STEM Is Overrated

College is not just job prep, and the job market changes constantly.

Graduates throwing caps in the air
Jens Schlueter / Getty

About the author: Caitlin Zaloom is a cultural anthropologist, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and Editor in Chief of Public Books.

A chorus of politicians, policy experts, and economically minded columnists have located the value of college in preparing young people for jobs. They argue that college students should spend their time in classes that will further their future careers and that colleges should offer curricula directed toward the positions that corporate America can offer graduates. One prominent argument in these discussions is that students should train in science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM fields—rather than devote themselves to pursuits seen as less pragmatic and the development of skills portrayed as less in demand.

The proposition can be summarized this way: The children of middle-class families, who need the government’s support to go to college, should consider the pursuit of their own interests in college to be a luxury. Higher education should be for buckling down and studying the material that will bring solid salaries and help them pay their debts; everything else is frivolous. They should commit to a career path and stick with the jobs that corporations need them to do.

Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida espoused this position in 2011 when he announced his intention to direct state funds toward STEM education and away from the liberal arts and social sciences. In conversation with the radio host Marc Bernier, he singled out anthropology for wasting students’ time and state monies. “You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees … so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

College, in this view, amounts to little more than higher-level vocational education for middle-class young people, anointing them the yeoman workers of the corporate economy. Low-income students are also expected to serve corporate interests, by pursuing technical educations in vocational schools. Neither poor kids nor kids in the middle should aspire to the broader opportunities that college offers.

This morally laden political argument for yeomanship presents itself as hardheaded, but it mischaracterizes the realities of the job market that it vaunts. For one, the presumption that a liberal-arts education would prevent students from getting jobs is spurious. Graduates with a broad-based education are in demand. Writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economist David J. Deming argues that employers are currently seeking skills that come from a more exploratory college education, like the one that students receive by studying liberal arts. What’s more, these workers’ “soft skills”—their capacity to communicate and work with others—are in short supply. And Deming points out that the income benefits of STEM jobs are in decline. Economists have observed that since 2000, managerial, professional, and technical occupations have stalled considerably in both the number of jobs and their wage growth. In other words, colleges and universities need to provide the materials for students to cultivate their potential, not just to obtain the kind of targeted, cognitive skills that a narrowly conceived STEM education offers.

The argument for yeomanship also fails to acknowledge that the high cost of college makes it an iffy proposition if the only purpose is to find a well-paying job. The economists John Schmitt and Heather Boushey found that among 24-to-35-year-olds, almost 20 percent of college graduates “actually do no better than their counterparts who left school after high school,” even before taking college debt into account.

The argument for yeomanship also denies the turbulent job market graduates will face. Jobs are much less secure now than they were in the post–World War II decades, and they are likely to become even less so in the future. College students will enter a world in which many jobs are designed to be temporary. Although the corporations of the mid-20th century depended on a stable workforce of long-term employees, capitalism in the U.S. today works by assuming that a “flexible” workforce accustomed to temporary and insecure employment will be at corporations’ disposal.

Because the growth of temporary employment has coincided with massive technological changes, such as the development of the internet, this social reorganization has appeared to be largely a natural consequence of innovation and competition rather than the outcome of human choices. But as the historian Louis Hyman demonstrated in Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, the shift was an explicit goal of business leaders. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate heads and their consultants began to look for short-term profits, cutting their commitments to their employees. Workers who might stay for years or decades required promotions and benefits and were protected by unions. Disposing of expensive workers became a key to meeting profit targets. In their place, corporations began to rely on short-term employees who would stay for the job at hand and then leave.

At any rate, the rise of temporary work means that college graduates can expect to face spikes and dips in income as they lose or finish one job and worry about when the next will come and from where. On top of this volatility, they also have to contend with the rapid transition to automation in white-collar work. Although media discussions tend to pit robots directly against humans in the quest for jobs, today human abilities are more often complemented by automated tasks. Still, together the temporary nature of work and automation undermine arguments for educations that prepare students for specific skills and jobs. If students accept the argument that their college years should be dedicated to job preparation, graduates cannot be certain that the lucrative jobs they envision will still be available, let alone secure.

This article was adapted from Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, by Caitlin Zaloom.

The threat of displacement is real, too. Technology companies are hard at work attempting to oust white-collar workers, by automating their jobs entirely or by reducing their numbers. The venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee, former president of Google China’s research arm, has his sights set on jobs that are costly to corporations. In 2017, he predicted at a conference at MIT that artificial intelligence would replace white-collar workers faster than blue-collar ones. Loan officers, customer-service and training staff, and paralegals are all among the jobs his company has already invested in supplanting. Other firms are investing in technologies designed to ground pilots, sideline journalists, and bench lawyers. Researchers at Oxford University have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk in the current wave of computerization. Adapt or be sidelined, they warn. Anticipating which specific jobs will be on offer and what they will look like will be a challenge, if not impossible.

The same caveats apply to the jobs that advocates of vocational training promote. Career and technical education (CTE)—what used to be called vocational school—in both high school and at the college level can be a path to a good income for those who can’t go to college, or wouldn’t do well there. Jobs such as elevator installer and computer-support specialist, for example, can today offer middle-class salaries without a college degree. More than one in three Americans will not enroll in higher education right after high-school graduation, and a technical degree may well be a good option for many of them at some point during their work life. According to the Florida Department of Education, jobs requiring postsecondary vocational training are among the fastest-growing occupations in the state, and that reality has propelled students into training programs run by community colleges and for-profit schools.

But CTE denies students the benefits of a broad education that can’t be measured in dollars, and the arguments for it also overlook how limited the economic value of the skills taught may turn out to be. Students who enroll in CTE may be training themselves for jobs that are scarce, or won’t even exist in the future. Advocates who acknowledge that such skills may become obsolete argue that at least getting the training will provide reliable, well-paying work in the interim; still, the development of vocational students’ potential gets short shrift.

The benefits of CTE revolve around narrow job training, and debates about its value often skate over a bias: that traditional higher education should be reserved for those who are positioned to develop latent talents and capacities. Potential may seem to come from within individuals, but those individuals are the ones with the habits and dispositions young adults tend to develop when growing up in middle- and upper-class families. When experts identify students who should be funneled into CTE programs, they draw a distinct horizon for these young people, a framing that can lend legitimacy and reinforcement to hierarchies of class and race.

Both advocacy for CTE and the argument for college as preparation for middle-class yeomanship conflict with the traditional American understanding of the value of education, and citizens’ rights in regard to it. When politicians and policy experts assert that the primary role of college is to prepare people to perform work the business community needs, they are arguing against the political philosophy set forth by John Dewey: that education should teach students how to fashion novel habits, dispositions, and institutions, serving to advance democracy as circumstances evolve. Education could not be reduced to simple preparation for jobs, he argued, without damaging students, their country, and the world. He acknowledged that vocational training could be part of his educational framework, as long as it included social, political, and moral dimensions. But, he cautioned, “the kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.” Instead he advocated for a vocational education that would enable workers to transform the industrial system, a goal that embraced the rapidly evolving circumstances of the early 20th century and saw the possibility for justice in them.

Dewey grounded his political philosophy of education in an admiration for human “plasticity,” the ability of young people to develop themselves in ways unanticipated by their elders. “The most precious part of plasticity,” Dewey contended, “consists in ability to form habits of independent judgment and of inventive initiation.” In his philosophy, environment is key, and so is difference. Young people learn, Dewey averred, in interaction with their surroundings, with teachers who conduct themselves with established habits of mind and peers whose ideas and habits diverge. Dewey exhorted his readers to recognize the importance of young people’s “potentialities,” and that these inchoate abilities are more than personal. They transcend the private realm. Democracy is a system that thrives on the renewal that young people will bring if they are taught to fashion themselves, together.

Dewey’s argument is sharply relevant today. Rather than impressing on college students that they should commit to particular jobs and the direction of corporate executives, colleges and universities ought to enhance students’ ability to experiment and prepare them for an open future, even one in which automation may play a significant role. When universities can broaden “their reach to become engines of lifelong learning,” Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun has argued, they will also “robot proof” education.

Today’s students need universities and colleges that will help them navigate a world where constant changes are the norm and where learning how to adapt is the central problem of living and of citizenship. The idea that the college years should be primarily about potential is not idealistic or naive; it is prescient.

This article was adapted from Zaloom’s upcoming book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission from Princeton University Press.