Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Explaining the Diminishing Returns to Non-STEM Higher Education"

STEM = Science, Technology, Education, Math
From The Volokh Conspiracy:
As Generation Jobless tries to figure out where its job possibilities went, we might consider possible relationships between higher education and return on investment.  I want to limit these possibilities to graduates of four year institutions in non-STEM subjects, rather than the important but separate issue of college non-completion rates.  Consider the following, noting that they are not incompatible with each other as explanations of the relationship between liberal arts college degrees and return on educational investment.
  • Demand for liberal arts graduates has dried up, because of structural changes in the broader economy that have reduced the need for these job categories.  The structural reasons range from greater automation of production in lower-professional white collar positions; secular shifts downward in the economy overall and a lower long-term growth rate.  The overall point is shifting demand in the overall labor market.
  • Labor markets seek liberal arts graduates with skills in the traditional subject matters of analytic skills in verbal and basic quantitative areas, but higher education fails to teach those skills.  The problem in this case is not demand as such — assuming away the short and medium term scarcity of jobs — but instead that the workers supplied lack the necessary skills.  The problem lies with what the university teaches or, more exactly, fails to teach.  Within non-STEM areas, colleges are not teaching generalist analytic skills.  The traditional promise of the quality humanities or liberal arts major — not a technical skill set, but generalist analytic skills in reading, writing, basic maths, and strong communications skills — has somehow eroded and colleges fail to convey those skills.
  • Colleges continue to supply liberal arts graduates with the traditional skill set, and labor markets continue to seek them — but the cost of college has simply gone far above the wages that these skills and the associated jobs can bear.  It’s not the skills and it’s not the jobs, it’s the cost of education — priced as though everyone would become a Wall Street banker or lawyer.
  • Specialization in the university has reached the point where colleges cannot produce the true generalists needed in the economy — traditional liberal arts skills in analytic reading, writing, and communication, but combined with generalist technical knowledge in areas of the modern economy — STEM plus economics.  STEM departments are not interested in educating generalists, and traditional liberal arts departments assumes that the purpose is to go on to graduate or professional school, hence the exclusive focus on GPA, and grade inflation to try and maintain enrollments.
  • Society is trying to put people through the higher education, four year college system, who intellectually have no business being there.  Their future lies in blue collar work, not white collar work.  This is a popular meme at this moment, but it has two distinct flavors.  One is that there is significant population that, just because of its bell curve placement, will never successfully become “knowledge workers.”  This would be so in good times or in bad, but is masked during good times.  This is to say that it would always be inefficient and suboptimal to educate this group to white collar knowledge worker jobs for which they are ill-suited....MORE