July 27, 2020

Is College for Jobs or Expanding the Mind: Why Not Both?

Colby King Author Photo Michelle corbin author photo Albert fu author photo Joseph cohen author photoBy Michelle Corbin, Albert Fu, Colby King, and Joseph Cohen

Michelle Corbin is an Associate Professor of Sociology Worcester State University; Albert Fu is a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Anthropology & Sociology at Kutztown University;  Joseph Cohen is an Associate Professor at Queens College in the City University of New York

Just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the upheaval in our academic work, the four of us engaged in a conversation about thinking of college education as vocational training. The discussion began on Twitter, where Canadian Economist Todd Hirsch argued that college education “should not be about jobs. It should be about expanding the mind, critical thinking and learning how to learn. To think otherwise about our university system is missing the point and purpose.”

Fellow sociologist, Albert Fu, disagreed, first asking “Why can’t it be both?” and argued that the “anti-job” or anti-vocational training view of college is elitist. Seeing an opportunity for an enlightening conversation, sociologist Joseph Cohen invited Albert, along with Colby King, and Michelle Corbin on to an episode of The Annex Sociology Podcast to discuss the issues around this debate.

Of course, many people do associate college education with job opportunities. Something Albert pointed out in his tweets was that, as a second-generation immigrant, family support for college was based on the idea that college is associated with better jobs. Would his family push him into college if there was not that association? Probably not.

This is something that many of our students feel as well. After all, a common refrain in our culture and society today is that a college degree is necessary for a “good job,” even if “good jobs” are often undefined. And a college degree certainly does set a person apart, as only about one third of all adults in the United States have completed a college degree.

Too often, though, discussions about college in the broader media focus on elite schools and particular kinds of students. That’s one reason why we were particularly excited about the panel that we all formed. Each of us teach at public, regional comprehensive universities that serve a high proportion of working-class and first-generation-to-college (WCFG) and racially minoritized students and also work to keep costs comparatively low, even amidst ongoing cuts in state funding, in order to maintain broad access.

Colby argued that the view that college “isn’t for” job training isn’t just elitist, but also unrealistic. He discussed how many of his students are working and taking on substantial student loan debt to pay for college, and most are keenly aware that the risks and burdens of higher education are riskier for WCFG students. While it is common to discuss college in terms of the opportunities it can offer, college also imposes costs, especially for WCFG and racially minoritized students. Sociologist Allison Hurst discussed this in her book The Burden of Academic Success. Among the burdens are things Colby has written about here on the Everyday Sociology Blog before, including “imposterism” and breakaway guilt.

Colby also argued that one way of reconsidering the relationship between college education and jobs is to reexamine how colleges are ranked. Allison Hurst published a paper last year in the Journal of Working-Class Studies in which she proposes a new model for ranking colleges that uses data on the relative degree of privilege that students bring to campus This data would include Pell eligibility and demographic diversity, along with graduating students’ economic returns and would be used to assess, among other things, the degree to which colleges and universities support social class and economic mobility.

Michelle points out that the question of whether college should be for “jobs” or for “critical thinking” is not new. It is as old as the history of public higher education. Both projects inform the entire history of the development and growth of publicly funded state colleges, as Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier argued in their book Austerity Blues.

This is also a question that has informed the long historical struggles for social justice across race, class and gender. Historically, black and brown education has long been restricted to vocational education (see W.E.B. DuBois's chapter from The Souls of Black Folk, "Of the Training of Black Men"). Working class education has long been dominated by workforce training driven economic needs for certain types of labor, as is illustrated in Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp’s edited volume Education and Capitalism. In light of this historical context, demanding more than job training is not elitist, but egalitarian.

As a women’s studies scholar, Michelle points out that the history of women’s studies and other critical identity area studies across race and ethnicity emerged out of social movements and were centered in demands for critical and transformative education. Such communities were tired of being trained only to work (if that) and demanded the liberating aspects of education that had long informed a range of civil rights struggles (see for example, the first Women’s Studies program started at San Diego State University and also the history of the first Ethnic Studies program started in 1968 at San Francisco State University. Both, notably, are public colleges).

Michelle also worries about the tangible and increasing pressures to (re)vocationalize public higher education by eroding the humanities, social sciences, and critical identity studies in the name of austerity policies that deem “jobs” as the only legitimate justification for a program of study, as Henry A. Giroux argues in Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.

This (re)vocationalization is further exacerbated by the increasing economic precarity of the predominantly black, brown and working-class students at public colleges. Their economic circumstances may not allow them the luxury of learning and may necessitate a narrow focus on securing enough economic return on investment to marginally improve their circumstances. While it may be viewed as elitist when elite institutions dismiss the value of professions and vocations, in this context, a rejection of public colleges solely focusing on “jobs” and a defense of “expanding the mind, critical thinking and learning how to learn” at institutions serving black, brown, and working-class students is part of a long legacy of social justice demands that highlight that knowledge is power.

One reason all four of us were so engaged by this question of “what is college for?” is that it gets to the heart of our professional lives as teacher-scholars at regional state colleges. The way each of us responds to that question is connected to why and how we each do our own jobs as sociology professors.

As we discussed in the podcast, as long as our students are taking on student loan debt and dealing with the other burdens of college, we agreed that college must be worthy of their sacrifice. We discussed ways to follow through on the promise of higher education to support students who want to find good jobs as well as be broadly educated. We also all spoke from our dedication to supporting the institutional missions of the regional universities we work at, with their focus on broad access to college and equity among students.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to substantially impact how the relationship between college education and job training is perceived. A recent article in The New York Times by Nicholas Casey discussed how the dramatic shifts in college instruction this spring revealed and exacerbated inequities among students. Through a couple of anecdotes, he explained, “One student sat at a vacation home on the coast of Maine. Another struggled to keep her mother’s Puerto Rican food truck running while meat vanished from Florida grocery shelves.”

The pandemic has revealed how the question of what college is for is starkly dependent on who college is for and what resources are at play in its provision. Whether college is for jobs or for expansive education, the COVID19 pandemic shows how inequality shapes both projects. Going forward, if higher education is to provide either, it must make addressing inequality fundamental part of its response to the crisis and its broader project going forward.

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