Sunday, May 9, 2010

College Degrees -- commentary

According to a recent Sun editorial, the number of women obtaining college degrees now exceeds that of men, though the gender gap in pay remains. I have watched this growing trend of women getting college degrees for several years. At times, I have warned my male chauvinistic students if they don’t get serious with their studies, they will find themselves either working for a woman or reporting to a woman to get their welfare checks.

I have noticed in recent years that most of my serious students are female and that more females tend to be willing to take the difficult academic courses. So, if the women are willing to take the courses and obtain the degrees, why do we still have the gender gap in pay? I offer a couple of hypotheses badly in need of research.

First, I believe there has been a major shift in what colleges do that accounts for the increase in the number of college degrees going to women. Historically, colleges provided a liberal arts education for students to enhance their quality of life or to prepare them for professional schools, primarily law, medicine, theology, the arts and maybe business. Not many women entered these fields, and so at the turn of the 20th century, only about five per cent of college degrees went to women.

A hundred years ago, the college degree meant entry into the intelligentsia, but things changed over the 20th Century, and colleges have become primarily vocational schools, offering degrees that were unheard of a century ago. A college degree now amounts to entry into a vocation. Many of these modern degrees are now necessary to obtain jobs. Many of those jobs are primarily sought after by women, plus many, many more women now enter the job market. The gateway to many of the jobs sought after by men is still found in technical schools and union apprenticeships. All this accounts for the increase in the percentage of degrees going to women.

Second, and this is pure speculation, I suspect in many instances, industry is bypassing college degrees in favor of indentifying employees and prospective employees with potential and training them for their specific industry. Of course, those who occupy the executive suites still come from colleges, as do engineers and other technical types, but I think many others are not. It has been a common practice of large corporations to employee several college graduates for each position they wished to fill, and then watch how these new employees perform. They keep the one or two they need and send the others packing.

I suspect this practice continues; only the college education is no longer necessary to get into the pool of those being considered. Even as industry no longer trusts the high school diploma to mean much, the same thing is happening to the college degree. I remember a pundit commenting a few years back that he knew American education was in trouble when the first Ph.D. degree was awarded in drivers’ education.

At the high school level, education is diluted by having to deal with students who don’t want to be there. The same thing is happening at the college level in a little different way. Between student loans, grants, and scholarships made plentiful by government programs and lotteries, students who couldn’t afford college in the past, can now find ways to finance it. This means there are more and more students there because parents want them there, or they don’t know what else to do, or they want to avoid the work force as long as possible. But, they are not there to be serious students.

What happens when these students won’t produce a decent product and a professor starts to flunk too many of them? Remember, a college is in the business of marketing credits and they have spent millions creating attractive facilities. These facilities must be paid for.

When a professor flunks too many students, the administration gets concerned. They need those students buying credit hours. Pressure is brought to bear to pass those who don’t earn a pass. Also, if a professor gets too demanding of his students, they look for an easier boss. That professor who used to require a dozen books be read besides the text, finds fewer and fewer students taking his class. The result is grade or degree inflation.

If the degree doesn’t mean much, why not just look for responsible people with or without degrees and train them? In this regard, my guess is that at a time when more and more women are getting college degrees, ironically, some in industry are bypassing the college system and still rely on the “good old boy” network to fill many slots. These are just a couple of hypothses.