Thursday, December 23, 2004

(Some kind of) College for everyone, (eventually) 

Let me give a view from a different kind of institution than those of the two principals of this debate, David Adesnik and Matthew Yglesias. First a little economics: We know that if we add more of one input like higher education to an economy it will be subject to diminishing returns. That's more likely true in an industrialized country like the U.S. Increasing the share of GDP we spend on economics by 1%, by best guesses, would increase output by less than 0.3%. Adding more education is likely to reduce that return, just as was found by Alwyn Young for the Asian tiger economies ten years ago. I wrote last year that the returns to education in the U.S. are also probably falling to those who take the courses.

More thoughts at Cold Spring Shops and Shot in the Dark. In the latter, Mitch talks up vo-techs, which work for many people at first. I had this discussion with someone writing an article for MnSCU on how the system could help with jobs in manufacturing. The problem is that training for a particular job allows you to get ... a particular job. My son is learning to be a chef, and I suppose that's a job that will always be there, but the nature of jobs will change regardless because economies evolve. You would think my job is the same as when I became a professor in the mid-1980s, but I'm doing most of my work now on a laptop with a wireless connection sitting in a coffee shop or in my basement. In general vocational education will help with training for jobs that exist now; they are much less helpful with jobs that will occur. I tried to impress in that interview that there's a need for people to be trained for a flexible set of potential tasks.

If we're to "college-educate everybody" it is going to be at places like mine, and a school that pays lip-service to critical thinking while engaging in indoctrination isn't going to be much more help than technical training. Students still think reactively, waiting to be told how to fix a term paper to get an 'A' (of course they should all have 'A's, it's good for their self-esteem!) rather than exploring the boundary between knowing and ignorance. Mitch argues that we should "Encourage more of our society to seek further development of everything that makes them a person - their minds, their skills, and whatever it is that drives them." But I don't know that we are doing that here or at technical colleges.