Hire education: Which came first, the university or the economy?

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.

Peter Kissinger
It is common these days to debate a higher-education bubble.Tuition, fees and living costs are high, graduates are left underemployed andstudent loan defaults accelerate. We hear that the expansion over five decadesis unsustainable. We claim a "knowledge-based economy" and that the essence ofjob creation is academic innovation with a formal embrace of entrepreneurship.STEM education in K-12 is likewise promoted with enthusiasm, although withoutsalary incentives for teachers or even minimal supplies to make experientiallearning a reality. Others see merit in green cards for all science andengineering Ph.Ds. 
 
On the contrary, some trade publications argue there is aglut of Ph.Ds trapped in a perpetual motion machine of low-wage postdoc andadjunct teaching positions. The disparity of opinions is a reliable sign thatthere are ambiguities. This is, in part, accounted for by the very broaddisparity of what we call higher education.
 
 
Once there were the Ivy League, a few prestigiousindependent universities and a network of private colleges. Many of theseinstitutions originated with religious sects back in the 18thcentury and thereafter. Most were focused on religion, philosophy,history/classics and law. Greek and Latin were favored. A few of them providedmilitary skills such as surveying. Science and engineering accelerated as atopic for higher education after the Morrill Act of 1862, although suchinstitutions were disparaged well into the 1970s as "cow colleges."
 
Education is not (or was not) training, although thedistinction is fuzzy. Private colleges and universities were once the place fora 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. Everyoneelse got calluses. No mammalian species could afford to take more than a few ofits offspring, at the height of their fecundity and physical prowess, andisolate them to study Greek.
 
In the 19th century, many didn't live much beyond50. Had we sequestered significant numbers from the age of 18 to 26 to pursue adoctoral degree in 1850, this would have converted their value proposition intoan unsustainable expense. The popular terminal degree into the early 20thcentury was an eighth-grade diploma and for a very good reason. Families neededpairs of hands and strong backs. Colleges and universities did not drive theeconomy, but rather were able to expand as the result of industrialization andmechanized agriculture which improved the output of labor.
 
In just over 150 years, the likes of Michael Faraday, ThomasEdison, George Westinghouse, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Bill Gates,Richard Branson and Steve Jobs changed the world, but they were far fromcredentialed scholars. Still today, the innovation economy is driven as much byenthusiastic, stubborn and impatient dropouts as by the credentialed. Theimaginative and courageous accomplish more. The credentialed often check boxesin a regulatory role or debate rather than do.         
 
So what's the problem? One problem is recognizing thatacademia follows the economy and doesn't lead it. Globalization has tightenedeconomies and margins have flattened; yet the cost of meeting expectations(credentials, entitlements) has accelerated. Growth in the numbers of youthimpounded from productive work has put higher education at a tipping point inthe United States. Campuses now compete based on food quality, recreationfacilities, single rooms with private baths, research excellence, athleticfacilities with skyboxes and ratings from magazines operating in the same modeas the Oscars.
 
 
Where economies are expanding rapidly (Asia), highereducation again follows as a priority. If history repeats itself, there will beoverexpansion, and costs will accelerate. There seems no quantity discount inhigher education. In a different context, but with the same result, areexamples where autocrats made universities showcases, to offer politicalappointments and even to build monuments to themselves. In these examples, Egyptcomes to mind—academia was intended to improve the economy. That this idea iswrong-headed left graduates with little to do but riot, and these economiesremained in shambles. 
 
A knowledge-based economy cannot thrive with frictionsimposed by millennium-old constraints. At the limits where no one has a degreeor everyone has a degree, the consequences are clearly dire. Too much of a goodthing is a bad thing, and perhaps that's where we are today in the UnitedStates.
 
 
There are 160,000 members of the American Chemical Society.Let's presume they represent 50 percent of practicing chemists. The 320,000then is 1 part per 1,000 of our population, or 0.1 percent for a science thatdrives energy, pharmaceuticals, diagnostic medicine, environmental science,plastics, adhesives, agriculture, cosmetics, construction materials andclimate. This is no doubt great leverage for society.
 
 
Where we undershoot workforce requirements is with technicalskills, where supply is as short as encouragement and respect. Some call thisthe "skills gap." These opportunities have been drowned out by the "college asan entitlement" crowd. If you think higher educations is to be focused onavocation, consider that a commercial truck-driving certificate will pay moreper year than degrees in art history or elementary education. That's OK. That's fair. There are many ofthese middle-skill positions that make an economy go, just as the sergeantsmake 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 isnot even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of thebeginning." Near the end of these ceremonies, comes the familiar refrain, "Ihereby confer upon each of you the XYZ degree, with all the rights, privilegesand responsibilities thereunto appertaining." It is my hope that graduates willfocus on the last of these three, and be responsible for returning to societythe huge investment made by them and in them. The tassel on the mortarboard hatis then moved from right to left at graduation as a symbol that graduates havepassed through exposure to ideas which apparently lead them to vote againsttheir own self-interests.
 
In conclusion, affordable higher education follows innovatingeconomies, and doesn't create them. Education is a catalyst for exercise ofneurons, and that has value far beyond avocation. If we continue to stifleinnovation by regulatory frictions and confiscatory taxes, we will not soonrecover from the higher-education bubble of rising costs and reducedopportunities. The problem is now recognized. The acceleration of college costsmust stop so more can take their economy class seat at community colleges orfirst-class seat at the most selective and costly few. Just remember, the mostproductive dropped out and created value for those who stayed. Thank them formaking your education possible.
 
 
Peter T. Kissinger isprofessor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and adirector of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.
 

Peter Kissinger

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