in Higher Ed

The Case For Working With Your Hands

I’m surprised there haven’t been more articles questioning the rationale (and expense) of college educations in an era where so many white collar jobs are being sliced and diced.  To that end, Matthew B. Crawford’s piece in today’s New York Times Magazine seems right on time:

This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics’ trade association reports that repair shops have seen their business jump significantly in the current recession: people aren’t buying new cars; they are fixing the ones they have.

The current downturn is likely to pass eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades — plumbing, electrical work, car repair — more attractive as careers.

The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

So what I ask, is how do colleges and universities that are not among the elite make themselves (and their fees) relevant in a world that might continue to revolt around the idea that allowing people who have to yet to start their lives in earnest ought to take out five-figure debt loads under the presumption that it will eventually pay off for them?

My college education was invaluable. In retrospect, I would’ve taken more seriously the idea that graduating without a debt load could really improve your quality of life post-graduation. But save for that? I don’t regret it one bit, given that I have a pretty good idea of what life would’ve been life without it. Are too many kids who don’t need to go school right after school being steered towards college? Possibly.

I think it’s less about “we shouldn’t steer every kid to college,” as much as we need to expose young people to the possibilities that exist from a young age. The world is a big place and there are lots of interesting things you can do. I think a lot of people can get constrained believing there’s a linear path towards the success their parents want for them and that pursuing it is the only way to get anywhere in life and I think a bit of living proves that to be false.

As more people are charged with finding ways to market their institutions, what are you doing to reflect the changing tide that might be hostile to your product? This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up this subject before, because it’s one that I believe that higher education leadership are going to have to be mindful over the next decade, as today’s graduates (and their debt loads) become the parents of the kids we’ll be wooing tomorrow.