The Science of Things

Miller-McCune offers a clear-headed analysis of scientific achievement in America through the lens of labor.  Being that my day job is in employment law, I’m always game for some labor analytics, and they make a compelling case that the real issue facing America is not a shortage of scientists, but rather systemic, structural problems that lead to underemployment of highly qualified scientists.

Their criticism is aimed squarely at higher education, and the complaints against the system are hardly unique to the sciences: the humanities, the social sciences, and even professional post-graduate arenas like law have all been accused recently of churning out more graduates than their fields can support.  It’s one thing to have too many people with liberal arts degrees coming out of college, but toss an additional five to seven years of highly specialized training into the mix and it suddenly becomes much more difficult to convince people that what they’ve devoted a decade of their lives to studying is, practically speaking, worthless.

Why does it persist?  Because it works for the universities.  In graduate programs, they get cheap labor, which is especially relevant in the grant-revenue-generating sciences.  In professional fields like law, the incentives are even more distorted: while someone earning a PhD in physics might be severely underpaid for her labor over those years, someone earning a law degree is going into considerable debt for the privilege of attaching themselves to the name of that school, and if there aren’t available jobs at the end of it then that person is out more than $100k — $100k which went right into the university coffers.  Graduate and professional programs are, in short, a great deal for schools, but too often they fail to deliver on what they promise their students.  There simply isn’t enough demand for professors or lawyers to offer full employment to all graduates (medicine seems to be a notable exception, at least for now).

A couple months ago Frontline did an excellent program about for-profit colleges, which offers a story about similar incentives, although at a different level.  Advocates for these schools claim they are performing a valuable service: they are educating a segment of the population that would otherwise be unable to attend college.  Critics, however, point out that all too often, these programs leave their students mired in debt and without the great job that seemed promised.

For-profit colleges, graduate programs, and law schools are all operating on different segments of the population, but their effect is underlined by the same belief: that education is an unmitigated good, and that greater education can only have one possible outcome — greater employment prospects.  Given the ever-shrinking opportunities within the academy for people with terminal degrees (the University of California system, for example, is not even hiring replacement faculty for some professors who are retiring, due to budget cuts), as well as contractions within the private sector, perhaps it’s time to re-examine both of those assumptions.  While learning might be an unmitigated good, it is naive to assume that the system of formal education exists purely for the benefit of the student.  Similarly, degree attainment may not be the same ticket to immediate, secure employment that it once was.  Opportunities in higher education are more accessible now than they have ever been previously in history — doors are open not just to the elite, but to the masses, and what this says about our society is undeniably a Very Good Thing, at least if one believes in the idea of a meritocracy.  However, that doesn’t necessarily imply that all who qualify would be best suited by pursuing those opportunities, at least until there is some real structural reform.

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