Although this chapter is titled “Sociology”, it seems to me that Kamenetz is examining the cost/benefit of the individual decision to attend college, rather than group behavior. This is a key question when considering reform. Whatever one may say about the system as a whole, real change won’t happen until individuals make different choices for themselves and their children. Kamenetz quotes Dr. Anthony Carnevale, “…we asked people: Do you think everybody needs to go to college? Seventy to eighty percent said no. But what we…asked a few years later, was, Should your kid go to college? Eighty five percent said yes.” (37)
D’Arcy Norman questioned the long held belief that education will improve the overall quality of life for society, pointing out that perpetual improvement in aggregate standards of living is impossible. He’s likely right, but people will continue to go to college (and send their children there) and accumulate debt, as long as they think the experience puts them ahead in the contest for good jobs, even if they recognize the problems with the big picture of higher ed.
I found that the comments about the signaling hypothesis resonated with me. Carnevale again, “In the American system, employers use post-secondary training as a sorting device for hiring.” (37) Beyond the question of setting a BA or MA as a minimum qualification, there’s also the matter of institutional prestige. If one is faced with a stack of sixty, eighty, or a hundred applications for a position, it is very likely that the screener will use not just degree attainment, but where the degree comes from to decide which 20 application packets they will take the time to read carefully. All other things being equal enough so as to be virtually indistinguishable, let’s interview the Harvard graduate.
Should it be this way? Probably not. Are employers likely to expand their HR staffs enough so as to make the what-degree- from-where shortcut unnecessary? Probably not.
There are a couple of statements Kamenetz makes with which I take real issue. She writes, “Trying to educate the majority of citizens now for the ‘jobs of the future’ may or may not be feasible.” (32) Balderdash.
This is exactly what the liberal arts (all those majors, like foreign languages and music, that don’t pay well) are for. I was a liberal arts major. I am now doing a job (instructional technology and elearning) that didn’t really exist when I finished my undergraduate degree and was just starting to exist when I finished my graduate degrees.
There’s a wonderful moment in Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem . The novel imagines a world where scientists, mathematicians, and other rationalist types (as opposed to the religious) end up in cloistered communities. An existential crisis ensues which finds several of these previously cloistered folk in the thick of dealing with it. When one of them asks, why am I here, rather than the military or the government? , he is told it is because he is educable. His experience has made him into the kind of person who can learn quickly, adapt, and figure stuff out. Those sorts of people will be well prepared for the ‘jobs of the future’, even though we, and they, don’t know what those jobs are yet.
Kamenetz makes one more nod to the idealistic view of higher education on page 35.”…, higher education still retains some irreducible value, a pearl inside the oyster. It may be difficult to define, but its power over individuals and populations is too real to be ignored.” If that value is as important as Kamenetz says it is, isn’t it worth the time to try to define it and make it part of the discussion of how higher ed ought to change and not change? But Kamenetz doesn’t seem willing to take on that challenge and is instead satisfied to talk about higher ed and reform almost solely in terms of quantitative measures.