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Hire education: Which came first, the university or the economy?
June 2013
by Peter T. Kissinger  |  Email the author
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It is common these days to debate a higher-education bubble. Tuition, fees and living costs are high, graduates are left underemployed and student loan defaults accelerate. We hear that the expansion over five decades is unsustainable. We claim a "knowledge-based economy" and that the essence of job creation is academic innovation with a formal embrace of entrepreneurship. STEM education in K-12 is likewise promoted with enthusiasm, although without salary incentives for teachers or even minimal supplies to make experiential learning a reality. Others see merit in green cards for all science and engineering Ph.Ds.  
 
On the contrary, some trade publications argue there is a glut of Ph.Ds trapped in a perpetual motion machine of low-wage postdoc and adjunct teaching positions. The disparity of opinions is a reliable sign that there are ambiguities. This is, in part, accounted for by the very broad disparity of what we call higher education.  
 
Once there were the Ivy League, a few prestigious independent universities and a network of private colleges. Many of these institutions originated with religious sects back in the 18th century and thereafter. Most were focused on religion, philosophy, history/classics and law. Greek and Latin were favored. A few of them provided military skills such as surveying. Science and engineering accelerated as a topic for higher education after the Morrill Act of 1862, although such institutions were disparaged well into the 1970s as "cow colleges."
 
Education is not (or was not) training, although the distinction is fuzzy. Private colleges and universities were once the place for a few good men and even fewer good women.  They were where we went to be sequestered from physical work, to learn, to mature, to develop communication skills and leadership confidence. Everyone else got calluses. No mammalian species could afford to take more than a few of its offspring, at the height of their fecundity and physical prowess, and isolate them to study Greek.  
In the 19th century, many didn't live much beyond 50. Had we sequestered significant numbers from the age of 18 to 26 to pursue a doctoral degree in 1850, this would have converted their value proposition into an unsustainable expense. The popular terminal degree into the early 20th century was an eighth-grade diploma and for a very good reason. Families needed pairs of hands and strong backs. Colleges and universities did not drive the economy, but rather were able to expand as the result of industrialization and mechanized agriculture which improved the output of labor.
 
In just over 150 years, the likes of Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs changed the world, but they were far from credentialed scholars. Still today, the innovation economy is driven as much by enthusiastic, stubborn and impatient dropouts as by the credentialed. The imaginative and courageous accomplish more. The credentialed often check boxes in a regulatory role or debate rather than do.          
 
So what's the problem? One problem is recognizing that academia follows the economy and doesn't lead it. Globalization has tightened economies and margins have flattened; yet the cost of meeting expectations (credentials, entitlements) has accelerated. Growth in the numbers of youth impounded from productive work has put higher education at a tipping point in the United States. Campuses now compete based on food quality, recreation facilities, single rooms with private baths, research excellence, athletic facilities with skyboxes and ratings from magazines operating in the same mode as the Oscars.  
 
Where economies are expanding rapidly (Asia), higher education again follows as a priority. If history repeats itself, there will be overexpansion, and costs will accelerate. There seems no quantity discount in higher education. In a different context, but with the same result, are examples where autocrats made universities showcases, to offer political appointments and even to build monuments to themselves. In these examples, Egypt comes to mind—academia was intended to improve the economy. That this idea is wrong-headed left graduates with little to do but riot, and these economies remained in shambles. 
 
A knowledge-based economy cannot thrive with frictions imposed by millennium-old constraints. At the limits where no one has a degree or everyone has a degree, the consequences are clearly dire. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and perhaps that's where we are today in the United States.  
 
There are 160,000 members of the American Chemical Society. Let's presume they represent 50 percent of practicing chemists. The 320,000 then is 1 part per 1,000 of our population, or 0.1 percent for a science that drives energy, pharmaceuticals, diagnostic medicine, environmental science, plastics, adhesives, agriculture, cosmetics, construction materials and climate. This is no doubt great leverage for society.  
 
Where we undershoot workforce requirements is with technical skills, where supply is as short as encouragement and respect. Some call this the "skills gap." These opportunities have been drowned out by the "college as an entitlement" crowd. If you think higher educations is to be focused on avocation, consider that a commercial truck-driving certificate will pay more per year than degrees in art history or elementary education. That's OK. That's fair. There are many of these middle-skill positions that make an economy go, just as the sergeants make an army go.   
 
We are at the end of a season of commencement, or beginning, which reminds me of Churchill's 1942 phrase, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Near the end of these ceremonies, comes the familiar refrain, "I hereby confer upon each of you the XYZ degree, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities thereunto appertaining." It is my hope that graduates will focus on the last of these three, and be responsible for returning to society the huge investment made by them and in them. The tassel on the mortarboard hat is then moved from right to left at graduation as a symbol that graduates have passed through exposure to ideas which apparently lead them to vote against their own self-interests.
 
In conclusion, affordable higher education follows innovating economies, and doesn't create them. Education is a catalyst for exercise of neurons, and that has value far beyond avocation. If we continue to stifle innovation by regulatory frictions and confiscatory taxes, we will not soon recover from the higher-education bubble of rising costs and reduced opportunities. The problem is now recognized. The acceleration of college costs must stop so more can take their economy class seat at community colleges or first-class seat at the most selective and costly few. Just remember, the most productive dropped out and created value for those who stayed. Thank them for making your education possible.  
 
Peter T. Kissinger is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.  

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