As out-of-work recessioneers headed back to college looking for a leg up in the competitive job market, politicians, too, looked toward higher education for economic answers.
The pillars of the Florida economy have traditionally been tourism, agriculture, construction and aerospace, three of which have been bludgeoned by the global economic collapse.
The future of Florida relies on creating an economy fit for the future, state politicians say, and they are looking to the university system to build it.
A focus on STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—is heralded as the silver bullet necessary to turn Bone Valley (the state’s major phosphate mining region) into an eastern version of Silicon Valley.
To get there, state and university leaders are going have to balance the aspirational goals of higher education with the practical goals of industry. The university system seeks to create thinkers, the government, workers. These goals can and have coexisted in relative peace, look toward the number of business and health professional degrees awarded, but as the state seeks to cut costs, politicians are losing interest in supporting programs they only tolerated in the past.
Cue Gov. Rick Scott’s famous dismissal of anthropology, a field in which his daughter has a degree, and Sen. Don Gaetz, the next Senate president, disparaging his own degree in political science. Cue the drama over creating a polytechnic university free from all that theoretical nonsense, because the S in STEM stands for science, you know, that stuff with beakers, electrical arcs and rockets, not the social sciences and nothing that involves digging through ancient midden heaps.
Is treating full-spectrum, four-year universities as certificate programs the best solution for the universities or for future workers? A bachelor’s degree, the “modern high school diploma,” takes four years of time and a mountain of debt for many to achieve. That can be quite a gamble, especially considering how many times top-down solutions to economic problems have been flat-out wrong—public institutions aren’t immune to fads.
Maybe the trick to creating workers of the future isn’t in the universities, but in industry. Globalization has largely eroded the domestic entry level, and with it, the on-the-job learning that acts as a springboard to real expertise. Perhaps the solution is to re-incentivize private investment in developing human capital. Germany’s state-subsidized apprenticeship programs provide a real-world example.
Either way, the university is going to have to make a case for its existence as more than a job-training center, but as an institution of critical thinking, basic research and a creator of optimism and aspiration for the future.
Photo by Daniel Mutter