At last night's Beer and Business (03-10-16), we began a great discussion lead by Diane Diane Schwenke from the GJ Chamber of Commerce. The conversation was civil and respectful, but things got a little heated as we discussed the question, What may be your largest challenge in getting to that vision for your company?
There are a number of comments about how CMU may be an asset for raising up a new generation of programmers and engineers for local tech jobs. I raised my hands as the discussion became lively and attempted to explain a phenomenon in modern higher education that prevents most universities from being the training grounds they should be. My comments were not intended to be anti-CMU or against the faculty or students. I thought this forum may be a better place to explain how I see the problem.
The general proposal from the meeting was that CMU (or any local institution of higher education) should be more collaborative with businesses in preparing students for the developing job demands so that local businesses will have a more accessible pool of talent. That seems fair, but I would like to explain the challenges for implementing this model in most liberal arts undergraduate schools. It has nothing to do with the competence of the professors or the lack of concern from administrators. It's the model itself that is broken.
Universities are in the middle of an identity crisis. As the number of students attending on borrowed money increases, parents and employers expect programs to produce well-trained graduates. However, the internal drive from the institution has very little to do with job training. Modern higher education accreditations are the equivalent of No Child Left Behind in the K-12 system. The purpose is not about preparing students for the real world, the purpose is to keep the institution itself relevant. Therefore, the assessment systems that are in place measure progress by students who reach graduation, go on to graduate school, and contribute to academia. Professional accomplishment is only significant if the alumnus can make enough money to give back to the institution and/or the alumnus becomes high profile enough that it is beneficial for the school to attach their brand to the former student. When it comes to selecting an undergraduate school, most students are more concerned with the fitness and dining facilities than with the job placement statistics.
If a student majors in sociology, English, art, history, or women's studies, this phenomenon doesn't have much impact on society because academia is the pinnacle of existence in these types of liberal arts degrees. However, when the degree is based on skills and contains material with a market demand, this model starts to fall apart. Not for Stanford or Carnegie Mellon, but for undergraduate institutions like CMU.
It's difficult to assess the average pay scale for tech jobs in the Grand Valley, but I would assume that the average annual income is around $85,000 for a good programmer or engineer with a B.A. or even no degree at all. $120,000 would not be a surprising wage, but neither would $65,000 for someone early in his/her career. Universities like CMU rarely pay professors more than $50,000 and if the professor wants tenure he/she is required to have a terminal degree. That means that a student with $120,000-$300,000 (sometimes even more) in student loans must be willing to accept a job as a professor for $50,000-$70,000 in an industry that could easily pay double that if the degree is accompanied with even moderate professional experience.
In other words, the new professors coming into higher education are not seasoned professionals or proven wizards of their field, they are often students who kept deferring their student loans by progressing through graduate school and, when they finally reached the PhD, could only find one industry willing to pay someone with no experience a high enough wage to make the minimum loan payments on a $300,000 loan. Higher education.
Here's the result, professionals are not only avoiding teaching gigs, but schools are not even considering professionals to fill jobs where they could have the most impact because candidate doesn't have the required PhD or similar terminal degree. Adjuncts have the greatest positive impact on preparing students for the professional world, but at $600/month, most professionals won't waste their time because they have no desire to be treated as second-class faculty members because their qualifications are based on relevant experience rather than academic "accomplishment."
How does this address the issues from the meeting?
If industry is looking for a bona fide labor foce, they are probably going to have to start their own training programs. Galvanize and similar programs have realized this, but they almost lean too much in the opposite direction by emphasizing skill development.
The solution is unclear, but it is going to require a system that places creativity and experience on an equal plane to academic esteem. Those who run the system will have to promote the concept that learning through a series of risks and failures is a better process than learning to avoid failure through safe decision making and the soul-killing process of bureaucratic oversight.
I always tell my students that education and schooling are not synonyms, but they are not mutually exclusive. I am pro education and that is why I teach. But, it is very safe to say that my approach to teaching is vastly different than the navel-gazing methodologies that are predominiant in the current standards used to measure academic success.