Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Certainty We Don't Have

Quick: what will be the hot growth field in five to ten years?

The only honest answer I can imagine for that is “I don’t know.”  

Some guesses are better than others, of course.  I don’t see travel agents or mail carriers making huge comebacks, and it’s probably safe to guess that certain sorts of IT will be hot.  In different areas of the country, locally hot companies and industries may be easy to predict.  But on any sort of large scale, the pathway into the middle class is probably more opaque and rapidly changing now than it has been in generations.  “Eds and Meds” have been pretty good bets, except that “Eds” have taken huge cuts since 2008, and “Meds” are being reorganized on a massive scale.  We’ll still need education and health care, but the occupational profile of the providers of education and health care could change significantly.  They already are.

In the face of such sustained uncertainty, it’s both understandable and ironic that colleges are coming under unprecedented pressure to make career paths clear.  Especially at the community college level, we’re supposed to have “guided pathways” to “successful outcomes” in “high-demand fields” that render graduates “career ready.”  This, at the very moment that identifying what those safe and well-paid careers actually are has never been harder.

None of that is to demean or dismiss the importance of helping students understand pathways and processes.  Pathways are useful, if we know what they do and don’t include.  But for all of their utility, they’re also talismanic.  They ward off, and reflect, a real anxiety.

American culture may not think of itself as Calvinist anymore, but a certain streak remains.  It’s a short walk from “predestination” to “meritocracy” -- in both cases, success or failure is taken to reflect some deeper, underlying truth about the person.  If you were the right sort of person, you would have done the right sorts of things and been successful.  If you did the right sorts of things and didn’t succeed, well, you must not have been the right sort of person.  We offer certainty that we don’t actually have, because certainty is the sort of thing that successful people project.

If that’s your outlook, then you’ll probably be pretty skeptical of, if not openly hostile to, redistributive policies.  Writing economic hierarchy into human nature is a neat trick, if you’re on top of the hierarchy.

Community colleges, and public colleges generally, occupy a delicate position.  On an individual level, it’s still very much true that you’re better off economically with a college degree than without one, and that some degrees pay much better than others.  (Whether you’re better off as a college dropout than if you had never started is another issue.)  But systemically, at some point, either the demand is there or it is not.  Large-scale underemployment of credentialed people is a difficult trend to square with our residual cultural Calvinism.  It’s almost as if macroeconomics were not simply personal ethics writ large…

In a period of such rapid and opaque change, I’m thinking we need to be a little more honest with students about the world for which they’re being prepared.  Yes, we need to arm them with employable skills, both technical and “soft.”  Basic needs matter.  But we also need to give them the skills to roll with change, and some awareness that no matter how solid a given occupation or field may look at a given moment, it can change abruptly under their feet.  That’s no reflection on them as individuals.  

In the best of all possible “outcomes,” the students might even start to look upon themselves as equipped not only to find a place in the world, but to change it.  

I’m not sure how to capture that in a performance funding metric.  But it strikes me as no more difficult than forecasting the surest bets to a middle-class salary ten years from now.