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Philanthropic support of higher education has not only rebounded to pre-recession levels but has, in fact, reached record levels of $31 billion in 2013.

These record levels of spending are being achieved even at a time when many have concerns about the direction colleges and universities are taking—concerns such as those raised this week by Casey Ark, a 2013 grad of a prestigious public university. In the Washington Post, Ark complained that he couldn’t land a job, even though he graduated at the top of his class in with a technology-focused degree:

My college education left me totally unprepared to enter the real workforce. My degree was supposed to make me qualified as a programmer, but by the time I left school, all of the software and programming languages I’d learned had been obsolete for years.

To find real work, I had to teach myself new technologies and skills outside of class, and it wasn’t easy.

Clearly something when wrong with Ark’s education. But what was it? Ark’s diagnosis is that his university had hired the wrong professoriate, and the situation could be turned around by hiring business people as professors:

There are plenty of requirements for the average professorship, but job experience generally isn’t high up on the list – in fact, a 2006 study of college professors in STEM fields showed that a whopping 59.8 percent hadn’t had any job experience in their industry. . . .

To me, this is the root of our college problem: The average college student is paying $30,000 a year for the chance to learn valuable skills from professors who haven’t had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves. Maybe it’s a crazy idea, but if you’re going to spend all that money for a college education, shouldn’t you expect to learn real-world skills from people who know what they’re doing?

Solving the issue of inexperienced teachers may be even simpler: have schools relax academic requirements for professors and focus far more on hiring effective businesspeople. . . .

Note that Ark’s hypothesis about what went wrong with his education assumes that a college education is essentially vocational education to prepare one for the workforce.

A college education, or at least a liberal arts education, should indeed prepare one for employment—but only indirectly. Traditionally, college immersed students in a broad liberal arts milieu, with the effect of broadening their thinking and improving their critical skills, but didn’t prepare students for a particular line of work. Faculty offering that traditional liberal arts education didn’t require job experience in industry but theoretical training. (Of course, today colleges are dependent on tuitions from students who are pursing what are basically vocational programs such as business, communications, marketing, and the like—but, as Ark discovered, they’re still hiring theoreticians rather than practitioners).

Given that Ark was most interested in establishing himself in the workforce, he might best have been served by an apprenticeship rather than by college, or looking for an apprenticeship after earning a traditional liberal arts degree.

It used to be that apprenticeships weren’t just for plumbing and other trades, but that many professions could be entered with an apprenticeship after high school or after earning a degree. For example, in the early days of the American republic, lawyers—including Thomas Jefferson—entered their profession through an apprenticeship after studying fields such as Greek, Latin, history, and rhetoric. In Great Britain through the nineteenth century, one could enter medical practice through an apprenticeship rather than through an education at Oxford, Cambridge, or one of the other leading universities (although an apprenticeship would allow one to be called only a “surgeon” rather than a “physician”).

Now, a true obstacle to pursuing an apprenticeship as a path to white-collar work is that many employers still insist on a college degree.

Philanthropists could go a long way to encouraging employers not to insist on a degree by backing apprenticeships as an alternative way to become credentialed for work. Thiel Fellowships for those who want to skip college and Venture for America Fellowships for entrepreneurial graduates are just two apprenticeship models for teaching young people outside of a college setting how to succeed in the business world.

As lavishly as the Thiel Fellowships and Venture for America Fellowships are funded, they are a tiny fraction of the philanthropic funding spent on education. Imagine what would happen if even 10 percent of the $31 billion directed to traditional higher education institutions were redirected to creating new high-quality apprenticeships in fields such as technology, journalism, teaching, and business. Sounds like there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurial philanthropists to start up more fellowships and apprenticeships—and open new paths to careers that don’t take four years of college.


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