Arnold Kling thinks higher ed is essentially a “holding pen” and needs to transform to survive:

Education is at the center of the information age, and it is a driving force in economic growth. The information age is characterized by economies of scale, with diseconomies of scope. Ironically, college education is stuck in some industrial-era habits.

To take advantage of economies of scale, information-age companies must make their products inter-operate. Cell phone calls have to reach people with different providers. Computer software companies must go as far as they can to make their products inter-operable without eliminating proprietary advantages altogether. In the 1990’s, Microsoft thrived because its competitors failed to provide the level of inter-operability with third-party hardware and software that the Evil Empire delivered. The Internet took off because its protocols provide inter-operability.

Sean Hackbarth writes,

If anything, the future of higher education (beyond high school) will be for-profit businesses providing specific training. Firms would hire the companies to train their employees to use some new piece of technology or individuals will get certified so they have better chances in the job market. As time goes on and businesses view college life as “holding pen” the value of a four-year degree will diminish.

I’ve long thought that if college is to exist primarily as a job training center for the business world, it not only will but should fail. That’s never been the role of the academy and, frankly, it is amazingly unsuited for it. Professors are subject matter experts in their field but, at least in the “pure” academy, they are primarily theorists. Their job is to educate, not to train. Those are vastly different missions.

This distinction has become rather difficult to maintain in an era when, in order to be more “relevant” and compete for dollars, most colleges and universities have entered into the realm of vocational-technical training that was once reserved for trade schools and community colleges. Technical skills that were of a professional nature, notably engineering and architecture, have long been housed under the rubric of the academy. But, gradually, such things as nursing, criminal justice, marketing, hotel and restaurant management, and similar purely job training programs began to infiltrate.

They are simply not academic subjects. The problem with these fields, from the perspective of the academy, is that they are highly practical and best learned by hands-on experience. The sort of people who traditionally obtained a Ph.D. are almost certainly unqualified to teach most of these subjects, not only because of a different mindset but also a different career progression. The way to learn to manage a hotel is to work one’s way up the food chain, not devote a decade to post-graduate education in theory. So, either the professoriate for these fields have to be non-academics–in which case their standing within the academy is that of a lower caste–or they will be people with a foot in both camps, usually with a rather dubious Ph.D. earned late in life and without the intellectual commitment usual in those committed to the life of the mind.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bryan says:

    In the 1990’s, Microsoft thrived because its competitors failed to provide the level of inter-operability with third-party hardware and software that the Evil Empire delivered.

    Wow, he’s been sniffing too much of Bill Gates’ press release ink. MS thrived because they undercut efforts by other producers to work with the MS operating system. Also, Macintosh has always worked better with third-party peripherals (called “plug-and-play”, or “plug-and-reboot-your-hard-drive” under MS).

  2. Bryan says:

    That said, I agree with your basic premise.