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Deconflicting Academia and Non-Academic Professions

NOTE:  I've been thinking lately about the intersection of higher education -- advanced education, in particular -- and non-academic professions.  What follows are some of the results, as more of a thought exercise and/or treatise than a sourced essay.

Kyle R. Brady


INTRODUCTION

Academia was, originally, designed to serve one of three roles:  to prepare the elite for life within their own levels of society, to function as advanced religious education and prepare the devout for life in service to their religion, or to act as a self-feeding academic mechanism itself and train the studious for a lifetime of service within the halls of academia.

However, as society and life evolved, so did the academic world.

By the mid-1900s, Western higher education was designed to be the force multiplying platform through which individuals of any background or level of society could achieve what they sought, so long as they were sufficiently intelligent and undertook the necessary efforts.  Academia, then, became a professional training ground and a gateway to financial and social success, while still serving its traditional religious and academic roles.

By the early 2000s, higher education became a necessary prerequisite for any career or profession that was not low-skill, low-wage, laborious, or some combination therein.  Where a high school diploma was previously sufficient, a minimum of an Associate's degree was required, with a Bachelor's preferred.

In 2017, this degree-creep has only magnified.  Bachelor's degrees are now often required for entry-level positions, with Master's degrees preferred.  In some fields, a Master's is required for entry-level positions; in other fields, a Master's is required for career advancement.

Yet, there remains no small amount of conflict between academia and non-academic professions, particularly in advanced education.  

 

ADVANCED EDUCATION:  PROGRAM DESIGN

Advanced education -- defined, here, as degrees or certificates above the level of a Bachelors -- comes in a variety of forms, including Certificates, Master's degrees, and Doctorates.  There are terminal and non-terminal Master's degrees, just as there are a variety Doctorate types.  Each type of advanced education is tailored to a specific end-goal, a specific field or sub-field, and cultivating particular skillsets.

These skillsets, however, are not necessarily always appropriately tailored.  

In the pursuit of advanced education, there are inevitably a number of courses that must be completed and some of them have only purely academic value:  if the degree is going to be used to advance a non-academic profession, then such courses have no external value.  Moreover, many courses place an emphasis on outcomes rather than process, which is somewhat antithetical to a non-academic profession.  And, worse still, a great deal of advanced education places an emphasis on longform writing, deep research, and other academically-oriented elements that do not necessarily match external desires.

At what point must these differences be resolved?  There are already a number of variations designed to help address this problem, such as a Master's of Professional Studies instead of a Master's of Arts or a Master's of Science.  However, many programs, and the individuals charged with providing instruction within such programs, are still too often mismatched with the external needs and goals. 

What good is a course of advanced education intended to support external careers, if the program is improperly designed and executed, mismatched with these external careers?  What good is a properly-oriented program, if those who execute it are strictly academics and lack external professional experience?  What good is a program that prepares its students for something other than what they are using the degree to pursue?
 

ADVANCED EDUCATION:  COSTS

Another problem with advanced education are the costs. 

For some terminal degrees -- such as a PhD or an MFA -- funding is available to the top and/or preferred students, alongside a support structure that facilitates students' existential needs. In such a situation, tuition and fees may be largely paid (or, perhaps, fully paid), with some form of stipend, compensation, and housing considerations.  All of this is designed to help students fully focus on their studies, without the distractions of life-supporting employment.

However, non-terminal and professional programs do not often provide enough funding to fully address university costs, much less existential considerations.  Students are expected to take out loans (up to as much as $65,000/year) in order to cover all costs of attendance.  This situation unfortunately also requires students to work -- unless they are independently wealthy, have family support, or are lucky enough for an employer to support this effort -- in order to address the costs of life not directly associated with being a student.  This is made especially difficult, in the event that the student has a spouse and/or children requiring support.

Further, and with the exception of some of the fantastic and rigorous online opportunities for advanced education, such non-terminal programs require on-campus attendance that does not easily match any form of standard or supportive employment.  

The outcome of such conditions, then, is an extraordinarily high cost -- financial, career, opportunity, and domestic -- to advanced education.  Not unlike some of the current problems of the military, there are not enough so-called on-ramps and off-ramps for advanced education:  it is easiest to undertake when young, single, unattached, unestablished, and immediately after the completion of an undergraduate program.  Even if the easiest route is taken, the financial burden of this effort -- supported by loans from the federal government and/or private entities -- will continue for years, if not decades, following a student's graduation.
 

ADVANCED EDUCATION:  EMPLOYMENT

Although many employers expect an undergraduate degree for entry-level employment, there seems to often be confusion regarding the focus:  in many cases, the major will allegedly not match what is being sought, even though the same skillsets apply.  In particular fields, this is made worse by the proliferation of major options and differences between universities.  A perfect example are the differences between criminal justice, government, political science, international relations, and foreign policy degrees, as they all exist within the social/soft sciences, have the same fundamental skillsets, and differ only in the areas of specific focus:  any differences are immaterial for employment and can be compensated for with proper job training.

This problem is amplified in the advanced education environment.  Not only do advanced degrees come with a variety of degree types, titles, and foci that may be confusing or unintelligible to employers -- including government -- but advanced education is also misunderstood for the way it should be applied to employment.  An advanced degree does not make an applicant somehow overqualified for a position not requiring or requesting such an education; rather, it simply makes them more able to fulfill the duties of the position, succeed within structures and requirements, and able to undertake more complex workloads.  Moreover, if advanced education is incorrectly viewed as a disqualifier -- with the faulty assumption that the applicant is unwilling to do the work or that they may somehow be unwilling to comply with a supervisor's requests, simply on the basis of their degree -- then there exists a clear disconnect between employers and advanced education.

Additionally, employers -- again, including government -- too often seem to misunderstand the requirements of advanced education.  To support their advanced education, individuals may have undertaken positions irrelevant to their overall career -- even after already developing a career -- in order to better fit the needs of their course of advanced education and their existential needs not supported by their educational institution.  In other cases, such individuals may appear to be unemployed during their time of study, even as they work in academic support roles for income labeled as stipends and honoraria or in work-for-benefit exchanges that support their existential needs.  This is not unemployment or underemployment:  it is temporary and purposeful employment in service of advanced education.
 

ADVANCED EDUCATION PROPOSALS

Although I have previously advocated for education as a cornerstone for personal and societal development (available via PDF or at Academia.edu) and still standby this, the current situation is untenable.  What follows, then, are four substantive proposals.

1.  Realign Design
The design of advanced education programs needs to be realigned with the purpose they are intended to serve, across all institutions.  If a student is part of an advanced education program, they presumably had to complete an undergraduate education first and receive a degree in a field somehow related to their advanced studies.  In the modern environment, this means institutions can place a high degree of confidence in the academic exposure of their advanced students:  they have already studied a great number of things across a variety of fields, some in great depth.

As such, programs need to wholly focus on essential components of their programs.  There should be no situation in which a student pursuing higher education has to take any course not directly tied to their choice of focus.  All courses should be tightly oriented around this focus, with an interest in streamlining and optimization.

Moreover, academic programs designed to produce anything other than academics must also be realigned.  Most Master's degrees are not intended to produce individuals who will live within academia; therefore, such programs must stop behaving as if this were true and engaging in Doctorate-like practices.  The more oriented a program is toward a particular non-academic profession, the more the program should be designed and executed with this profession in mind.  Instructors, Professors, Chairs, and Deans must be hired with resumes, credentials, and Curriculum Vitae that match these revised, realigned, and redesigned needs.

2.  Recalibrate Financial Cost
The financial burden of advanced education must be lessened, particularly as it is becoming increasingly necessary for integral roles in society.  More monies must be allocated to funding the studies and existential needs of students in pursuit of an advanced degree, if only to ensure the financial barrier to entry is lowered or removed.  When an advanced degree can cost as much as $120,000 and requires sufficient borrowing to meet this cost, a great number of potential students -- with unknown potential -- are being left out of such studies, simply on financial grounds.

This is particularly important for non-terminal degrees, which are coming to serve a vital role in the modern environment but remain largely unfunded.  The fact that a degree is not the terminal option for a particular field does not, in any way, lessen its value, importance, or impact.  Since non-terminal degrees are often sought by those who will serve in non-academic professions, there is a strong argument to be made for the social and economic impact of such degrees, leading to the conclusion that they should be funded and supported in ways similar to terminal degrees.

3.  Remove Career, Opportunity, and Domestic Costs
If there is an awareness that there are career, opportunity, and domestic costs to the pursuit of advanced education, then why haven't these issues been addressed?  Institutions must ensure that their courses of advanced education can be undertaken at any point during an individual's life or career and that they don't need to freeze or destroy the rest of their life to pursue advanced studies.  Restructuring the way in which courses are delivered -- including venue, format, schedule, and pacing -- would make a great difference for mid-career individuals interested in pursuing advanced education, as one of the major barriers to entry would be minimized.

4.  Educate Employers
Finally, employers -- including government -- need to better understand what advanced degrees mean in environments outside of academia.  Although advocacy groups could undertake efforts to better inform employers, this may take many years and could be cost-prohibitive. 

Instead, academic institutions should consider attaching a degree explanation and program translation document to all transcripts.  This explanation and translation document (which should also be provided to graduates, separately, for use as necessary) would identify what was studied, its relevance to a variety of academic and non-academic fields, skills acquired and developed (both generally and specifically), and a brief discussion on the utility of the specific advanced education completed.  This document would serve as an explanatory bridge between academia and the wider world.

With some low-level efforts and tools designed to better market the skills of alumni, institutions can ensure that there are no unfounded concerns, incorrect assumptions, or faulty understandings regarding the meaning of advanced education, its purpose, its value, and its applicability in a non-academic environment.
 

CONCLUSION

The conflicts found in academia, its institutional momentum, non-academic professions, and society more generally has been a longstanding problem, further complicated by the increasing demand for higher education in the workplace.  However, such complications and problems are unnecessary and can be resolved by undertaking certain reforms -- at an institutional level -- designed to directly address these problems. 

In the event that no reforms are undertaken, the value of advanced education will, in many cases, continue to be misunderstood and misapplied, even as the pursuit and acquisition of advanced education is often prohibitive due to a variety of unnecessary factors.