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Higher Education and the American Dream

Marvin Lazerson

Part I. The Gospel of Getting Ahead

Chapter 2. Higher education as vocational education1

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  • 1 Earlier versions of this chapter were co-authored with W. Norton Grubb.

Will this help me get a better job?
(Frequently Asked Question)

1For students and their families, it is the most important question. It is also, within limits and with lots of caveats, an answerable question. In terms of should one stay in school, go to college, get a first diploma, and consider continuing on for a post-first degree program, the answer is yes. More definitive answers require all sorts of caveats. Good economic times help, as do cycles of enthusiasm for certain kinds of training and shortages in selected occupations. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree helps. Certain majors help more than others. For professions that require post-baccalaureate degrees, continuing on after college is a necessity. The reputation of the college or university one attends helps. Grades help a little, though their importance is usually mediated through their utility in getting one into higher status institutions or programs. And, of course, personal characteristics also play a role, as do race and gender. So if the question about getting a better job matters, then there are lots of things to consider beyond staying in school. The answer may be yes, but it is not that simple.

2.1 The education gospel and vocationalism

2One of the most extraordinary developments of the last century has been the worldwide growth in educational opportunity. For most of the 20th century the United States led the way, but in the last decades many other countries have been increasing educational opportunities at a bewildering pace; Canada, China, and Russia are examples, but the trend is worldwide (Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbly, 2009).

3The growing importance now attributed to education is to be valued, and in the criticisms presented in this chapter, I do not mean to diminish education’s positive contributions to social and economic goals and to the expansion of opportunities for millions of people. But education’s promises are often exaggerated and its aspirations thwarted, and these too are important to understand.

4Every country has its own story about the role of education. In what W. Norton Grubb and I call the Education Gospel (Grubb and Lazerson, 2004), the United States version of this story promotes an emphasis on formal schooling for its economic contributions— to the society and to the individual. The story is essentially accurate (Goldin and Katz, 2008), but it has so many different parts, that blindly believing in it can be misleading. In broad outlines, the Education Gospel is based on a particular vision of the present and the future that goes something like this: The Knowledge Revolution (or the Information Society, or the communications revolution) has dramatically changed and continues to change the nature of economic development and work, shifting emphasis away from occupations once rooted in industrial production to occupations associated with knowledge, information, and technology. This transformation has both increased the skills required for new occupations and updated the three R’s, enhancing the importance of what are often referred to as “higher-order” skills including communications skills, problem-solving, and advanced reasoning. Obtaining these skills increasingly requires formal schooling past the high school level, so that college (especially completing a degree) is necessary for the jobs of the future. This vision fuels the emphasis in the United States and elsewhere on increased levels of schooling, now apparent world-wide, as well as increasing demands by individuals that they be supported in their efforts to obtain college and university degrees. Around the world the view that getting a post-high school degree (or its equivalent outside the U.S.) has become gospel, something that more and more people believe makes “common sense.”

5This “common sense” wisdom extends to the kinds of skills needed for economic success, for the Education Gospel maintains that individuals are more likely to find their skills are becoming obsolete because of the pace of technological change. To keep up with advances in technology, individuals need new kinds of skills,

6especially the capacity to continue to learn and to solve problems, as well as needing personal skills (sometimes called “soft” skills) like independence, initiative, and to be able to work in teams. Because these needs evolve over time, lifelong learning has emerged as one of the significant bell-weathers of the Education Gospel, opening up opportunities for traditional educational institutions and new (and rapidly developing) lifelong learning agencies that offer internet based education. New forms of work organization—especially contingent and part-time labor, with employers hiring temporary rather than permanent workers in order to increase the flexibility of hiring as technologies, products, and economic pressures change— have exacerbated job-changing, further reinforcing the need for lifelong learning. Workers and managers need to have a greater variety of skills, since they are likely to have multiple tasks and multiple jobs in their lifetimes. Economic globalization has meant that no developed country wants to become ‘underdeveloped’ by relying on raw materials and unskilled labor, further pushing public policies to expand educational opportunities over one’s lifespan. For developing countries the goal is to use a combination of education and technology to increase economic progress. The Education Gospel with its call for ever expanding education systems thus provides the basis for meeting the economic challenges of the present and future—with worldwide consequences.

7The Education Gospel resonates with individuals by providing them with a powerful rationale and incentives to use education to ‘get ahead’. It states clearly that success depends upon the power of higher education to provide them with skills to facilitate entry into the labor market for professionals. The Gospel’s rhetorical power comes from its ability to unify individual aspirations of success and national goals of economic development, or in the case of the higher education efforts of the European Union, to create a powerful European-wide economy (Matei, 2008). Nations have a rationale for expanding their higher education systems and individuals have a rationale for staying in school. In both the national version and the individual version, the purpose of higher education becomes primarily and overwhelmingly economic.

8The connection between the Education Gospel, economic development, and vocational preparation is a global phenomenon. The European Union has made the knowledge economy the centerpiece of its higher education efforts (Matei, 2008; van Vught, 2009). Great Britain has been searching for “key” or “core” skills for decades; Germany has an extensive list of key qualifications for work in the knowledge society and is seeking to develop its universities to contribute more directly to economic growth. Australia has been worrying about its higher education system failing to keep up with economic globalization for decades. Emerging economies in Eastern Europe and in Asia (including China) are following their own forms of the Education Gospel to justify expanding education. All over the globe, countries have discovered the importance of the Knowledge Revolution requiring higher levels of education and technologically- based forms of human capital as ways of competing economically (Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley, 2009).

9None of this is entirely new, since education has always been tied to economic goals. Before the 20th century, however, ideas about education’s contribution to economic development and individual success were usually described in terms of higher education’s contributions to public service and to the preparation of knowledgeable individuals with high moral character. In the course of the 20th century, accelerating during the last half of the century, the economic purposes of higher education became embedded in a set of vocational educational practices within educational institutions whose primary purpose became preparation for occupational roles. Vocationalism is an awkward but useful term referring not primarily to traditional vocational education but to preparation for vocations— occupations as careers or professions rather than mere jobs, employment that provides personal meaning, economic benefits, continued development over one’s life, social status and connections to the greater society. Germans use the word Beruf to refer to one’s profession and, along with it, to the implied belief that one must develop multiple capacities for successful professional practice. Professional education is the term most often applied to this vocational orientation in higher education.

10In the United States a vocationalized system of education emerged in fits and starts, beginning with changes in high schools and the establishment of university-based professional schools at the end of the 19th century. It accelerated over the course of the 20th century, referred to by Goldin and Katz (2008) as “the century of human capital.” This has been the most substantial transformation in American schooling over the past century, and increasingly in other countries, opening the door to enormous growth in enrollments, as well many other changes in the purposes of education, the curriculum, the meaning of college attendance, the mechanisms of upward mobility, the mechanisms of inequality, conceptions of equity, and the education-based pillar of the American Dream. The vocationalization of education takes different forms, depending upon whether it is located in high schools, four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, technology institutes, job training programs and adult education, although there are enough common features across each level and institution to call it vocationalism.

2.2 The U.S. approach to vocationalism

  • 2 Grubb and Lazerson (2004, ch. 7) develop these issues and describe ways that school-based and work (...)

11The most obvious consequence of the Education Gospel has been its role in transforming the purposes of schooling from civic and moral purposes (in grammar schools) or mental discipline and character development for potential leaders (in higher education) to occupational preparation. This process has happened in slightly different ways at different levels of education. Changes in high schools around 1900—the shift from civic to occupational purposes and the creation of different vocational tracks—were particularly influential in leading to the view that formal schooling is important for economic purposes. These changes were most obviously responses to the decline of apprenticeships as a basic form of work preparation, as well as ways to keep teenage boys in school beyond age 14. Vocationally-oriented schooling had lots of advantages over apprenticeships, since it concentrated on learning rather than simply doing routine work and it opened up opportunities to enter occupations traditionally closed to women and minorities. These advantages have continued into the present. While practice-based preparation for occupations and professions provides hands-on, real-life experiences, which are often quite advantageous, workplace-based learning, like internships, are often reduced to low-skilled repetitive practices, like copying materials, typing on a computer, or making coffee, without a lot of attention paid to progressive development of skills and understanding. Individuals participating in such hands-on learning programs too often become inexpensive part-time low-skilled labor. Formal schooling does not necessarily prepare skilled workers and professionals much better, but it does have the possibility of extending young people’s literacy and numeric skills in ways that improve their opportunities to achieve professional status.2

12The transformation of higher education in the U.S. has been inextricably linked to the emergence of the modern professions. The process of emphasizing vocationally-based higher education proceeded in fits and starts, starting with the Morrill Act of 1862 “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life,” continuing with the development of professional schools in the last half of the 19th century, and greatly expanding in urban centers and then in the massive expansion of higher education after 1960. The process led to differentiated institutions of higher education. Elite research universities, for example, emphasize research and post-baccalaureate education while incorporating older forms of liberal education at the undergraduate level. Regional universities, which developed from schools of education and agriculture, are much less selective and concentrate on overtly professional majors in business, health professions, engineering and communications, as well as numerous other smaller fields of study. Traditional liberal arts colleges tend to divide into one of two groups. The minority group continues to emphasize the liberal arts, anticipating that large numbers of the graduates will go on to masters and doctoral programs, all of which are vocational by definition, since they overtly prepare people for jobs. The majority of liberal arts colleges add more and more professional majors to their curriculum and diminish considerably their allegiance to the traditional liberal arts. Even some traditional academic majors, like economics and psychology, which would seem not to be explicitly vocational, are in practice oriented toward occupational preparation. The fact is that two-thirds to three-quarters of undergraduates are majoring in fields with overtly vocational goals, and the proportions are much higher in regional universities (Brint et al. 2002).

13Community colleges represent the most dramatic manifestation of the shift to vocational goals. From their early emphasis on academic education and the transfer of students into bachelor degree colleges and universities, community colleges became increasingly dedicated to occupational preparation, particularly in response to a persistent mid-20th century version of the Education Gospel that argued that the U.S. would have increasing need for more technical workers and semi-professionals. By the 1980s these views had positioned the community college as preeminently vocationally oriented, ready to add a multiplicity of occupational programs including upgraded training for incumbent workers, retraining for workers who need to shift occupations, and remedial training for welfare recipients and the long-term unemployed, while still retaining academic education. (Grubb, 1996).

14Less noticed in all of this is that vocationalism has been the driving force of higher education’s expansion. Indeed it is hard to imagine a mass higher education system that was not focused on occupational preparation. Every level of schooling in the United States above elementary school has expanded by becoming vocationalized. The high school expanded in the 1920s and 1930s, universities expanded in the 1920s and then the 1960s, community colleges boomed after 1960. The segments of education dedicated to purely intellectual or moral traditions—elite liberal-arts colleges, a few private religious colleges, a few selective public high schools and some private high schools dedicated to older academic traditions— have dwindled in relative importance.

15In the American approach to education, expansion has taken place in comprehensive educational institutions. While there remain a few specialized high schools in large cities, a few technical institutes, and some specialized post-secondary institutions in music, the arts, and in psychology, overall, educational institutions in the U.S. have been comprehensive, that is, institutions that offer a wide variety of courses and programs. The American preference for comprehensive institutions partly reflects equity goals, of giving all students an equal chance to succeed at what they choose, rather than have students channeled into specialized schools. More importantly, students have also voted with their feet, preferring comprehensive institutions that maximize choice and keep the promise of further education open. Vocational institutions themselves tend to want to become comprehensive as a way of adding status through academic programs and through being able to advertise that their students can choose either to enter labor markets directly or to continue on with advanced education. This has been most apparent in the shift of historically teacher training and agricultural colleges into comprehensive universities in the 1960s and 1970s and the recent trend of twoyear community colleges becoming universities.

16All of this has a self-reinforcing affect. As more and more occupations come to require school- or university-based preparation and as students and parents then lobby for entry into education for economic reasons, the shift away from ‘experiential’ learning toward formal schooling accelerates. A particularly vivid example of this involves the occupational preparation of visual artists, actors, dancers, musicians, and filmmakers. Traditionally such artists made their way by developing their skills on their own, working at various jobs, and learning from each other — the Impressionists working in Paris around 1900 or the abstract expressionists, poets, filmmakers, and writers in New York’s Greenwich Village during the 1950s. In contrast ‘academic training’ in formal art schools had a pejorative connotation, typically viewed as regurgitating old art, emphasizing classroom copying rather than creating new art forms. Beginning sometime in the 1980s, however, most artists in the U.S. began to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in fine arts from a conventional university or art school, a practice increasingly adopted by actors, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers. Such schooling provides access to complex tools and equipment (computers, video and audio equipment, kilns), to a community of other artists, to the credentials necessary for teaching jobs, and to education in the history and theory of art, including ways of thinking that are newly important in conceptual art. In highly competitive professions, the art degree opens doors to employment in the art world, including jobs in museums, galleries, video production, management, and teaching that do not involve producing art so much as keeping artists in touch with current developments. The master of fine arts (MFA) degree has itself become increasingly necessary for teaching jobs in the arts. Occupations that once epitomized freedom from formal schooling have thus become credentialed, in ways similar to accounting, teaching, and dentistry (Tomkins, 2002).

17New occupations have evolved in the same way, striving to develop the status of professions with required levels of education and certification. The occupations based on computers and electronics began with computer programmers whose preparation in the 1960s and 1970s was informal: programmers learned by reading manuals and by doing. Gradually, however, programming moved into formal schooling, with baccalaureate programs for programmers; sub-baccalaureate programs for those working with applications (e.g., word processing and spreadsheet programs); and graduate programs for those aiming to enter research and development. The cycle of informal preparation superseded by formal schooling is now being replicated in internet-related occupations, where at first individuals prepared by learning HTML and website design on their own. Then programs were created in community colleges and subsequently drifted into four-year institutions incorporating elements of design, programming, and marketing, often under the label of multimedia (Villeneuve, 2000). None of these school-based programs are absolutely necessary for entry into these new professions, in the way that they are for the formally licensed professions like law and medicine. But for all of these occupations, formal schooling has become increasingly the dominant path of entry.

18The reorganization of work also generates new specialties that become distinct occupations with their own educational requirements, reinforcing the cycle of vocationally-driven schooling. Business has created sub-occupations with specialized programs, including those for purchasing agents, sales representatives, accounting, insurance, and actuarial science, hospitality services management, real estate, and apparel and accessories marketing. Medicine has become increasingly fragmented, leading to the emergence of school based programs for physicians’ assistants, certified nurse practitioners and nurse’s aides, midwife-practitioners, cardiac technologists, radiological technicians, and physical therapists. Law has spawned paralegals and legal secretaries; engineers have begotten engineering technicians; architects have sired architectural drafting; and accountants now rely on para-accountants and spreadsheet specialists trained in community colleges. Of course, talented individuals can still find their way into many of these occupations without formal credentials in ways they cannot to become medical doctors and lawyers. But in all these occupations formal schooling is increasingly the way to go.

19Educational institutions themselves contribute to the pressures for vocationalism, particularly by engaging in competition for additional students. The most typical form of institutional competition is to open new programs as demand develops. Almost every suggestion for a new program comes with an assessment of the anticipated job market, and state agencies typically ask for data on the demand for the program before approving it in public universities. In addition, education institutions strive for higher status through “institutional drift”—by offering degrees for jobs higher in the occupational hierarchy. Most public comprehensive universities used to be normal schools preparing teachers; many of them subsequently became comprehensive state colleges serving undergraduates with a few master’s level programs. Some of these, as has happened in California, make the claim that they should be allowed to offer the Ph.D., the mark of a true research university. At the sub-baccalaureate level, regional vocational schools, established in the 1970s to provide vocational education to clusters of high schools, adopted adult vocational programs and then became technical institutes. Technical institutes become comprehensive community colleges. The pressure from community colleges now is to provide baccalaureate degrees as add-ons to their associate degree programs. This kind of institutional drift contributes to more and more institutions providing occupational credentials at higher levels.

20Reinforcement has also come from students seeking to amplify their professional qualifications. Once vocationalism is underway, more schooling becomes necessary for students as a form of self-defense, particularly if they want access to the highest status and best paying professions. The students need only look at the competition in front of them: entry into high-status professional schools and four-year colleges is fierce. Battles over access, the use of standardized entrance tests, and affirmative action result in political and legal wars. And the escalation of credentials seems to have no end. Increasingly undergraduates are earning credits in two, three, and sometimes even four majors as a way of gaining an advantage in the job market. Graduate students in engineering, law, medicine, and business are enrolling in multiple or combined programs like Biotechnolgy and Business or Law and Medicine. Given the dominant equation that more schooling leads to better jobs, there seems little likelihood of the tide turning.

21Amid all of this, the liberal arts whithered. They did not die, but they are certainly not flourishing. Mostly, what used to be thought of as the liberal arts are dead-ended in general education courses offered, where they exist, primarily during the first year of college, with occasional snatches in the second year. They are the appetizers before the main dish, the major or in many instances today, the majors that lead to the labor market and the professions, sometimes directly, or sometimes through enrollment in post-first degree professional schools. It is possible to think about a reinvigorated argument for liberal arts education, but this requires giving them a purpose beyond the vague conception that introductions to literature, languages, history, and the natural sciences are necessary if one is to be considered educated. To achieve a firmer and more aggressive argument for liberal arts education, however, requires understanding where the notion of liberal arts came from and what has happened to it.

22What later became the liberal arts once had clear purposes, goals that were inextricably bound to education. In the early 19th century collegiate education was structured around shaping the mind through certain subject-based exercises and providing the mind with the essential elements of moral character. In more concrete terms this meant studying Latin, Greek, mathematics, philosophy, literature, and other such subjects that trained the mind much like sport activities trained the body, for the mind was thought of as a muscle whose various parts could be strengthened by appropriate mental exercises. The subjects themselves were important because they prepared students for their roles as leading citizens. Knowledge of languages, mathematics, literature, and philosophy was expected to produce educated leaders with the capacity to make wise and good decisions. The package was powerful, but in the context of an increasingly economic-driven society, it was unsustainable (Thelin, 2004).

23Professionally oriented courses entered the curriculum in increasing numbers, almost invariably associated with attracting students, providing them with a justification for spending time in school rather than working. By the end of the 19th century, a more clearly articulated notion of preparing young people directly for the labor market had evolved. The liberal arts still retained a hold, less because they trained the mind muscle or signified that one was prepared or should be for public leadership, but more because their continuing value as emblematic of being educated, if not learned. In the decades between the end of World War I and the 1950s, the liberal arts received a substantial boost as part of globalization—although that word was not yet in vogue. Two world wars in less than 30 years, a devastating world-wide economic depression in the 1930s, the horrors of fascism and the looming presence of the Soviet Union, strengthened the belief that exposure to the liberal arts—literature, history, foreign languages, and the sciences—would give students a better sense of their responsibilities as democratic citizens and improve their capacity to act on those responsibilities. This noble idea virtually collapsed after 1960 as the waves of students entered higher education in search of economic rewards and as faculty turned in creasingly to disciplines and specializations, leaving both students and faculty in the pleasant position of agreeing that the liberal arts were not all that important.

24The result was a rush to make the liberal arts more relevant, almost exclusively through general education requirements. This usually takes one of two forms. The first is to create special interdisciplinary courses in the first year allowing students to choose among them. Almost always the courses are spiced up with attractive titles. Whether students like them or not depends upon the theatrical abilities of the instructors. The second alternative is to designate introductory courses in the existing disciplines as appropriate general education courses, allowing students some leeway in choosing in which discipline they want to be ‘generally educated’. Since many instructors view the introductory course in their discipline as an introduction to more advanced courses, there is often not very much general education in them. To some students general education courses look like they are there just to fill in time. There are some ways out of this quandary by, for example, expanding the number and range of interdisciplinary majors so that introductory courses can be broadened, or by taking important and powerful themes like environmental development or finding peace in a world where wars are a constant, and converting them into liberal arts courses. While almost every college and university engages regularly in revising its general education requirements, in fact, there does not seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for the efforts.

  • 3 While they correctly point out that different groups have benefited differently from the expansion (...)

25It is easy to be discouraged about seeing higher education simply as a transmission belt from learning into economic roles. This is especially the case when extended schooling has many other benefits. It seems to increase levels of tolerance and the capacity to problem solve, for example. Schooling has clearly been central to efforts to increase equity. Educational institutions are more inclusive than a system of job entry based on personal contacts and family connections. When degrees become the primary criterion for jobs, educational inclusiveness opens doors to women, racial minorities, immigrants, gays, and other groups traditionally discriminated against. It is hard to imagine the equity gains of the last half century without a tight connection between formal schooling and labor markets. For better and for worse, the American system of higher education has become dominated by vocational goals and in the process it has produced an enormous increase in education levels and economic opportunities.3

2.3 The conflicts of vocationalism

  • 4 Over the last few decades, highly publicized efforts to give civic and moral or ethical education (...)

26That said, the problems generated by an ever demanding emphasis on vocational outcomes are substantial. The most obvious of these has been a dramatic decline in the civic, moral, and intellectual purposes of education. Public schooling in the United States initially developed with civic and moral goals and the value of education for citizenship continues to be frequently reiterated—although it is often so rhetorical that it is usually hard to take seriously. Less frequently there are appeals to disconnect higher education from immediate vocational goals, usually by suggesting that skills connected to reading literature, learning history, and understanding social science methodologies and the natural sciences greatly improve a broad range of analytic abilities, which can then be applied to work situations. Often these appeals are connected to calls for a resuscitated general education in the liberal arts, as well as limitations on the proliferation of professional majors and degrees. Overall, however, the basic message is the same: where students have real choices and are predominantly motivated by occupational goals, there seems to be a relentless diminution of the civic and moral purposes of schooling. The liberal arts have given way to general education, which is usually a smorgasbord of different courses with limited appeal. Students mainly just want to get them over with so they can get on to the real business of education, namely their professionally oriented majors. Instead of serious liberal arts coursework, colleges have substituted communications skills and critical thinking and other such vague notions of education, so that you can teach pretty much anything if you can claim it contributes to the needed skills of the 21st century. In a world where student choice co-exists with professors’ reluctance to teach outside their own specializations, it seems that almost anything goes. Attention to civic and moral education is not usually among them.4

27Less a conflict and more a manifestation of the confusion that surrounds vocational or professional education is the ambiguity of what we mean by vocationalism. One meaning involves occupational intentions, when students and others view the purpose of higher education as occupational preparation. This obviously is what professional majors and professional schools are meant to do. Whether this is actually occurring in a professional program is not always clear, and parents, professors, students, and the institution itself may disagree about whether the intention is being fulfilled. This may lead to conflicts between instructors promoting intellectual engagement and students viewing schooling in purely instrumental terms, i.e., ‘Will this really help me get a better job?’

28A second meaning of vocationalism depends on whether an institution’s subject matter is directed toward overtly vocational ends— the criterion of an occupational curriculum. Like occupational intent, this concept at first seems simple: professional programs in universities, community colleges, and technical institutes all have occupational curricula designed to prepare students for particular occupations. But here too, what exactly an occupational curriculum is has been contested. Except in narrowly-defined job training, differences exist over what curriculum produces the most effective workers—over the appropriate skills to teach, the appropriate mix of academic (or theoretical) versus vocational (or applied) coursework, the balance between school-based learning and work-based learning in internships, and the best pedagogy for teaching vocational competencies. Indeed, in most occupational areas debates over the curriculum are among the most heated issues. What kind of curriculum really makes a good doctor, teacher, businessperson, or a good anything else?

29A third conception of vocationalism, related employment, involves the connection between education and employment. A fully vocationalized education program is one in which the large majority of its graduates find employment in the occupational area for which they have been trained. But when a program’s completers enter diverse occupations, as do university students in the humanities, then we tend not to consider the program vocational. In other cases a program can be vocational in intent and curriculum, but its completers fail to find related employment. Not being able to find employment in the occupation one has presumably been prepared for can be demoralizing, but it rarely has anything to do with the curriculum one has studied. Short- and long-term labor market oversupplies, as well as the reputation of the institution from which one has graduated (assuming one graduates, which is often not the case), play critical roles. Whatever the actual reasons, the failure of related employment produces anger and gives an institution a bad reputation.

30This kind of problem is generally avoided with a fourth version of vocationalism—required schooling, when a particular kind of schooling is an absolute requirement to enter an occupation: medical school for doctors, Ph.D. programs for professors, and pre-baccalaureate licenses for aviation mechanics, for example. Here too the failure of a credentialed specialist to find work in the specialty may have little to do with the actual program of study, since market conditions and institutional reputations are fairly determinative. The consolation is that the graduate knows that without a required credential, he or she will not even be considered.

31When education or training programs fail to satisfy all four of these criteria, conflict is almost inevitable. Some institutions are clearly vocational by all of these criteria, but others are vocational only according to one or two of these attributes. The alignment of all four conceptions of vocationalism is rare precisely because non-vocational components persist; almost all vocational programs try to teach other things than the components of the occupation. The degree to which non-strictly occupational components are included always reflects the level of agreement and disagreement about the purposes of education. But most of all, it turns out to be very hard to actually align educational programs and employment requirements— which also turns out to be the dirty little secret few want to talk about. Even as colleges and universities have become increasingly vocational, conflicts emerge—not only with older, pre-vocational conceptions of schooling, but also among the different strands of a fully vocational form of education.

32One of the reasons for this is ironic: the shift of work preparation into education institutions has effectively separated work preparation from work itself. This separation has caused many difficulties in the school-to-work transition, problems that necessarily arise once schooling is separated from employment (Ryan, 2001). Schools cannot simply become the same as workplaces. This has led to mechanisms linking schooling and work, ranging from informal to formal. The first encompasses various efforts particularly through career information and guidance (CIG) and through internships to prepare students to be rational choosers. If these mechanisms work well, then students emerge from education knowledgeable about the variety of occupational options and their educational requirements, and capable of making rational (or self-interested) decisions among them. However, when these mechanisms work poorly, as often occurs in high schools and community colleges (National Research Council, 2003) then students are left misinformed, make the wrong decisions, and wind up in occupations for which they are unsuited and in which they are dissatisfied. When this occurs the waste of education and of personal damage to the individual is high.

33A different linkage mechanism relies on direct connections between educational institutions and workplaces. Examples include school-business partnerships, advisory committees, customized training in which technical institutes provide training for specific firms, and a co-operative system where schools and employers jointly prepare workers. But here too the quality of these linkages varies greatly. In the U.S. these are largely informal and ineffective. Where these connections are weak, the possibilities for educational preparation becoming disconnected from work requirements increases. The hope is that educational institutions will provide theoretical grounding and analytic skills, while the workplace teaches on-the-job competences and the culture of work. In practice, the connections are usually imprecise and may even be dysfunctional, leading to the common complaint that the student entered the workplace without knowing anything about work.

34A third linkage mechanism includes a variety of credentials, licenses, and qualifications, again ranging from highly formalized to informal. When an educational credential works as intended, it provides uniform expectations among all participants. The credential or license informs everyone that the individual is competent. Employers can specify the competencies they need; education and training programs use credential requirements to shape their curriculum and motivate students with the promise of employment; and students know what competencies they must master to become marketable. This is the positive sense of credentials, as market-making devices coordinating the activities of employers, education providers, and students. However, credentials are not really set by the market; they do not just happen because everyone understands what is needed. They require considerable institutional effort to create and to enforce, and require three distinct elements: (1) competencies or standards must be established; (2) methods of assessing competencies must be created; and (3) a mechanism for policing the process must be developed. Each of these is complex and potentially controversial, and can be implemented in many different ways ranging from laissez-faire to highly bureaucratic. If any of these three elements are inconsistent with the others, then the value of a credential becomes uncertain and “credentialism” takes on the negative connotation of educational requirements not rationally related to employment requirements. If, for example, employers hire on the basis of experience and ignore degrees and diplomas, then credentials may become superfluous. If the competencies taught are not those required on the job, then both students and employers are disappointed with the results. When jobs require skills (like highly specific skills) that schools cannot or should not teach, then the mismatch generates employer complaints that students lack necessary skills. And, as always, the nature of credentials varies substantially among countries. In the U.S. with its historic tendency toward laissez-faire government, there is very little effort (except for licensed occupations and professions) to codify the content of credentials; most credentials are informal and depend on the reputation of educational institutions, rather than being monitored by an external agency, and so their quality varies enormously.

35The mechanisms linking vocationalized education to employment have therefore been the subject of extensive dissatisfaction and debate. The resolution of these debates varies widely, and the positive and negative meanings of credentialism depend on the nature of these solutions. The point here is that once preparation for work has been separated from work itself, such problems are inevitable. Without strong government or industry or professional association intervention, shaping or even determining the competences to be taught for different occupations or jobs within occupations, the connections between schooling and employment are left uncertain.

36Vocationalism also remains controversial because of its ambiguous effect on equity. Equality of educational opportunity has been a centerpiece of U.S. educational policy since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that state-mandated segregation is unconstitutional. That decision signaled a critical role for schooling at every level, for it argued that education was crucial to economic opportunity. Although originally focused on elementary schools, over the decades the growing vocational importance of higher education intensified struggles around access to and success in colleges and universities, in large measure because the consequences for earnings, class standing, and upward mobility had become so enormous. The expansion of access, particularly to universities, extended education to groups who had previously not had much chance at higher education including more working class students, minority, and immigrants. Greater access, however, has not meant equitable access. About 25 percent of each college age cohort in the U.S., and even greater percentages of low-income, African- American, and Latino students, still fail to complete secondary education, even as there have been efforts to expand higher education. As higher education has become more important, the failure to complete high school has grown to entail disastrous consequences.

37In addition, the “new students” in post-secondary education have gained access to institutions increasingly differentiated along occupational lines: elite universities and elite liberal arts colleges preparing for the highest professions; regional or second-tier universities with lower levels of resources and lower rates of completion, aiming at lower-level semi-professions and managerial jobs; and community colleges with even lower levels of resources and rates of completion, preparing for middle-skilled jobs—implying that greater access does not mean equal access to the same kind of institution, the same levels of resources, or the same kinds of occupational outcomes. And, these inequalities become compounded when the incompletion rates are included. The differentiation of every education institution along roughly occupational lines has been both horizontal—in differences among tracks and programs, like the university-bound track in secondary schools distinct from tracks unlikely to lead to university, or engineering majors distinct from education majors—and vertical in differences among institutions preparing for different levels of the occupational structure. It is hard to imagine a vocationalized system of education that is not differentiated in this way, as long as doctors and lawyers require different amounts and kinds of schooling than do accountants and teachers, clerks and auto mechanics. This means that the all-too familiar differences of income and class, of race and ethnicity, of foreign birth and language status, and of gender show up in the outcomes, now through the mechanisms of vocationalism and educational attainment rather than through the direct transmission of status via families.

38It also appears that vocationalism undermines learning itself, which is counter-intuitive since vocational preparation is supposed to increase student motivation to learn. Unfortunately, evidence is now mounting that when students think of schooling in purely utilitarian and credentialist terms, then they have every reason to get away with as little work as possible as long as they obtain the credentials necessary for employment. Cox (2009) powerfully shows this in her study of students in community colleges, determining that they are highly vocationalist in their orientation, concerned overwhelmingly with schooling as a mechanism of economic advancement and therefore suspicious of anything (including related academic coursework and general education) that appears to be irrelevant. Their most common and important question is, “Why do I have to learn this?” The students tend to view learning as accumulating facts and thus believe that discussions instructors use as a way of exploring different conceptions and attitudes are a waste of time. The students become highly credentialist in the sense that they view the grades and credits they accumulate as the most essential aspect of education, rather than thinking that the grades and credits are representations of their accumulated learning. They consistently make cost-benefit decisions about whether extra effort is worth it. How little do they have to do in order to get an assignment accepted: “What’s the least amount of change I need to make to get the paper accepted?” Although Cox’s analysis focuses on community college students, the results appear to be readily applicable to a large number of college and university students. The dominant ethos of vocational relevance may in fact be consistently undermining the very learning and the broader competencies that would prepare them best for the long run.

2.4 What’s right and what’s wrong

39It’s easy to poke fun at the excesses of the Education Gospel and its rhetoric of renewal through education, but we should understand how much of it is truly admirable. The Gospel places its faith in education for the salvation of a society—rather than, for example, geographic expansion, colonialism, a hyper-active militarism or free-market ideology. Education has in so many places carried the hopes of civilization, and a vision that reinforces its value is surely to be admired. A second positive element is that the Education Gospel has consistently paid attention to the public dimensions of schooling, including its potential value in economic growth and in promoting equity and social cohesion, rather than emphasizing individual benefits only. As a result it has justified the public expenditures necessary to expand schooling. Finally, the Education Gospel has expanded the goals of educational institutions, making them richer enterprises where students and teachers alike can establish connections among the political, moral, and economic aspects of society, where the vocational and the academic can be explored simultaneously. The vocational goals of education become objectionable only when they displace all non-vocational purposes. But the worst excesses of the Education Gospel should not blind us to the expansive possibilities of adding new purposes to old institutions.

40However, the Education Gospel also contains a number of failings. The most obvious is that it constantly exaggerates the pace of change. The enormous transformations in occupations, from agricultural labor to manufacturing occupations to service work to “knowledge” work, have taken place over two centuries. The pace of change today may be faster than in the past, but it is important not to exaggerate, otherwise we risk a kind of ‘Chicken Little’ scenario in which we are always talking about and acting as if the sky was about to fall in a matter of minutes or an Armageddon scenario with a giant meteorite about to crash. It looks like about 70 percent of new jobs in the near future will require no more than a high school education, and about 75 percent will require no more than modest on-thejob training. Occupational changes will continue to unfold, but the cataclysmic language of the Education Gospel is simply unwarranted.

41In developed countries the real problem may in fact not be under-education, but a newer problem of over-schooling—of levels of schooling that are too high for the occupations individuals are likely to have. Indeed, in several countries including the U.S., England, and Germany the evidence suggests that perhaps 35–40 percent of workers are over-educated for the jobs they hold (Hardtog, 2000). While there may be counter-examples among rapidly-developing countries, in China and India, for example, in many places the Education Gospel badly exaggerates the proportion of jobs requiring more schooling. In doing so, it raises expectations that cannot be met, and thus risks turning many against the very expansion of higher education that may be desirable.

42Similarly, the Education Gospel has generally exaggerated the contributions of education to economic growth (Wolf, 2002). Levels of education are easy to quantify, so they have often been incorporated into the statistical work of growth economists. But a much greater variety of factors are responsible for growth including global economic conditions, national governing structures; the sociopolitical climate including its stability; macro-economic policies (fiscal, monetary, trade, and tax policies); institutional settings including financial, legal, and corporate institutions; structural and supportive policies including education, labor relations, science and technology policy; and regulatory and environmental policies (Landau, Taylor, and Wright, 1996). The remarkable growth of Asian countries, the decline of the U.S. in the 1980s and its resurgence in the 1990s, the varied fortunes of the European Union, the stagnation of most African countries, and the recent worldwide financial crisis are all due to many different factors. Surely, no one can possibly believe that the financial collapse was caused by the failures of education.

43This over-preoccupation with education simply promises too much so that frustration with the educational system regularly boils over. The “let’s make education better” mantra often means that public policies designed to alleviate social and economic conditions necessary for educational success are neglected. The result has been delusional goals and self-defeating efforts since educational institutions themselves cannot cope with the differences among students caused by inadequate housing and health care, poor nutrition, community conditions that make daily life an immense struggle. For many students in higher education, the pressures of work and family in addition to schooling lead to dropping out, and these pressures cannot be alleviated without child care policies, income support, and employment policies well beyond what educational institutions themselves can provide.

44A worthy version of the Education Gospel would acknowledge the limitations of its current variant. It would avoid the exaggerated rhetoric and try to be more thoughtful about the pace of change and where that change is actually occurring. It would avoid “sloganeering,” particularly by being concrete about the practices entailed in phrases like “lifelong learning” or developing the necessary skills for the “knowledge revolution.” It would not treat education as the only solution or even the primary solution to complex social and economic problems, but would instead acknowledge that education is often part of the solution to growth, or social stability, or equity, or unemployment, and that other social and economic reforms are both necessary and complementary.

45Similarly, the practices associated with vocationalism have had much to offer, but they too often take exaggerated and inequitable forms. The most encouraging aspect of vocationalism is that it has made formal schooling much more important. In many ways occupational preparation in formal schooling is superior to traditional work-based learning and apprenticeships, which suffer from endemic conflicts between production and learning, the tendency of employers to poach workers rather than train their own, and the inequities of family-constrained mobility. But in some cases educational inflation seems to be taking place with no benefit either to the individual or to society—for example when individuals fail to obtain work in the vocations they have prepared for or when individuals continue their schooling because alternative forms of preparation have been eliminated. While educational expansion is often positive, it has its negative outcomes as well.

46As formal schooling has replaced on-the-job apprenticeships, it has facilitated the incorporation of new knowledge and new skills, including those based on research and advances in technology and work organization. Furthermore, it has brought new subjects into the curriculum, broadening conceptions of competence and bringing the outside world closer to the classroom than was previously true. The higher education system today is broader, more inclusive, and more open to change than at any time in history. Despite many limitations, higher education holds more promise for larger numbers of people and for its social and economic contributions than ever before, primarily due to its connections to vocational goals.

47The down-side is that vocationalism tends to become unbalanced in the competencies it teaches. In some cases—particularly low-level vocational education and short-term job training—it has become too job-specific and thus often fails to educate individuals for work over the long term and for continuing learning on one’s own. In other cases the academic slant of formal schooling has downgraded non-cognitive competencies like the visual and kinesthetic, important though they may be in life, and converted vocational and professional programs into academic exercises that are remote from the world, a complaint often registered by students. The version of vocationalism that seems most admirable is one that incorporates a variety of competencies, including cognitive and non-cognitive abilities, conceptual approaches and their application in different spheres including production, but that leaves job-specific and firm-specific skills to be learned on the job. These are balances not easily achieved in a world that tends to see things in either-or terms. They are balances worth supporting.

48One of vocationalism’s major contributions lies in transforming the potential for equity. The importance of higher education in providing access to the professions is certainly a major progressive step in comparison to the limits posed to access because of family status, race, gender, religion, political ideology, place of birth, and so on. Access is hardly free of these kinds of determinants and vocationalism has contributed its own forms of inequality through the differentiation of educational institutions that reflect various forms of discrimination and resource allocation. Still, few would call for a return to occupational access based on any other standard than educational achievement.

49Yet another admirable feature of vocationalism is that it has expanded options in educational institutions. This has led to the incorporation of new subjects and competencies, to more dynamic and entrepreneurial institutions, and to an education system less inward-looking and more responsive to external demands—from students, employers, and the public. On the other hand, the policies that would allow individuals to take advantage of choice—particularly with respect to career choice—are typically under-developed. Too many students (and their teachers) simply do not understand the possibilities and the consequences of the available choices. This means that one of the things all students need is knowledge of the educational system itself and of the appropriate paths to different occupations, along with the acquired ability to make appropriate choices at crucial junctures. The expansion of choice and the consequences of choices necessary for effective and productive decisions depend upon such information. Distortions lead to negative consequences in an environment of expansive possibilities.

50Overall, then, vocationalism has ushered in substantial advancements, particularly in expanding the roles of schooling, promoting both public and private goals, changing the nature of skill acquisition, enhancing the ability to address equity, and expanding choices and the flexibility of educational institutions. But for all these positive transformations, there are negative consequences as well. It would be good to expand the scope of positive consequences by providing a greater role for work-based learning rather than one that relies exclusively on school-based learning. This could be done by balancing the values of learning for its own sake with the values of citizenship and ethical behavior on the other hand, with an emphasis on vocational outcomes seeking greater equity through a variety of school and non-school policies. These are not simply nice ideas, but are essential in order to optimize vocational opportunities them - selves, for it is all too easy to imagine a world where narrow work skills are all that matter and where non-utilitarian subjects like the arts and the humanities have been eliminated. A world in which educational institutions are limited to providing preparation for job-specific entry is a world where the great educational gains of the last century have been turned upside down because educational institutions have turned into mass producing factories.


1 Earlier versions of this chapter were co-authored with W. Norton Grubb.

2 Grubb and Lazerson (2004, ch. 7) develop these issues and describe ways that school-based and work-based education programs can be integrated to capture the benefits of both.

3 While they correctly point out that different groups have benefited differently from the expansion of educational opportunities, Goldin and Katz (2008) make abundantly clear that staying in school is an advantageous decision. They also make clear that many young people currently are not taking advantage of the schooling available to them and therefore are substantially limiting their occupational and economic opportunities.

4 Over the last few decades, highly publicized efforts to give civic and moral or ethical education greater place in higher education have appeared. These function best when they are genuinely integrated into the academic basis of the courses. How effective these are in creating a stronger sense of civic and community responsibility remains uncertain. For a fervent call for civic education, see Colby, et al. (2007).

© Central European University Press, 2010

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