What’s Education Worth in a Sputnik Moment?

President Obama said something about trying to duplicate the Sputnik concern and improve education in his State of the Union address. Andrew Hacker, co-author of “Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can do About it.” Picks apart some numbers in the New York Review of New York Review of Books.

 Invest in further education? We may live in a knowledge economy, but much of the knowledge has been outsourced. “Asian engineers now build entire industrial systems…” Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) may be oversupplied. About 4.8 million people hold STEM jobs while nearly 16 million have STEM degrees.

“To say, as ‘Help Wanted’ does, that we are not producing enough college graduates to satisfy future demands seems doubtful at best. Even in prosperous times, not all graduate obtain jobs typically associated with a degree,” he writes. And he quotes Paul Parton of Educational Testing service that  we should not assume “that if someone who has been to college is employed at a job, that job requires someone who has been to college.”  Often employers require a college degree even if it is not needed; it is one way to reduce the pile of resumes.  It is also a way to puff up appearance.

“Hospitals want to be able to say that their nurses have bachelors of science degrees.”

Lucy Kellaway, the irrepressible Financial Times management columnist, passed along a recent newspaper account of an English banker with degrees from Oxford and Harvard and 20 years at JP Morgan who was recently hired and worked at a high level for a month before anyone ran a background check.

He turned out to be a conman who had been in prison and is being treated for depression.

“You simply need to pick the right wardrobe and learn the right language,” she concluded.

 Be Bold Wisconsin wants more four-year degrees, yet it isn’t at all clear this is going to help students or the economy, although it will keep colleges and universities busy. “Help Wanted” suggests the country needs 8.2 new college graduates; Hacker said that would cost about $550 billion, plus living costs. 

 it is a matter of economic disgrace that the US ranks 24th out of 35 OECD countries in math skills. In fact, says Hacker, relatively few jobs require math skills much beyond basic arithmetic, at say, oh about an 8th grade level.

In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests if you want a career with a future, although not necessarily a lucrative one, you should hone your food service skills, practice being pleasant (receptionists, customer service reps) read Kerouac (long-haul truckers) take care of people, but not at an RN level — aides and orderlies and LPNs are in the top 10 growth careers, get into construction or landscaping or become a security guard. 

 And presumably if you want to do well, find a company that looks at your skills, not just your credentials.


About Tom Groenfeldt

I write - mostly about finance and technology, sometimes about art, occasionally about politics and the intersection of politics and economics. My work appears on Forbes.com and and occasionally in The American Banker and Banking Technology in London.
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