Many of you were kind enough to write in about my series on the relative value of Arts degrees versus trades, certifications, and the associated piece, which appeared in the Globe online. I just wanted to finish off that series with a thought on how these memes are being propagated. There are two points that I want to note, specifically.
The first is that the “BAs vs. welders” argument is always carried-out by a curious and unbalanced mix of anecdotes and data. These stories basically all follow the same formula:
1) The case against bachelor’s degrees tends to revolve around “over-education”, and always includes the point that some graduates work as baristas. I spend a fair bit of time in Starbucks, and it seems to me that most baristas are students, rather than graduates, and those who are graduates are still pretty young. This is to say, the graduate barista is a temporary phenomenon. There aren’t a lot of aging graduate baristas; within eighteen months, they’re all either in grad school, or they’ve found a decent job. Is this really such a big deal?
2) The most frequent use of data is not – you’ll be shocked to hear – long-run outcome data, but data related to cost. Tuition is up, debt is up, yadda yadda. And yes, $25,000 debt would be freaking horrible… if barista was a permanent occupation, and the Repayment Assistance Plan didn’t exist. But it’s not, and it does. And so this objection is kind of beside the point.
3) There’s never any quantitative data deployed in favour of the trades side – it’s always anecdotal. Like this Maclean’s article, in which the entire trades side of the argument is a single case of a tradesperson in Alberta. Partly, that’s because the data isn’t very good (you can get data by education, or by industry, but getting both is a pain), but it’s also because the available data isn’t very convincing.
Even as a data nerd, I understand that visceral examples – like, “poor baristas and rich plumbers” – carry more emotional weight than mere statistics. I just don’t quite get why they carry so much emotional weight, when the data actively (and entirely) points in the other direction.
My second point to note about this debate is that, apart from Margaret Wente, the people who make pro-trades arguments are almost entirely male. Now, maybe that’s because people who commentate on the labour force, and on higher education, are also mostly male, but I still think the near-total lack of women making the “more-welders-fewer-BAs” case is of some significance.
I’m Just sayin’.