We don’t JUST need more college graduates:  We need more college graduates in specific fields.

Why does this keep getting overlooked?  Another paper today came out today ( Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College) that argues for the need for more people to go to and complete college.  It includes the following quote:

By 2018 the demand for college-educated workers will rise 16 percent, while demand for other workers will stay flat.  At the same time, nearly two-thirds of jobs in 2018 will require some postsecondary education or training.

Here’s the thing.  That may well be true, but I guarantee that those increases are in specific fields, few of which are in the social sciences or humanities.  Those jobs are in areas of science, engineering and mathematics.  You know, the scary majors.  We import millions of Indian and Chinese technology workers every year because we don’t have enough trained people in this country to do that work, all while graduating more history and philosophy majors that our economy could ever absorb.  (Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the top 50 job titles for H1B Visas in 2011.  Of the top 10, 6 are IT, 2 are math/science, 1 is accounting and 1 is medical.)

Now, I appreciate the humanities topics.  My undergrad included liberal amounts of history, philosophy and literature.  But it also included a bunch of IT, and that’s what I made my living at.  I have a PhD in Education Policy, but I am using what I learned during that process to make a living as a statistician/analyst.  The fact is that we need college graduates in the fields we are importing, not just in general.

In some ways this is something the for-profits do better than traditional higher education.  Most degree programs are tied directly to an in-demand career field.  You don’t see University of Phoenix offering Bachelors degree’s in Women’s Studies or Poetry.  But even they fall short in providing the truly technical types of education that the country truly needs.

Part of the issue here is that we allow students to choose their major at a point in their life when they are 1) more interested in partying with their friends 2) think $30k is a lot of money and 2) have no idea how hard it can be to support one’s self.  But we also still haven’t entirely solved the problem of how to allow adults (who realize later that they made a mistake) to go back and retrain for a more technical field.  I could get a Masters in Engineering if I wanted, but would be hard pressed to go back and get a Bachelors without quitting my job.

As long as we continue to argue for more college graduates with specifying what types of fields, we will continue to produce large numbers of college graduates while still needing to import large amounts of talent.  Yes, calculus is hard.  So is organic chemistry and electrical engineering.  Programming is work, especially if your program is providing life support to ICU patients and therefore cannot fail.  But we need students learning how to do those types of things, not just getting degrees for the sake of the piece of paper.

Side note:  We still hear about health care jobs being where the demand is, which is sending more and more students to community college nursing programs and medical assistant training.  However evidence is starting to come in that there is an oversupply, at least at the associates level.  Employment is harder to find, and there are still challenges getting into bachelors level programs.  (Nursing bachelors programs are extremely tight because most nurses can make more actually nursing than as a professor teaching students; that short supply of teachers makes slots limited.)  Just as the late 80s/early 90s saw a ramp up then dive in IT people with minimal credentials being able to find jobs, the lucrative medical fields appear to be ramping up the level of education needed for the best jobs.