November 13, 2017

Getting a Job: Latent and Manifest Functions of Education

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

The purpose of getting a college degree may seem obvious: the median weekly earnings of those with college degrees are nearly double what those with high school diplomas alone earn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For those who hope to earn more money, a degree seems like a good idea. It is also likely to reduce the odds of being unemployed; according to BLS data, college graduates’ unemployment rates were about half of the rate for those with high school diplomas alone.

But what is it about a college degree that yields the higher weekly earnings and the greater likelihood of employment? Is it the content of what students learn, or other factors that are a less overt part of the college experience?

For some careers, the content in a degree is essential. To be a licensed architect, you need the skills that a program in architecture teaches in your daily work. Same goes for many fields within engineering, where content from classes will likely be used on the job.

This is not the case for many degree programs, but it does not mean that other programs serve no purpose. While most majors may not go on to become practitioners in their area of study, there are a number of tools that students develop in college that are valuable in the labor force, regardless of major.

The sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote about the importance of manifest and latent functions of social phenomenon. Manifest functions are the obvious and expected aspects, while latent functions are perhaps less overt and maybe even unintended. Applying this idea to education, we can begin to better understand how it is not just the content of one’s major—the manifest function of a program—that pays off in the labor market.

Some of the latent functions of education might never appear on a university’s marketing brochure, but are very important, perhaps in some cases even more important than manifest functions.

One latent function involves the network of friends and acquaintances that one might develop in college. You meet people who have interests similar to yours and who might later work in fields you desire to work in. The friendships people form in college can be lifelong, aided by college rituals like sporting events or participating in fraternities and sororities. These relationships can yield deep wells of social ties that can go beyond the immediate friends made, but friends of friends who are also part of this same larger group.

Another latent function related to the social aspect of college is learning how to negotiate with and relate to people who may or may not share your views and beliefs. Whether it is figuring out how to live with roommates or people next door, communicating ideas in class discussions, or speaking with professors, students learn how to operate in a professional environment. For some students, this may include meeting people from other countries or other parts of the country where people have very different life experiences.

If you struggle with juggling assignments and managing deadlines, you might feel better to know that building these kinds of skills is another latent function of education. All students taking more than one class at a time must figure out how to balance their limited time resources to maximize their chances for success, important skills for advancement in the job market.

Some of your assignments that seem to be only about learning the course material also have latent functions. Writing papers is about explaining the concepts well, but it’s also about being able to master written communication. You are also mastering different forms of technology in the process, whether it be saving and organizing your files on a computer and knowing how to locate and retrieve information from online sources. Sharing them with others—whether in writing, through a presentation, or informal discussions with professors and peers—are all vitally important skills for better-paying jobs.

Think about other hidden aspects of being a student. What other latent functions of education do you think are useful job skills?

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