• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

You Don't Solve the Economy With a Curriculum

If jobs simply aren't there, they can't be trained into being.

July 23, 2020
 
 

In writing about why it’s hard to get into nursing programs yesterday, I mostly addressed the supply side of the imbalance, or why it’s hard to expand programs to meet demand. I didn’t spend much time on the demand side. Why do so many students want nursing programs?

Sometimes the call to be a nurse runs in a family. Sometimes it comes from the experience of seeing a loved one receive excellent (or horrible) care. But I’m pretty sure that salaries play a role, too. A registered nurse can make a good salary right out of the gate, and it’s one of the diminishing number of fields in which that’s true.

Put differently, if students had (and could see) many other options that would result in similar salaries, I’m confident that the excess demand for nursing would subside. That’s not fundamentally about nursing; it’s fundamentally about the economy.

Workforce development is crucial and helpful, but it can only do so much. At some point, if the jobs simply aren’t there, they can’t be trained into being.

Academics should know that better than anybody. The academic job market of the last few decades should be conclusive proof that good training doesn’t necessarily produce good jobs.

I’ve heard community college presidents from rural areas make similar points. At the Inside Higher Ed conference last year -- anyone remember conferences? -- one president from a rural community college mentioned that students consistently express interest in a cosmetology program, but he refuses to start one. His argument boiled down to a question: How many cosmetologists does a town of 3,000 people actually need? The first graduating cohort would flood the market. I couldn’t argue with his logic.

Some of our most tried-and-true programs for enrollment are the ones that lead in obvious ways to jobs that people recognize as middle class: criminal justice, education, nursing. Engineering and computer science have gained ground as folks have figured out that they both lead to plenty of opportunities, too. But the days when just about any degree would do for getting hired at the local office of MegaGlobalCorpoMax where you could expect to work for 30 years are gone. In much of the country, young people face a dispiriting choice: move to where the jobs are and pay far too much to live there, or live where you like but struggle to find and keep a good job. If the pandemic accomplishes any good, I hope that the forced realization of how productive working at home can be will make it easier, over time, to get decent-paying jobs without having to live in one of the top 10 cities. As long as you have good broadband, and maybe live no more than one time zone over, it’s more plausible than many people realized.

Education is a public good. When we treat it as the personnel office of the economy, it’s easy to forget that.

As a public good, it is inherently, inescapably, political. That doesn’t mean “partisan,” necessarily, but it does mean that it both reflects and enacts some collective priorities over others. The term “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, meaning “public thing.” A public thing like a community college has to participate in the life of the republic. It can’t not. Reducing a public thing to a constellation of private goods is missing its reason to exist. We support education as a duty to the future. We need to rethink the economy for the same reason.

I don’t blame students for wanting degrees that lead to good jobs. That makes sense. I blame the rest of us for allowing an economy to make the paths to stability so narrow that the few identifiable pathways to stability get overcrowded. Ultimately, the answer to the excess demand for nursing seats isn’t a fairer way to allocate them; it’s a fairer economy in which pathways to stability are plentiful. Do that, and the excess demand will take care of itself.

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