College is for jobs

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Before I get into more details of the working track, I want to lay out my core premise when it comes to college education: college is for jobs, and work is better than education. Put another way: mass college education exists to help people become more productive workers, and thus working is better than education for its own sake.

I know us over-educated types often believe that education is intrinsically worthwhile, and that college is to learn how to think or expand your horizons or study the classics or whatever. Maybe you could have made that argument a hundred years ago when higher education was a bunch of white dudes studying gibberish like plasma physics. But not anymore.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the people in college why they are there. Better yet, ask their parents why they want their children in college. Also ask college administrators and department heads why more people should attend college.

I’d bet that almost everyone’s response ultimately connects to getting a job. Whatever the historical reasons higher education exists, in the 21st century it’s about work. I might actually even go a little further and say that after ~10th grade, formal education of any kind is to help people become more productive workers.

I get that there are philosophical, non-job related reasons for primary school education (basic literacy and numeracy, social cohesion, a civic culture, patriotism, etc.). But beyond a certain point, formal education should primarily be about helping people succeed in the labor force.

I suspect many academics, and especially those in the pure sciences and humanities, will protest because many of them believe their jobs are special. They’re not. Knowledge-producing jobs are just another type of job, albeit ones that happen to require lots of formal education.

So whether we’re talking about construction, mechanical engineering, cancer research, or philosophy, we should judge college education on how it prepares people for work. It is a brutally utilitarian calculation.

Again: we would be having a different discussion if higher education were still reserved for the elite. But if we’re asking basically everyone to go to college, and allocating hundreds of billions of public dollars to it, then we have no choice but to be utilitarian. And we should do so for everyone, working in all types of jobs.

Oren Cass’s How the Other Half Learns almost gets there. But since his analysis sets up a dichotomy between vocational and college tracks, it doesn’t rethink education as much as it could have. If the central focus of public policy is a strong labor market for all Americans, and if education is to play a role in that goal, then we need to focus on how both halves learn.

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