Universities Are Vocational Schools

Why do students go to college? A new poll has a one-word
answer: money. That’s one of the findings in a broad Gallup survey of college admissions officers done for Inside
Higher Ed
. The admissions officers seem to believe that those planning to
attend college view it largely as a signaling device that directs the best and
brightest young Americans to the best and highest-paying jobs. It is not
primarily about acquiring knowledge (“human capital”), critical learning or
leadership skills, or better perceiving the difference between right and wrong,
but more about achieving the American Dream of a comfortable, moderately
affluent life.

To cite one statistic, 99 percent of admission directors
at public four-year colleges agreed or strongly agreed that “parents of
applicants place high importance on the ability of degree programs to help
students get a good job.” With regards to the prospective students themselves,
“only” 87 percent of the counselors agree that getting a good job is
important/very important.  Most of the
counselors also agree, at all forms of higher education institutions, that
their schools are putting more emphasis on job placement.

Jobs: Nurse, Cashier

All of this relates to the new labor-market reality that
Mitt Romney actually referenced in the first presidential debate: half (more or
less) of recent college graduates have had a decidedly unfavorable
post-graduate employment experience. This problem is not going away any time
soon: 30 percent of adults already have college degrees, and the proportion is
rising. Yet relatively high paying technical, managerial and professional jobs
account for a smaller proportion of the labor force -and that proportion is not
growing rapidly. Yes, the number of experts in nanotechnologies is growing
percentage wise a lot -but numerically, the number of nurse’s aides and
cashiers is growing faster. Big-box discount stores, beauty parlors, and bars
collectively employ more persons than sophisticated firms in the STEM
disciplines or high finance. So one of my favorite and talented recent
graduates is now working at Lowe’s, not the public-policy think tank he is
eminently suited for. 

There is a hint in all of this that colleges must strive
to be more “vocational,” to stress practical majors which provide skill sets
needed in the real world. Labor market data suggests there may be a grain of
truth to this, but a look at an interesting new study by Philip Coelho and Tung
Liu of Ball State University shows that actually many traditional liberal arts
majors do just fine in the labor market. Look at the table below (which I
greatly abridged) where Coelho and Liu use PayScale.com data to report
mid-career earnings by academic major.

High Paying: $90,000 or more per








$  94,200






Medium Paying: $65,000 to $80,000
per year








$  77,600






Low Paying: Less than $55,000 per


and Tourism Management






Source: Philip Coelho, Tung Liu “The
Returns to College Education,” PayScale.com


$  54,100




















While STEM disciplines like engineering, math and physics
dominate the very highest-paying majors (many averaging over $100,000 a year by
mid-career), graduates in history average almost as much as those in business
management ($70,000 vs. $72,100), and philosophers ($76,700) actually make
more. English majors slightly out-earn those majoring in hotel business
management. Art history majors actually average more than those majoring in
human resources. It appears to be a vastly overblown notion that a well rounded
individual majoring in a non-vocationally oriented field in the arts or
humanities is destined to do poorer than the business and communication
specialists. The per capita student endowments of Williams and Amherst are among the highest in the nation, in spite of the fact their generally affluent graduates are
mostly majoring in fields with little direct labor-market relevance.

However, I think colleges are threatening to lose their
very critical advantage that comes from employers putting a value on a piece of
paper (bachelor’s diploma) sometimes worth a million dollars or more. As
administrative staffs have proliferated in recent years, the placement offices
of schools have only modestly shared in the largess. Schools have been far more
likely to add sustainability coordinators and diversity specialists than job
placement people.

                                                                          Too Little, Too Late

Yet being a highly
expensive screening device, colleges need to maintain their economic advantage
by seeing that their graduates get matched with employers. The for-profit
schools do this well, but the traditional university all too often has viewed
dealing with the corporate world as being vaguely demeaning and dirty.
Belatedly, many schools are promoting internship programs, but in some cases it
is too little, too late.

No amount of placement or
internship hype, however, can solve the basic mathematics problem – one-third is
a larger number than one-fifth.  Roughly
a third of adults have four-year degrees, but only one-fifth of jobs are in the
relatively high-paying fields. That is why we have a small army (115,000) of
janitors with bachelor degrees. Rather than adding two million more enrollees
at community colleges (as President Obama advocated in the first presidential
debate), maybe we should have two million fewer
Pell Grants or student loans in order to help, in the long run, to restore
balance between supply and demand for college graduates in high- paying


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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2 thoughts on “Universities Are Vocational Schools

  1. “The for-profit schools do this well”?!</i?
    The author loses all credibility here. Those of us in industry typically view the for-profit schools as diploma mills designed to originate student debt, rather than as real institutions of education.

  2. Undergrads majoring in history, English or philosophy often go directly to law school, thus distorting their earnings. Also, med schools are now specifically recruiting kids with undergrad humanities majors; I know one history major currently in med school and a music performance major and an art major who will start next year – all part of specific humanities-recruitment programs at their specific med schools.

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