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Glass Ceiling Strengthened by Movement Toward Vocational Education

AUDIO | Glass Ceiling Strengthened by Movement Toward Vocational Education
The shift from liberal arts education to vocational and technical programming may increase short-term employability, but limits the career potentials of graduates.

The following interview is with Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. Higher education has been on the receiving end of harsh criticism over the past decade, especially given the ballooning cost of a degree. One of the fiercest critiques of higher education has been focused on the preparedness of graduates to enter into and succeed in the workforce. In this interview, Gasman addresses these issues and shares her thoughts on the impact of the industry-wide shift from liberal arts education towards vocational and technical programming.

Click here to read key takeaways.

1. A few weeks ago, we were discussing the increasing numbers of vocational and technical degrees being sought by students, and you mentioned this wasn’t necessarily a positive shift. Could you elaborate on that a little?

One of the things that I worry a little bit about when I see an increase in attention towards technical careers is that it is really, really important that students learn how to think critically. For me, it’s really important to have a degree program that gives a good balance and also provide some really tangible skills. Sometimes, with some of the highly technical or vocational programs, you don’t get those critical thinking skills.

2. What do you think is behind this swing away from the liberal arts and towards vocational education?

There are a variety of different things going on. One, there are a whole bunch of people who are saying college degrees are not valuable. What I notice about all these people is that they all have college degrees and seem to be making a good amount of money. They’re telling people who come from low-income families that a college degree isn’t valuable. There’s nothing wrong with getting a hands-on skill, but you have to have those opportunities to critically think at the same time.

I also think that there are quite a few people who look at the liberal arts as being frivolous and not important, and students get those messages and they can be damaging. You don’t ever hear the parents of wealthy children telling them to get technical and vocational degrees. You hear them telling them, “Follow your dreams, do what you love” and, “Go to a liberal arts college.”

3. How do you think such a shift will impact the employability of graduates and, moreover, the quality of the workforce in the coming decades?

People should be really concerned about this. One of the things that I notice is that you can have people who are really good at a skill, they can follow very specific directions when you give them very specific guidance. But what you really want are people who can not only do that but they can also ask questions. They can tell you if something doesn’t make sense; they can come up with better ways to do things. They can challenge conventional ideas. All of those skills come from learning how to critically think. As someone who supervises people, I don’t want people who are robots, I want people who can look out and have vision and think critically about the future of an organization.

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4. Looking specifically at minority groups and institutions that serve mostly minority populations, how are they affected by this societal swing towards vocational education?

If you look at the history of some of the [minority-serving institutions], you see that students initially were pushed in the direction of an industrial or vocational educational and kept away from a liberal arts education. I worry when we start to move back in that direction. A lot of our progress has been as a result of people learning how to think critically and realizing that they don’t have the same rights, that they don’t have equity. It’s not only about the bottom line, the dollar, it’s also about equity and quality of life. I get particularly worried when I see low-income and racial and ethnic minorities being tracked into vocational or technical programs and I see middle-class or upper-middle-class white students being tracked into liberal arts degrees.

There’s nothing wrong at all with having a vocational degree or a technical degree, but it needs to be your choice and you shouldn’t necessarily be tracked.

For me, this is really personal because when I was a student in high school, I was being pushed to get a vocational degree and to be a secretary because I was really good at typing. That has helped me to very quickly, along with hopefully a little bit of intellect, write 21 books, but I wasn’t meant to be a typist, I was meant to be someone who thought about larger ideas.

5. How did that expectation that you should go into vocational education impact you personally?

I was also facing sexism as well because my father agreed with that idea. He really didn’t think I needed to go to college, he thought I could just make quick money as a secretary and then that money could help my family. I do think that sometimes families pressure students, even in this day and age to make the quick money rather than thinking about the long term. It made me feel frustrated and not supported. I had a lot of doubts about whether or not I could actually realize my dreams.

6. What’s it going to take for universities to reach out to students in such a way that they can prove the value of that liberal arts education?

It’s very hard and I would say that students are probably not going to be able to do that as successfully as professors, college administrators, individuals within minority communities in particular who have reached the benefits of having a liberal arts educational. They need to speak up and they need to be just as loud of a voice as those people who are saying that college is worthless and you shouldn’t go to college.

7. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of liberal arts education, especially in low-income, minority communities, and what it’s going to take for non-traditional students to understand the value of liberal arts education programming over the next five to 10 years?

It is really important that we think about the long-term benefits of a liberal arts education. As an example, sometimes when we think about the quick and we don’t think about delayed gratification, we end up in a situation where we may have more financial dollar initially but we’re not taking care of our larger needs, which will lead to a greater sense of equity in the country. It’s really important to not only think about short-term goals but also think about long-term goals. In order to do that you need to be able to think critically.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • While vocational degrees promise a link to the labor market, career growth is limited for individuals who do not have well-developed critical thinking skills.
  • Pushing low-income and minority students into vocational and technical programming limits their capacity to break the glass ceiling.

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