Civilization, Whither Art Thou

Commentary on Society and Civilization

Manifest and Latent Functions of Higher Education Today

Throughout history education was seen as a gateway to a career and entrance into society.  Education, however, was not and still is not considered the same as an apprenticeship or on-the-job training.  Higher education became at some point synonymous with education.  In fact, in high schools and even elementary schools, when the word education is bantered about it is in reference to going to college.  Very few individuals discuss education in the same breath as discussing vocation.  But even vocation is changing today.

In the early 1900s, in the classified section of the newspaper, a man could find opportunities in barber shops, advertising, sales, or countless other fields if all he had was a high school diploma (often this wasn't even a prerequisite).  Today, to be a barber or work in sales or advertising requires certifications or a degree.  The good jobs in sales require bachelor's degrees (BA); and jobs in sales that do not require a BA are limited with no hope of advancement.  But why?  What changed in the past 100 years that requires a minimum of 4 additional years of education?  

It could be argued that changes in technology have been drastic; but what classes really focus on those changes?  For a BA a student need not take any computer science courses; they need not take a database course; they need not take a course in really anything computer related.  In fact, the BA student really only needs to know how to use a word processor (something he probably learned in high school) and the internet (something probably learned at a very early age for millennials).  So why have students take so much coursework that has nothing to do with the job?

A classic argument is that an education teaches individuals to think.  The history class gives students perspective on human life across time; English teaches students to analyze; and all the courses are supposed to teach students to think critically.  Students leave with multiple paradigms with which to attack problems in the world and at their jobs.  But this manifest function of higher education does not fit with reality in the workplace.

Employers do not want smart savvy employees.  They want employees who will do what they are told.  Only a small fraction of the workforce needs to have multiple paradigms to attack complex problems with.  Why would a sales representative need to utilize critical literary theory or calculus while selling life insurance?  The math and language of the contract were predetermined by the few who run the company.  The sales representatives merely have to understand how to sell the product -- not how to design it.  So again, why require this extra education?

Sociology textbooks, the occasional blogger, and people trying to impress their dates talk about the latent function of higher education as a mating ground for individuals of the same social standing.  For example, it is exceptionally unlikely that you will find a rich young man or woman attending a community college.  They will likely be at an Ivy League or at the very least a well known state school with a great sports program -- or perhaps at a top liberal arts college.  Sifting through the higher education campuses we find that each school has a unique culture.  You will not find the same category of student at Yale as you will at the University of Miami (just to make one comparison).  But this is just a cute observation that ultimately leads us away from the darker latent functions of higher education -- such as student loans.

Anyone who reads or watches the news from time to time will have seen something about rising cost of tuition.  A devastating inadvertent function of higher education is that all but the rich end up in debt.  Debt that will likely take them decades to pay-off.  Consider the following: someone goes to college and gets a BA.  They have $30,000 of student loans (pretty typical).  They then try to find a job so they can start paying off the student loans.  But there really aren't any good jobs available.  So they take what they can get.  They can't leave the job, since they are in-debt; but staying at the job is a dead end.  It is a catch-22.  

This student loan debt idea is old hat; and lots of conservatives and head-in-the-sand-Republicans like to act like its not a big deal.  But here's the kicker that no one can argue, not even some dipshit from Forbes.  More and more jobs are requiring specialized degrees or certificates.  Consider this: to get a job as a medical laboratory technician you need to take an exam to receive a certificate saying you are a certified MLT.  Fine you say, that sounds reasonable.  We wouldn't want just anybody running medical labs.  But what if a PhD or even an M.S. with a strong science background wanted to take the test?  Turns out they can't.  The only way to become an MLT today is to enroll in a 2 year accredited program.  

Now, there are 1-year accelerated programs to an MLT associates degree; but you have to have all their prerequisites completed.  It is very rare that a PhD in the biological sciences would have every prereq.  For instance, most programs require medical terminology.  This course is never taken by BS, MS, or PhD level candidates.  The course would be a joke for a PhD, but regardless, they would need to take it to eventually work as an MLT.  At this point you may wonder, why in the world would a PhD want to work as an MLT?  Well, the truth is that there are roughly 20 PhD level candidates for every 1 PhD level job today.  This means that 95% of PhDs in the biological sciences must work at something else.

Many jobs require some clinical experience to get a foot in the door.  MLT would seem to many to be a good place to start, since every PhD I know has worked in a lab, published research, and knows their way around a laboratory.  But they cannot work.  In fact, it turns out that they can't do much at all.  Society today has come to dictate that if you don't have the specific certificate or degree you can't work in the field.  Society does not care about ability, potential, or intelligence -- only what's on a single piece of paper.  This goes for the medical field, the business world, and much more (the list would be painful).

The end result of this reality is that each person who gets a degree either finds a job or is forced to start over.  So how did it come to this and why is it this way?

I can only speculate as to how it came to be this way (although it would be a very interesting journalistic enterprise), but the why seems very straight forward.  Training employees can be expensive.  If, however, you can have the applicants train themselves you wouldn't have to spend any money on training. This is what has happened -- mostly at the community college level.  When I taught I saw the colleges trying vigorously to create new certificate programs and degree programs for the big corporations in the community. In fact, the colleges have positions dedicated to working with big corporations to come up with certificate or degree programs that would directly lead students to working at their company. They would need virtually no training, because the program would have been designed by the company.  They would brag that if you come to their program that they train you with the same software or instruments that are used at the big companies out there!  And it does make some sense at a very basic level.

For example, why teach nursing students or accounting students on software or instruments that are outdated or no longer used?  That doesn't make sense. But, why aren't the companies paying for this -- at least at some level? The program manifestly appears to be an independent program that helps students prepare for a career in a specific field. However, on a latent level there is a company that designed the program to circumvent training employees. They are passing that cost on to the would be applicants

If you combine this with the issue of student loan debt and wealth inequality, you can start to see how there is a growing frustration in this country with opportunity. Exceptionally educated individuals cannot work in certain fields, because the companies themselves aren't willing to provide training on their specific protocols. It is important for the country to start to examine what the function of higher education is (post-secondary). Are we educating individuals or are we providing on-the-job training for companies on the tax payers dime? Is education providing opportunity or providing a ball-and-chain in the form of student loan debt in an effort to create subservience to corporate America? You decide.

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