When Is Just Getting an Education More Practical Than a Specialized Degree?

By | May 10, 2023

I grew up in a world where young people were urged to stay in school and get an education. It didn’t matter what in, just get an education. At that time about 10% of high school students went on to get a college degree, less in non-urban areas.That all changed in the 60’s and 70’s at a time when university enrollment was skyrocketing. The big shift was in terms of specialization. Students were urged to decide on a career and work towards getting the necessary training and credentials needed to pursue that career.The pressure on young people to “be practical” and decide on a career early still exists today. If a 19-year-old announces, “I want to be a lawyer (or nurse, or teacher, or electrician)”, he or she is met with approving smiles from teachers and parents. If the same 19-year-old were to say simply “I just want to get an education”, his or her seniors would stare with puzzled expressions or make pronouncements about being practical.The problem is that specialized education doesn’t work as well as it did in the 70’s when they were in school. The recent figures are showing that most young people by the time they reach 39 will have had at least three different jobs and made one major career change. So much for the specialized career!The dream of the single career doesn’t fit with the changing economies in the Western world. In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink estimated a few years ago that 60% of North American jobs as we have known them will move offshore. Anything that can be routinized will go offshore. It’s already easy to find an English-speaking MBA for $9/hr or a programmer for $5/hr.So what if a young person were to go to college simply to get an education and a degree, the degree being the basic entrance credential for most non-routine jobs? He or she could study fine arts, history, sociology, literature, or whatever else was of interest. And what if they waited on a career decision well beyond graduation?The Harvard MBA was the gold standard degree in the business world for several decades. They still only accept one applicant in 100. But the Stanford MFA (Master of Fine Arts), according to Daniel Pink, is the new gold standard. They accept one applicant in 1000. In the modern economy, our edge over the emerging economies comes from creativity, design, and perspective. Design it here, but build it there. Where was the windshield for your new car made? Probably China.The young people best equipped to contribute to the modern economy will be broadly educated. This applies even in the professions. As far back as 35 years ago, McMaster University medical school preferred sociology or history graduates over science graduates. They wanted applicants with “humanity” and “ability to think”; stating, “We can teach them the science.”Once again the broad general education has risen to the top in long-term practicality. Some of our youth already get this. We collectively need to lighten up. They need inspiration more than pressure.