Which Came first? The University or the Economy?

Published on: Jul 5, 2013 by Michael SnyderNo comments

What is the role of higher education in sustaining and driving a national economy? Dr. Peter Kissinger, a seasoned bioscience entrepreneur and professor of analytical chemistry at Purdue University, (and also a fellow colleague MEK’s Managing Principal on the Advisory Council of the $1 billion Discovery Park at Purdue) offers this enlightening view in a guest blog on MEK MarketWatch.

Which Came First – The University or the Economy?

By Peter Kissinger, PhD 

Affordable higher education follows innovating economies and doesn’t create them.  Yet it is common these days to see higher education as a route to sustained economic success while debating a higher education bubble.  Tuition, fees and living costs are high; graduates are left underemployed and student loan defaults accelerate.  Some say that the expansion over five decades is unsustainable. Others claim a “knowledge based economy” and that the essence of job creation is academic innovation with a formal embrace of entrepreneurship.  STEM education in K-12 is also promoted with enthusiasm, although without salary incentives for teachers or even minimal supplies to make experiential learning a reality.  Worksheets from science textbook publishers drive kids away from science.  Others propose making up for our weak K-12 system with green cards for all science and engineering Ph.Ds. from overseas. Trade publications then argue there is a glut of Ph.Ds. trapped in perpetual motion between low wage postdoc and adjunct teaching positions.  We can’t seem to get on the same page.  Why not?

Once there were the Ivy League, a few prestigious independent universities and a network of private colleges.  Most originated with religious sects in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These were focused on philosophy, religion, history, classics and law.  Greek and Latin were favored.  A few provided military skills such as ballistics and surveying. Science and engineering only accelerated as a topic for higher education after the Morrill Act of 1862. Training for the ministry or law defined early American education.  Private colleges and universities were for a few good men and even fewer good women.  Everyone else got calluses.  No mammalian species could afford to take more than a few of its offspring, at the height of their fecundity and physical prowess, and isolate them to study Greek. The popular terminal degree into the early twentieth century was an 8th grade diploma.  Families needed pairs of hands and strong backs.  An 8th grade diploma assured skills with reading, writing, ‘rithmetic.  I know because my grandmothers could do all three.

Colleges and Universities expanded as the result of industrialization and mechanized agriculture and began to grow exponentially in the 1950s. The likes of Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs changed the world, but were far from credentialed scholars.  The innovation economy is driven as much by enthusiastic, stubborn and impatient dropouts as by the credentialed.  They’ve created trillions of dollars of value and impacted billions of people.  There are not many professors or Ph.D.’s who have come close.  I love teaching and see it as a route to everlasting life.   Oddly though, much of what I use day-to- day was the innovation of dropouts.   I respect them.  Our degreed students regularly work for companies and whole industries started by dropouts.  Academia is a safe harbor with a focus on the known and dogmatic notions of how things work (think MBA).  Entrepreneurship is about the future and changing it.

So what’s the problem? Globalization has tightened economies and margins have flattened, yet the cost of degreed entitlements has accelerated.  The numbers of youth impounded from productive work has put higher education at a tipping point in the USA.   Campuses now compete on food quality, recreation, single rooms with private baths, research excellence, and ratings from specious magazines. Where we undershoot workforce requirements is with technical skills, where supply is short. Some call this the “skills gap.”  Consider that a commercial truck driving certificate will pay more per year than degrees in art history or elementary education.  That’s OK.  There are many such middle-skill positions that make an economy go, just as the sergeants make an army go.  We are not respecting these people and these positions as we should.

Near the conclusion of commencement ceremonies comes the familiar refrainI hereby confer upon each of you the XYZ degree, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereunto appertaining.”  The tassel on the mortarboard hat is then moved from right to left, a symbol that the graduates have ideas in their heads that cause most to vote against their own economic interests.  Affordable higher education is a good thing (think GI Bill), but it is not the only thing. If we continue to stifle innovation with credentialism, regulatory frictions and confiscatory taxes, we will not soon recover from the bubble of rising costs and reduced opportunities.  Please respect the productive and impatient who dropped out and created value for those of us who stayed.  Thank them for making your education and your employment possible.


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