Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An alternative to undergraduate business education

In a recent post, I described how a college education can act as a signal (not an idea that I came up with, BTW): that a student's completion of an undergraduate degree demonstrates that the student is above some standard of intelligence and responsibility. Obviously higher education serves other functions as well, not the least of which is the actual education, we hope. However, I claim that the signaling function is sufficiently important for some students that they would not attend college otherwise, i.e. that there is a significant fraction of college students that would not obtain an undergraduate degree if there were some other way to communicate their intelligence and responsibility to potential employers. I suggest apprenticeships as an alternate means of communicating this information as well as a vehicle for some of our educational goals.

Apprenticeships are common in some trades but not in most of the areas of business that are desirable to college graduates. I am suggesting something like a business internship, but for a longer period than the typical internship and with more structure. A business apprenticeship might last for several years, during which time the apprentice could work for several different firms and in multiple areas of business. The apprentice would be evaluated by superiors along the way, and at the end would have a portfolio of roles and responsibilities as well as evaluations for performance. This portfolio could be used in much the same way as an academic transcript: as a means of assessing a candidate's qualifications and suitability for a paying job. It would be useful to have a standard in place for evaluations that is common across all apprenticeships: a set of dimensions along which the apprentice is rated, along with an explicit understanding of what different ratings mean. Relying on evaluations opens up potential problems, like inconsistency and rating inflation, but these would probably be no worse than those issues are for grades in traditional universities.

I imagine that it would be relatively easy to glean the same information that is signaled through an undergraduate education. To the extent that a traditional education is functioning as a way to communicate something about who the undergraduate is (not how he or she has been educated), the apprenticeship can take on that role (although, to be clear, the apprenticeship would not be a signal in the economic sense, but rather a different means of credibly providing information). The apprentice would also gain valuable experience, one benefit of which would be that the apprentice has a better idea of his or her own career interests.

In addition, an apprenticeship could be combined with more formal education that is directed toward the apprentice's future career. This could take the form of anything from a day-long seminar to a semester-long course resembling traditional academic offerings and could be largely apprentice-specific. For example, some apprentices will need more work on their writing skills than others, and some apprentices will want career-specific training in a field like accounting. The rationale for including an explicit educational component is twofold: one, it is a fairly tall order for the apprentice to learn everything necessary for a successful career on the job; and two, educational offerings are much more likely to have value if they are geared to the apprentice's needs and are experienced after the apprentice has some work experience.

Apprenticeships would be intended for those that do not want a traditional undergraduate education and would not get much out of an undergraduate degree beyond the signal, as I discuss here and here. For the student not interested in learning for its own sake, course material is much more likely to resonate if the student has a context in which to place the ideas or skills and can see the need for learning them. The demand for specific skills would come from the evaluations: employers would comment on what the apprentice needs the most, and the apprentice would have incentive to develop whatever skills are most valuable. The point would be not to try to foist a complete liberal arts education upon everyone. However, if an apprentice were to become interested in a traditional undergraduate degree, it would still be an option.

All of this would be costly, of course, but much much less so than a traditional undergraduate degree. Even though internships commonly pay nothing or very little, with the understanding that the intern is gaining valuable experience in exchange for free or cheap labor, some firms are reluctant to take on interns because on net the internship is costly to the firm. Some of the subsidization of undergraduate education could be redirected toward apprenticeships to alleviate the cost to firms. Furthermore, it would not be out of the question for the apprentices themselves to pay for their participation in an apprenticeship: the market rate would likely be far less than college tuition, and the experience would be relatively more valuable for some.

There is, I hear, some of this sort of thing already going on. A firm can take on an intern without a degree (or any intention of getting a degree), and that can be the start of a brilliant career. But not many firms are willing to do such a thing, and this is not a feasible path for the typical undergraduate-age person. A real go-getter can do it, but the go-getters will take care of themselves in any case. I'm thinking about the typical undergraduate that just wants a decent job. For apprenticeships to work for these students, they have to be broadly available, familiar to employers, and accepted as a reasonable alternative to going to college. This is why I think the whole thing should be formalized and that there should be some kind of common structure. Apprenticeships could still vary in many respects (including the overall length), depending on the needs, abilities, and interests of the apprentice.

Many would say that everyone deserves access to an undergraduate education. I agree that everyone who wants to go should be able to and should not be constrained by wealth or social class. However, I think it is more reasonable to focus on giving everyone access to the opportunities that an undergraduate education brings. There should be some path to a rewarding career for those that do not want a college education for any other reason and will not benefit much from it in any other respect. The availability of a viable alternative would also make it easier to make the traditional undergraduate education what it can and should be for those that are interested. We should not be trying to fit everyone into the same mold.

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