Putting vocation back into education

Rui Shi

Last month, Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, made a startling revelation. He found that more and more graduates of four-year universities are going to community colleges “to get that technical training to get a real job,” according to The Boston Globe. In an economy dominated by the mantra that you have to have a bachelor’s degree to get a job, Duncan’s statement seems counterintuitive. However, Duncan is among a growing number of public leaders who are beginning to wonder what should take precedence in higher education: knowledge or vocation?

The U.S. unemployment rate currently stands at 8.3 percent. However, there are also 3.2 million unfilled job openings, according to CNBC. In such a rough-and-tumble economy, how are there any job openings at all? The answer lies in the disconnect between what graduates learn in college and what is actually required for available jobs. The gulf between knowledge and vocation does a disservice to students and is a threat to the long-term economic health of the United States. It is a problem that requires the immediate attention and focus of institutes of higher education.

The heart of the problem can be found within curricula. Course offerings simply cannot keep up with the constantly changing economic landscape. With technological advances occurring at the speed of light, it’s no wonder that it is notoriously difficult to train students for high-tech jobs. Yet at a time when higher education and industry should be talking to each other, they seem to be at a loss for words.

Of course, from an educational standpoint, the idea of creating foot soldiers for a capitalist assembly line isn’t the most appealing of options. Educators want to teach Shakespeare, find the cure for cancer and revel in their creative flairs. Higher education leaders believe that developing students’ creativity and capacity for innovative thinking is more valuable than focusing on vocational training. They are right — to an extent.

Though critical thinking, creativity and innovation are integral to the culture of higher education, they are not the reasons that students pay thousands of dollars in tuition. The reason students go to four-year universities is because it gives them a better chance of finding a job upon graduation.

To solve this problem, universities around the nation must be able to adapt quickly to the changing education and job market. Universities must be more flexible in introducing changes and additions to curricula. Complex bureaucracies and internal college politics make it so that it can take years to introduce a new program. By that time, it could already be too late, as a newer technology may have already taken over.

Another way to bridge the chasm between knowledge and vocation would be to introduce courses that allow students to work on real world projects. Just last year, Harvard Business School announced that it would send its entire first-year class abroad to get experience working with companies. These types of programs allow students to put their theoretical know-how to use and apply it to real-world problems.

UT has one of the most connected campuses in terms of internship and co-op opportunities. However, it’s time to go one step further and provide students with more tangible skills that would help them succeed in the job market.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.