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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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The pitfalls of practical degrees

Tallahassee smarty-pants who are quick to tell university students what degrees they should pursue might want to consider the advice of Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Gov. Rick Scott, you will remember, famously castigated students for pursuing liberal arts degrees, saying, “They need to get education in areas where they can get jobs.”

The governor explained that with limited state resources: “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

A higher education panel appointed by Scott recommended basing tuition rates on degrees, offering lower tuition for degrees in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields.

Lawmakers similarly have pushed for students to hustle through college and work on practical degrees.

But in a recent insightful Wall Street Journal article, Cappelli warns of shuttling students into programs targeted to labor market niches: “It all makes sense. Except for one thing: It probably won’t work. The trouble is that nobody can predict where the jobs will be — not the employers, not the schools, not the government officials who are making such loud calls for vocational training. The economy is simply too fickle to guess way ahead of time, and any number of other changes could roil things as well. Choosing the wrong path could make things worse, not better.”

Cappelli points out how rapidly the job market can change, often by unforeseen events.

For instance, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act regulating public corporations immediately increased the demand for accountants.

Cappelli also points out that, as we did when Scott first made his proclamation, the dangers of saturating a job market, making the jobs less attractive.

He writes, “It may be worse to have the wrong career focus in college than having no career focus — because skills for one career often can’t be used elsewhere.”

And he questions the wisdom of lawmakers who push students to decide a course of study early on and diligently pursue it.

“Focusing on a very specific field also means that you miss out on courses that might broaden your abilities. Courses that teach, say, hospitality management or sports medicine may crowd out a logic class that can help students learn to improve their reason or an English class that sharpens their writing. Both of those skills can help in any field, unlike the narrowly focused ones.”

Sounds like that ridiculed liberal arts degrees may not be the time waster that Scott and company think.

Indeed, as we’ve pointed out, a study by the Social Science Research Council found students with the skills emphasized by the liberal arts — the ability to analyze, reason and write — were more likely to be better off financially.

Cappelli acknowledges specialized degrees may be more helpful than a liberal arts degree in landing a job after college, but beyond that first job, its advantage is dubious.

More valuable than a specialized degree is work experience, which provides businesses a strong indication of the applicant’s skills and attitude. Cappelli thinks companies, rather than promoting specialized degrees, should focus more on providing students with training in entry-level jobs.

Scott, lawmakers and parents alike should reflect on his warning: “A lot of taxpayer money supports these programs, and in states like Texas the pressure is on to steer even more students toward them. It is an expensive and inefficient way to provide the practical skills that employers want for the first job out of school, though, as well as being a big, risky bet for parents to underwrite.”

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