In our last blog, we noted the increasing absence of working-class writers from the Journalism profession, due in part to the proliferation of the unpaid internship as the requisite for a career in the field. While the financial consequences of this requirement are obvious, the less visible and more complex results of this practice may be far more wide reaching. For example, Anya Kamenetz notes that the wholesale acceptance of the unpaid internship leads to “over-identification” with employers: “I make sacrifices, to work free, therefore I must love my work.” She cites a University of Washington study of a coping strategy of interns in communications industries that study authors Gina Neff and Giovanni Arata label “performative passion.” They suggest that this “becomes a justification for the lack of pay and need for sacrifice.” As these findings show, journalists who literally buy into this system will be less likely to question the assumptions and structures that always privilege business and the employer over individual and social needs.
But this isn’t just an issue for Journalism. The over-identification with the employer, or employers in general, has become a guiding principle for higher education, particularly at working-class institutions, and this contributes to the institutional missions and student attitudes that Sherry Linkon outlined in her last two blogs. At universities across the nation, internships are just one peg of a larger strategy to match college education to the needs of specific employment sectors. A brief look at Ohio’s Strategic Plan for Higher Education provides a clear example of the transformation of higher education into vocational training. In a section titled “Relationship With Business Community,” the document recommends measuring the success of higher education across the state by surveying business leaders to find out “whether business is satisfied with the product of higher education.” Such a survey, the report claims, “will be a powerful tool in helping institutions and the Board of Regents exercise this public trust.”
Aside from the alarming rhetoric of product and consumer, the plan is generally organized around a claim that has become a siren call to educators and politicians across the country—that colleges and universities are not graduating enough students in STEM fields to compete in the “21st century” economy. In Ohio, the remedy for this deficit and the key to economic regeneration is, predictably, to emphasize and fund STEM programs and develop more internships in STEM fields, often at the expense of other fields—especially the liberal arts. Elsewhere, the Ohio plan calls for targeting resources toward programs that directly foster economic development (read STEM and business) and rewarding universities that align curriculum with the needs of employers.
And yet, it turns out that the long accepted truism that the US suffers from a shortage of graduates in science engineering and technology might not be so true. A recent study by Rutgers University finds that there are plenty of graduates in STEM fields, confirming an earlier study done by RAND in 2005 that found the shortage was more the product of “special interests” seeking a labor surplus than statistical reality. As Joe Smydo reports in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Sloan Foundation, which focuses on STEM and economic issues, noted two years ago that the shortage cry was sounded by “’interest groups and their lobbyists,’ including employers who want to increase the labor pools and keep labor costs down; universities seeking an influx of grant money and graduate students; and others who see STEM advocacy as a way to attract funding.”
Most engaged in the debate agree the alarm over the lack of STEM talent seems to be cyclical, sparked decades ago by Sputnik, and more recently by the rise of India and China. Such events spur the fear that the US will be left behind in the tech race, and politicians are quick to throw money and resources at the educational “problem” in an effort to produce more and more tech workers.
Rather than improving conditions and fostering growth in the workplace, this approach increases the number of available applicants. Indeed, Harold Salzman and B. Lindsey Howell, the authors of the Rutgers study, suggest that the glut in STEM graduates has resulted in stagnant wages in science and technology fields. Because of this, newly credentialed grads are taking their skills elsewhere—specifically to more lucrative careers in finance, management, and consulting.
The problem is not specific to STEM disciplines; rather the example shows the dangers of university missions that focus too narrowly on the vocational mission and creating job specific educational “products.” Of course, this is exactly what’s happening in Journalism. When colleges and universities are too willing to tailor curriculum to the market, or even the technology, we risk setting in place long-term educational policy based on transient factors.
At our university, and others like it, we proudly roll out degree problems as quickly as possible based on predictions of shortages, too often without carefully examining the validity of these claims or, worse, the broader implications for degree seeking students.
For while higher education is a means to a better job, we should be careful not to make our emphasis on degrees too narrowly focused. Trends and technologies change, and a meaningful education should equip students to understand the bigger picture and adapt to new situations and knowledge.
An overly vocational focus also perhaps inadvertently reinforces the class and status divides within higher education. For while students at the most prestigious schools are learning broad concepts and acquiring intellectual and ethical frameworks for processing complex, multiple, and shifting realities, too often students at lower “tier” institutions are being trained to perform tasks, with one career or vocation the sole goal of their education.
One group will likely become the innovators and the entrepreneurs, the other the workers.
Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff