means and the goals. What the young people in Quebec should be asking for are the means to start their careers.

Meanwhile, as a college professor I sometimes have to answer difficult questions such as “if I get this diploma or degree, will I get a job?” That is, many students care very much about the first unstated assumption: attending college helps you get jobs.

Most university-level professors, me included, are uneasy with this function. My job is simply not geared toward providing job training. For example, I try to get our students to program if only because it is such a useful skill to have in industry. Unfortunately, if a student only programs within our classes, he is very unlikely to become a sought-after expert programmer. For most people, it takes 10 years to be great at programming. So, degrees are not a straight path to a career in the software industry. The same is true of most degrees and most industries. Universities are simply not great at job training and they don’t make people all-around smarter.

But this used not to matter. The old industrial-age model was: get a degree or diploma in whatever you care for, get an office job, retire. The purpose of the degree was not to train you but rather to fail those who could not conform to a typical office job. This model still work if you are lucky enough to get a job in government or a big corporation.

Yet conformity is less important in the post-industrial age. And correspondingly, we are slowly moving to a post-industrial career model where a badge like a degree or diploma is only one of the things that are nice to have.

Increasingly, my answer to “Will I get a job with this degree?” is “If that’s all you have, no, you won’t”.

Effectively, I predict that the effectiveness of higher education as a tool for social mobility will weaken. A focus on conformity-based badges like degrees will fail the younger generation. The routine factory and office jobs are being automated and outsourced too fast. I am especially concerned when I hear the student representatives present the degree as a goal in itself. As if we were in the seventies.

Further reading:

8 Comments

  1. So does this mean you favor apprenticeship or some other alternative method to “getting a job” vs the path through college? What would that look like? And if that is the case and you think the function of job training should take place outside of the university, what remains at the university level and what value does it provide?

    I would answer your question about how to find a job in the post industrial economy the same way I advise students who want to work for me or in a similar field: Take it up as a hobby. There are far too many people doing much of the same thing (in my case, electrical engineering) to stand out in the marketplace, even with a degree from MIT or Stanford. And for all the students who say they don’t want to take it up as a hobby? I ask them why in the heck they’re in that field in the first place.

    Comment by Chris Gammell — 8/10/2012 @ 11:25

  2. @Chris

    I advise students who want to work for me or in a similar field: Take it up as a hobby.

    This seems like good advice.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/10/2012 @ 11:28

  3. I guess if one starts to learn programming in the 5th-7th grade (as many of teenagers do now), when you obtain a bachelors degree that would be several years of experience. I do believe that education helps greatly to become a better programmer.

    Does education requires decent knowledge of math? Absolutely, but not a very deep one: some basic calculus, algebra, statistics will do.

    Does education requires a college? Not necessarily. Especially now, when we have online courses. However, HR people often do.

    Comment by Itman — 8/10/2012 @ 21:03

  4. The UK Government has adopted a policy over the last decade or so of trying to get 50% of school leavers through university to come out with a degree, and student-loan debt. This seems to have lowered the quality of some degrees so that more can pass else there’s no point going, cheapened the value of some degrees as more end up having them, and increased the number of `fluff’ degrees in topics that didn’t used to exist.

    To a school leaver it may seem like three years of fun away from home but an increasing number here are seeing the poor job market and the debt their older peers are saddled with and instead deciding to enter industry at 18 to earn for those same years whilst learning on the job.

    Twenty years ago a lot of the bigger software employers here, e.g. defence industry, would take on school leavers, have them code four days a week alongside skilled comparative old-timers, and on the fifth day they’d attend local college (not uni) for a HND or similar in SW Eng after a few years. They compared very well to their degree-earning peers because of their coal-face battle-scarred experience. However, as jobs became more flexible employers stopped this because they easily lost the talent they trained; it was how to climb the salary ladder.

    Comment by Ralph Corderoy — 9/10/2012 @ 9:07

  5. Come now; if you get a CS degree these days, you’re pretty much guaranteed a job upon graduation. The number of CS grads produced each year is just a tiny fraction of the number of new job openings. See http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/download/presskits/citizenship/MSNTS.pdf

    Comment by Mike Stiber — 9/10/2012 @ 23:53

  6. “Free” education is a funny idea. As long as it costs money to pay professors and run universities, that is indirectly campaigning for higher income taxes. Which, needless to say, is a sore point for every tax-payer everywhere.

    That said, a small anecdote: In India, at least till the 1960s, better-off individuals took responsibility to educate poor youngsters. It was thought of as a social duty (as opposed to a social tax). For example, my great-grandfather funded the entire education of one student and provided him with residence in his own home. His family would also invite poor students home for meals. To give you an idea of the value of this practice in those times, the students would be served food before the rest of the family, as honoured guests. They supported about two or three students each year this way. What they demanded in return was for the students to perform well in their studies. Several students made their way through high schools and diplomas owing to this system of “Madhukari” http://vedabase.net/cc/madhya/20/81/

    Society, and so I, will have to provide one way or the other for my “free” education. What matters is whether we feel happy and fulfilled doing it. Otherwise, there’s frankly no point to it.

    Comment by Aditya Athalye — 10/10/2012 @ 4:14

  7. Come now; if you get a CS degree these days, you’re pretty much guaranteed a job upon graduation.

    This may not be true even in the nearest future! Outsourcing, dot-com collapse and similar events did happen in the past. They will also happen in the future! You should also consider what kind of job you can get after graduation. Most programming jobs are outright shitty, so may not want such a job, at least in the long run.

    Comment by Itman — 16/10/2012 @ 19:38

  8. Daniel wrote… Effectively, I predict that the effectiveness of higher education as a tool for social mobility will weaken.

    … especially when more people begin to see clearly, that there really are other ways. And there is one old, tried and tested way in particular that we don’t remember or understand fully any more. Yet it is a “way” that can scale biologically[1] across society, purely on the power of the idea becoming socially acceptable – and indeed, valued – again. Mastery By Apprenticeship. At least some folks in Computer Science & Engineering are trying to revive it.

    I’m betting on it personally – I am going to be attending http://www.StartupSchool.in for three months next month. Also, I’m building a collection of Software Apprenticeship links at my fancy blog post “The Jedi Protocol”, or the way of the apprentice: http://adityaathalye.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/the-jedi-protocol/

    [1] If you ask Alan Kay, he will show you how nothing of human creation, except the WWW (and maybe religion), approaches the scaling power of biological processes. To put that last bit in perspective, all living things are really processes and not “things” at all. A human individual is a process that exchanges all its atoms – not cells or molecules, but atoms – with the Universe over every 7 to 10 years. A virus individual may do it in seconds and a species, in a million years. See Alan’s keynote talk at SRII 2011: http://vimeo.com/22463791

    Comment by Aditya Athalye — 17/10/2012 @ 0:02

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