*Edit: as I was writing this, a “program review” began at my institution, and my program was cut. So f**k it.*

Nearly every internal shower conversation I’ve had over the past year or so has been an attempt to craft a proper argument clarifying my thoughts on Higher Ed and why or why not one should attend. You see, there’s been a question troubling me as Community College Faculty; why are academic institutions the ones tasked with training the workforce?

You are probably saying right now, “the answer is easy Silly-Pants-McGregor! Schools is where teachers teach people to learn to job!”

But are they? We assumed at some point that job training should happen at Community Colleges. Why is that? Are Community Colleges trade schools? Or are they Liberal Arts Academies? My confusion was made evident when I was told directly by my school’s President regarding our program review that our institution was explicitly not turning into a Trade School while at the same time advertising programs aimed at specific industries. This disconnect is where my question lies.

the evidence points to the fact that education is a pathway out of poverty.

This disconnect bothers me so much because it seems our education system has a singular focus on job preparedness. It’s as if the need to “earn a living’ permeates our entire existence. And as an academic and educator, I really want to figure out my place in this system, clarify my teaching philosophy, and frankly justify my participation in a system where the only goal is to churn out good little workers.

And do not misunderstand my clickbait-ey headline, formal education is one of the most important things to me, and the evidence points to the fact that education is a pathway out of poverty (acknowledging that poverty is exacerbated by the crippling debt required to attend, but that hurdle can be cleared with investment/forgiveness). As noted in the article, the most effective in improving the circumstances of underserved and disadvantaged individuals are Community Colleges like where I teach. But is that pathway created by a broad-based education where students are exposed to a variety of ideas? Or narrower career-oriented training?

So here are the questions I need answered:

  1. Who’s responsible for training workers? Related to that, does formal education have a role in training workers?
  2. Why exactly are employers pushing that responsibility on Colleges and Community Colleges specifically?
Raphael, School of Athens (Detail of Plato and Aristotle), 1509-1511

Raphael, School of Athens (detail of Plato and Aristotle), 1509-1511

To answer this we will delve into the history of Higher Education and its purpose over time, as the context in which a system exists affects that purpose. We will also look at the data, if any, on Community College’s contribution to job placement.

The Liberal Arts model that most, if not all, Higher Education institutions follow goes all the way back (as most things in Western culture) to the Greeks. Put very simply they established the idea that freedom is achieved through knowledge; knowledge gained through deep observation of the world around us (Aristotle), reasoning and rationality, (Plato), and questioning and dialogue (Socrates). And to be learned was virtuous, a moral good, and done for its own sake. Plato famously never profited from his Philosophy. And he could have easily avoided his own execution through expert argument but he didn’t want to be untrue to his own convictions. The major caveat here is access to this education was limited to those who were afforded the choice to join a particular school of thought or could tolerate Socrates’ odor (usually a male upper-class Athenian). Ancient Greece was by no means an egalitarian society.

Then came the Romans: They stole continued and expanded upon this tradition.

The Liberal Arts were really formalized into something we would recognize during the Carolingian Renaissance at the turn of the 9th Century. Charles the Great, AKA Charlemagne, wanted to resurrect the Roman Empire but under his rule. His attempt made him the first Holy Roman Emperor and gave him the additional title of the Father of Europe. He wanted an education system for his court that, like the Greeks and Romans before, would create good and moral human beings for the sake of a good and moral society. He brought in (some say kidnapped) Alcuin of York, who adopted Plato’s 7 Liberal Arts; the trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric), and quadrivium (Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Music). Again with the caveat that this was only available to the Royal family, elite court members, and monks/clergy.

Don Hertzfeldt, Silly Hats Only, from Rejected, 2000

Don Hertzfeldt, Silly Hats Only, from Rejected, 2000

Fun fact, this is where the regalia we wear in Academia comes from, Colleges started in monasteries and cloisters. The silly hats worn by monks and clergy evolved into the silly hats we wear today! #sillyhatfact

Jump forward to the Renaissance and Neoplatonism. Architecture, painting, and sculpture were added to Plato’s Liberal Arts (the latter two Plato would have scoffed at). Becoming deeply versed in these disciplines was the means to becoming a good and moral citizen. And in the Republics of Sienna and Florence being a good citizen was paramount. Once more with the caveat that a good citizen was usually of the merchant class and above. Regular working people were not included.

Jump again to the Enlightenment. Same deal. A good and moral society was achieved through an expanding Liberal Arts education. Immanuel Kant stated that the main purpose of Academic life was to “cultivate good characters” and that “Human beings are nothing save what education makes them.” And new discoveries in science and medicine added to the list of Academic pursuits and the endeavor for human improvement. This time’s caveat is that these discoveries and improvements were made possible by Colonialism and on the back of enslaved and exploited people. Non-Europeans were certainly not improved, and as before, a good education was only available to the elite.

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving A Lecture at the Orrery, c. 1765, oil on canvas, 147 x 203 cm (Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England)

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving A Lecture at the Orrery, c. 1765, oil on canvas, 147 x 203 cm (Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England)

Finally, we land in America. The Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by Enlightenment and Greek Philosophy. As they built a new, free society, education was an essential component. Thomas Jefferson believed that a government by the consent of the governed was only possible if the governed were educated. He thought corruption was negated by an informed populace. Again an important caveat is that the informed populace here was not Black, Female, or Poor. So his very own daughter, and her mother Sally Hemings (the woman he enslaved and raped), were among the exempt.

Nowhere in any of my research on the above movements mentions jobs, employment, the economy, etc. Even the Father of Capitalism, Adam Smith argued that education “would offset the harmful effects of division of labour on the workers” and was “necessary to create a prosperous society.” He seems to acknowledge the major flaw of his own system and cites Education as the only fix.

While I admit these are lofty, philosophical arguments, it must be said that if one of the goals was economic it would have been mentioned, even in passing. It’s not as if economic interests didn’t exist in ancient Athens. The end goal was to be educated, and the lack of mention is likely assuming educated citizens would be an asset to the economy by default.

And regarding all of those caveats, I fully admit that a truly liberating and fully public education has never been achieved, especially today where the quality of your school is tied to how wealthy your neighborhood is. But that does not mean one cannot be achieved with equitable and sufficient funding and social programs that lift disadvantaged people to a point where they can focus on education rather than hunger or housing. A big lift, I know, but possible.

Now it’s commonly thought that the use of public education as a pipeline for workers started during the Industrial Revolution. I don’t fully agree with that idea, or at least haven’t seen compelling evidence beyond the superficial and fallacious comparisons between a public school and a factory assembly line. Rather it seems that this focus on vocational training started with the founding of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE) in 1908. This was followed by The American Vocational Association in 1925, the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961, the Vocational Education Act of 1963, and the Perkins act of 1990. All required the establishment of vocational schools in response to high unemployment and the need for a specialized workforce like farmers. The keywords here are specialized vocational schools.

Students in a carpentry trade school learning woodworking skills, c. 1920

Students in a carpentry trade school learning woodworking skills, c. 1920

Vocational schools are where training workers made sense at one point, and possibly arose as a replacement for (or supplement to) declining Union apprenticeships. So why is that responsibility being passed to traditional Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities? I don’t see mention of them until the Perkins Act was revised by the Obama Administration in 2013. It seems to me that there was a conflation of Community Colleges and Vocational schools. And as the latter disappeared, CCs were all that was left. And it’s understandable why Vocational Schools fell by the wayside; that kind of super-specialization can’t respond quickly enough to changes in the job market. Let’s say Auto Mechanics suddenly become less in demand as cars become too expensive or aren’t used as much due to a Pandemic related lock-down. But suddenly Paralegals are in demand. That auto repair Vocational School can’t suddenly convert their garages to computer labs and replace their instructors.

The very same critique applies to Community Colleges, they just aren’t good at job training. To have such a laser focus on the most popular or fastest-growing jobs is detrimental to students and impossible to keep up with. If a student is enrolled in a two-year program focusing on one industry, and the market for which they are so intently training changes, or dies, they won’t be prepared to pivot. And the school, which took the time to build a curriculum, and invested in equipment and instruction, then has to scrap that investment to rebuild and refocus is an untenable expectation. It takes years to build a course of study, even with industry help. A two or four-year degree timeline is set in stone while markets change quickly and at random. And the ability to quickly change one’s course of study is hampered by CPoS, which in a nutshell, says that only classes related to one’s major are covered by financial aid. No exploration, no trying new things, no changing one’s mind. No shifting along with the market.

The research does say that an Associate’s Degree will sometimes earn the student more than a Bachelor’s degree But the article cites Apprenticeships as an example of how one can find a well-paying career, and that better career counseling is needed to that end. The conclusion is while an Associate’s Degree is great, apprenticeships and career counseling are more essential to landing a good-paying job.

And the data on job placement post-graduation, according to the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), is “often unavailable or misleading.” For example, one study concluded that a Career Technical Education (CTE) did result in higher earnings. But the study only included the most popular CTE programs while not taking into account any other courses taken by the students in the study. Could that elective taken in addition to a CTE course have an effect on the success rates? The study also concluded there were “significant differences in returns across CTE programs.” There are too many variables and it draws conclusions from averages and popularity rather than consistent and repeatable results. Misleading indeed. So there is no clear data saying that Community Colleges with narrow career-focused curricula will guarantee a job. My argument is that a broad-based Liberal Arts Education will result in a job regardless, with the added benefit of creating an informed and empathetic citizenry.

So I ask again, why are Community Colleges asked to train workers?

Jeff Bezos, or Dr Evil? You decide.

Jeff Bezos, or Dr. Evil? You decide.

Especially when those asking for CCs to train workers, like Amazon and the tech sector, are not helping to pay to train their future workers. While Amazon may pay for their employees’ education here and there, they simultaneously barely pay taxes at a time when public funding for schools is plummeting. $1.2 Billion spent on their employees’ education does sound impressive, I mean, that sure is a big ole number. But considering the $5 Billion they dodge in taxes it barely comes close to covering the $78 billion shortfalls in Community College funding. So why train Amazon’s workers when Amazon won’t help pay for that training?

This goes for any industry. And while there are often “partnerships” between industry and CCs, those usually only involve the industry telling educators what they need and the teachers designing curricula around those needs. Do they help pay for this training? Certainly not, taxpayers do. Industry should support career counseling and provide Apprenticeships themselves. Or better yet, support a Unionized workforce that can train its own membership.

The answer to my first question is that Formal Education does not have a primary role in training workers, there is no evidence to support the efficacy of job training in Community Colleges. The answer to my second question is obvious, it’s cost-savings. Industry may claim they just can’t find qualified workers, but that’s mainly because they refuse to pay good wages. And why train your own workers when you can convince someone else to do it? Community Colleges especially have been wrongly required to shoulder the burden of what is ultimately the industries’ responsibility. This WaPo article states it better than I, “We need a different approach: one where employers are not just consumers of skills, but are part of the system for producing them.”

So if you want a job, don’t go to college. Watch some YouTube vids, create your portfolio independently, find an apprenticeship or internship, and go get that job. That said you should still go to school. But go to College to prepare yourself for the wider world outside of a job. Learn empathy, learn citizenship, and most importantly, learn about community. The major isn’t just about a better paycheck. That will come no matter what. It’s about who you are as a person. And that person you become will be a better, more complete human being.