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For higher education, do as elites do, not as they say


The Next Idea

Business, political and media elites are increasingly advising kids not to pursue four-year degrees. The conventional wisdom is that unless you get a four-year degree in a STEM field, you are likely to end up underemployed and unable to pay off crushing student loans. Far better, according to this logic, to get a two-year degree or occupational certificate in a skilled trade.

Of course, if this advice were accurate, you might expect that the affluent would also want their kids to forgo four-year degrees in favor of pursuing two-year degrees or occupational certificates. Surely richer people, just like the rest of us, don’t want their kids underemployed and crushed by student loans.

However, when researchers Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski looked at college enrollment and four-year degree completion by household income, they found something quite different. In their research paper entitled “Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion,” they discovered that the higher the family income, the more likely a child is to enroll in college and earn a degree from a four-year university. And the gap between those who grow up in upper income households and everyone else is growing.

So it turns out: The best advice for all kids is to do as the elites do, not as they say.

A terrific Forbes article by George Anders entitled, “That Useless Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” makes the case that liberal arts skills are more in demand than STEM skills in the supposedly STEM-driven technology industry.

Anders writes:

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2022 some 1 million more Americans will enter the workforce as educators. Another 1.1 million newcomers will earn a living in sales. Such opportunities won’t be confined to remedial teaching or department store cashiers. Each wave of tech will create fresh demand for high-paid trainers, coaches, workshop leaders and salespeople. By contrast, software engineers’ ranks will grow by 279,500, or barely 3% of overall job growth.


The right direction is to broaden education for all children beyond content-specific and job-specific skills to focus on broad skills like the four Cs of the employer-led The Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Those are the skills that matter most for economic success today and tomorrow.

A broad education is the key to building the skills needed for prosperous 40-year careers. Turning education – particularly high school and higher education – into vocational education focused on developing job-specific skills is the wrong path to economic success for each of us as individuals and for the state and country. Even worse is government picking which occupations/degrees higher education should offer.

One can make a strong case that the economy needs those with liberal arts skills more now than ever. And an even stronger case for job seekers trying to prepare for a 40-year career in an economy where jobs and occupations are increasingly unstable because of globalization and technology.

In fact, STEM skills may be among the easiest to outsource or automate. So even those who are doing well today in STEM-related occupations are almost certainly going to need liberal arts skills to be able to adapt to a constantly changing labor market.

As difficult as it is to accept, all of us need to adapt to a world where the job you have, the enterprise you work for, and even your occupation are less secure today than yesterday and will be even less secure tomorrow.

The notion of a career ladder – predictable and linear steps upwards – is no longer apt.

Rather, people will build successful careers by being more like rock climbers, not ladder climbers. They will need a breadth of skills to be able to adjust to the rapidly changing world of new opportunities and challenges. And the only way to get more rock climbers is to provide every student with a strong, diversified educational foundation.

If a four-year degree works for the elite in this country, why should we encourage the rest of us to do something different?

Lou Glazer is president and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. 

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