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Rhetoric and Reality in Higher-Ed

July 27, 2009

In increasing numbers, Americans no longer believe they need a four-year degree in order to “make it.” According to NBC’s Ali Weinberg, a recent National Journal/Allstate Heartland Monitor poll found that:

“Forty percent of respondents said education and training is the best way to increase their skills in the workplace, although a ‘surprisingly high’ percentage of respondents — 44% — believe young people today do not need a four-year college education to be successful.”

I am actually surprised that the latter percentage is not higher. Perhaps there are fewer bachelors degree-holding baristas and parking lot attendants out there than I have been led to suppose.

When it comes to the marketability of a four-year degree, the rhetoric in higher-ed is often at odds with reality. The usual clichés suggest that a college education imparts critical thinking skills, and the ability to ‘learn how to learn.’ If community colleges and vo-tech churn out narrowly trained automatons, four-year colleges and universities are often supposed to produce broad-minded, well-rounded citizens. However beneficial to graduates, such virtues do not appear to translate particularly well into gainful employment, and it is not difficult to see why. It is often said that college graduates leave their alma mater prepared for anything. The flip side of this – difficult to keep hidden for long – is that such graduates enter the working world prepared for nothing in particular.

Let’s admit it: the rationale for studying the architecture of ancient Rome in order to land a job as an insurance salesman was never very clear in the first place. Which is by no means to suggest that ancient Rome is not worth studying.

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