Phi Beta Cons

‘Vocationalization’ of College Education? Not a Problem

The Wall Street Journal reported this week on a new study which discovered that college students are often misinformed about the career earnings potential of different majors. Once they became aware of actual average career earnings by major, the students better aligned their own post-commencement expectations. In fact, 12% of those engaged in the study decided to change majors, as a result of the new information (“new” to them, anyway).

One of the study authors, Dr. Matthew Wiswall of Arizona State University, told the Journal reporter that “the gaps in earnings by major are even larger” than the differences among various colleges for a given major. Wiswall thinks that the more information students have on this, the better.

Not all are as enthusiastic about the consideration of future earnings as part of choosing a major. The article quotes Professor Bob Bruner of the University of Virginia, who says he is concerned about what he calls the “vocationalization” of undergraduate education, which he fears would lead some students to focus on jobs more than on education.

From my own experience, I don’t think Professor Bruner has much to worry about. I graduated in 1971 with a degree in chemistry, picked up an MBA on a part-time basis, and enjoyed a three decade career working in the global chemical industry. During those years I had the opportunity to work closely with business partners in many global regions, gaining a personal understanding of their cultures and their world views.  At the same time, I learned much about the complexities of globalization, the good and the bad impacts it has on our society, and the enormous influence of government policy on the business community. 

Moving on to a second career, I was able to spend 13 years on the faculty and staff of a liberal arts college, teaching courses in marketing, management and international business. Working in academia was an entirely new experience for me, and there is no doubt that I learned more from my campus experience than any student may have learned from me.

Today, I am embarked on Career #3 as a writer, trying to leverage my business and academic background into meaningful contributions to the higher education policy debate. My learning continues today, as I experience the satisfactions and the challenges of pursuing a writing career (Hint: do it after a couple of previous careers in which you were able to actually make some money!).

In short, let the students make highly informed choices for their major programs of study and subsequent careers. Let’s not worry about them “not learning” during their four short years of college life. In my experience, true learning is life long, and growing maturity helps us focus more realistically on what it is that we actually need to learn. 

Vic Brown had a thirty-year career in the chemical industry with FMC Corporation, where he held senior positions and worked internationally in sales, marketing, manufacturing, information technology and procurement.

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