Bohanon: Students, Defeat Those Higher-Ed Blues

September 15, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

I noticed something unusual about editorials over the Labor Day weekend: Instead of discussing the status of unions, or the state of labor in the American economy, they were about the state of college education.

In a sense, this is not surprising. Increasing access to university education has long been seen as a key to reviving the middle class. The upshot of many of the commentaries, however, was that it doesn’t seem to be working. Tales of debt-ridden college graduates stocking grocery stores shelves paint a rather dire picture of the value of a baccalaureate degree.

There is a related vein of criticism of higher education — that it fails to prepare students for a real-world workplace with the specific job skills that employers seek. As a 35-year veteran of higher education who has spent his career in a college of business, I can add perspective to that. A few years back, I engaged in a research project that examined historic issues in colleges of business. It ends up that the complaint that graduates do not have real-world skills is as old as colleges of business themselves. In fact, colleges of business were founded on the proposition that the captains of industry “did not see why their sons could not be learning something bearing on their future business while acquiring a liberal education.”

So there always has and likely always will be a conflict between liberal education and vocational training. My grandfather (who bankrolled my college education) wanted me to major in accounting. I wanted to major in philosophy. Economics was a compromise. I tell incoming college students that they are subject to two pressures when they consider their course of study. The first is to please Mrs. Jones, their high school English teacher, who encourages them to seek knowledge, truth and enlightenment; the second is to please their Uncle Jack, who will inevitably ask at Thanksgiving dinner, “What kind of job do you expect to get with that?”

I then ask them to consider two points regarding their course of study:

1. Graduates with certain majors do earn more than those with other majors, and yes, the high-paying majors are more vocational. If you choose such a major, such as accounting, make sure you take coursework outside accounting. Also, do not be afraid to raise big-picture issues in your vocational courses — your professors will likely appreciate it. Whatever you do, do not be a narrow specialist.

If, on the other hand, you choose a major that is not so vocationally oriented, such as philosophy, make sure you take some courses that are more vocationally oriented, and don’t be afraid to ask how some of your more liberal coursework might add to your job skills — again your professor will likely appreciate it. Do not ignore or disdain the “real” world.

Among the best pieces of advice my dad gave me was that an educated person should “know everything about something and something about everything.” Good advice then and now.

2. Take responsibility for your education. The days of a college degree ensuring an automatic ticket to a middle-class job are gone. Whatever your major, get involved in campus life. Join clubs, talk to your professors, listen to campus speakers, cultivate contacts outside your social circle, and be engaged. Always be respectful, interested and courteous. Don’t burn bridges: You never know who might be the key to that perfect post-graduate opportunity.

OK, I am biased, but I think college is great; get all you can out of the experience.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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