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I recently read post over at GOOD about a rather radical suggestion out of the UK: collect post-graduation employment rates, publish the statistics by subject and school as a sort of shaming mechanism, and do away with the programs at the low end of the spectrum. What's radical is the second claim, the idea that degrees should be taken apart purely because their students can't find jobs.

I'm actually in favor of the more information point. A university education is a huge investment, in your time and your parents' (or your own!) tuition dollars. I've also always thought that the four-year college is over-emphasized as the universal approach. Some personalities just aren't suited to it. For some economic situations, the short-term cost is just too high. Ditto for some career goals. And as a friend of mine who dropped out after his first year of a private school will testify, figuring out that college wasn't for him was a rather costly lesson learned. So if data will help you learn that lesson before plunking down the tuition and committing to a multi-year process, I'm all for it.

The last point I disagree with pretty strongly. It actually reminds me of an old Dilbert comic, where Dilbert is arguing against an idiotic management policy to fire anyone who received evaluations in the bottom quarter. Problem is, after you fire them, the employees that were previously 25%-45% become the lowest quarter, ad nauseam. So if English is always at the bottom of the heap and you terminate English, that just means previously next-to-bottom become the next bottom.

The bigger problem is more basic, though: it assumes that everyone has to be using the degree to start a career. That may be true of the straight-out-of-high-school young adult, but in America - especially in the Southeast - you also saw people going back to school or going for the first time, one class a semester because they were truly interested in the subject. They already had their careers, and for them employability was less of an issue. Even with the eighteen-year-old, maybe he has a real passion for literature and so he's going to take this opportunity to develop that passion alongside a more marketable skill. So maybe the English degree is intended for some reason other than future career, without her neglecting that need. Nothing wrong with that, in my book. My libertarian side (because yes, I do have one!) is insisting in no uncertain terms that it should be the students', or at least the parents' decision what program to cut. Give them the information, let them make the best choices for them, and if a program doesn't attract enough students, then look at eliminating it.

What really fascinated me, though, was a fairly minor point. I said I'd be all for collecting and sharing data on employability, but really, it needs to be useful data. And I'm just not sure that this is. I can't speak for the UK situation, but in the GOOD article they proposed asking people if they had a full-time job at graduation and at six and twelve months out, and recording that along with their program. But think of all the problems with that. First, it completely fails to distinguish between full-time and a good job, let alone one tied to the degree program. Working forty hours is a full-time job even if it's as a Walmart cashier.

There's also the problem of double-majors and programs-within-a-major. My B.S. is in math, and our program had four tracks within it: pure math, statistics, secondary education (i.e. to teach high school math), and computer science. As you can well imagine, the first of those tracks was much less employable than the last three. But the fact that the three would have almost certainly been considered together means that a degree in theoretical math, though not really more useful than a degree in theoretical philosophy, would look better at a glance. Add to that the complication that a philosophy major who also had a business degree would be more employable than a philosophy major by itself (and ditto for an English major) - because philosophy majors when paired with other disciplines do show an ability for precise and rigorous thoughts - and the statistics become even more meaningless.

I tend to think the better way to handle this is to collect data on jobs advertised that require a [whatever] degree, and somehow compare that to the number of graduates. If a tenth of the job postings that specify a major, specify a humanities degree, but a quarter of the people graduating have such a degree, that is a useful fact to know going into the program. But the way this suggestion was set up? Not so much.

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fallingtowers
Jul. 6th, 2011 08:22 am (UTC)
Irregardless of the practical issues that such an approach raises (i.e. different programme tracks vs. the entire programme in subjects like maths), I think the basic problem is even bigger than what you mention. It is not only about an individual student's motives for choosing a degree / major / minor / number of courses in a field with lower career chances, but also about what we deem worthy and useful in our society in general. If we went ahead as the original plan suggests, I doubt that there would be many departments of, say, classical archeology or art history or philosophy left at the end of the day. It would cut a swathe through the humanities -- subject that often encourage traditional scholarship, creativity, curiosity, aesthetics, critical thinking skills or reflections upon society. I despair of a world where someone with a degree in marketing is considered worth more than a person devoted to Victorian poetry. I honestly do.
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