Thursday, October 13, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Markets

The recent silliness in Florida, in which the governor is questioning the need for more anthropologists, got me to thinking about the whole idea of market demand for degrees. When we speak of market demand for certain disciplines, which market do we mean?

There’s the market for B.A. grads (or A.A. grads, or A.S. grads) in private industry. Looking solely at that, you’d conclude that a field like psychology is pretty much DOA.

Then there’s the market for Ph.D. grads in a given discipline. There, psychology looks stronger, but English isn’t looking too hot.

Then there’s the market for seats in classes, or campus-based demand. Looking at that market, English and psych are both healthy, but engineering doesn’t look too good.

Some of the friction between colleges and states, I’m convinced, has to do with which market you look at. The two sides are looking at different markets, and drawing different conclusions. And as we move to “market-based” reforms, the divergence will grow.

On campus, the plain-vanilla gen ed disciplines are in consistently high demand. Some of that, of course, is a function of distribution requirements within degree programs, but the tuition is where the tuition is.

But distribution only explains a small part of the picture. Students cluster into majors like English and Psychology voluntarily, choosing them over engineering or computer science. They do that despite a well-orchestrated campaign telling all and sundry that tech is where the jobs are. Even many of the vocational programs -- criminal justice, human services, culinary -- are mostly non-technical.

It’s easy for folks on the outside to look at colleges as the personnel offices of the economy, and to request more engineers and fewer comparative lit majors. It’s even possible, if difficult, to shift funding around to encourage some paths more than others.

But at the end of the day, any policy that fails to account for both student choices and institutional imperatives is doomed to irrelevance.

Students aren’t drafted into majors. They select them. And students select majors for a host of reasons, perceived marketability being only one of them (and “perceived” is the key word). Some students won’t have anything to do with advanced math. Some will only do what their friends do. Some select for personal taste, some for perceived ease of completion and/or grading, and some just sort of drift through. (I was in the “personal taste” category.)

Colleges respond to the preferences that students express with their feet. It’s all well and good to hear a governor say that we need fewer psych majors and more engineering grads. But if the students avoid engineering like the plague and stuff the psych lectures full, and if my college is tuition-driven, then what, exactly, do you expect me to do?

If you want colleges to be able to channel students away from their expressed preferences and towards something else, you need to give those colleges the financial cushion to reduce the relevance of student tuition. In other words, if you want colleges to be more responsive to the “employer” market, you have to make them less dependent on the “student” market.

The usual ritualistic bleating about “market-based reforms,” on the one side, and “learning for learning’s sake,” on the other, fails to account for the paradox. What students want to take, and what employers want students to take, are not the same thing. If you want colleges to discount the former in favor of the latter, you have to pay for it. Otherwise, colleges will do what they have to do, and those anthropologists will just keep on coming. If the governor of Florida wants to snuff out psychology, he’ll need to pony up some serious cash to make all those small STEM classes sustainable. Failing that, he’s just blowing smoke. The markets have spoken.