Education vs. Vocation – The Nightmare for Higher Education

Educational institutions are designed, in spirit, to represent opportunity and vertical progress. The problem, however, is that they were originally constructed (here in the United States) in 1895 by people without a notion for the modern economy. They did not have internet! Or airplanes! Or much of anything relevant to today’s highly complex economy.

Public schooling was originally designed (in America) to train masses of people for manufacturing jobs. Clearly, the times have changed. We all know that today’s system is broken. And perhaps we all know that things will be changing in the future. As we unpack how, when, and exactly why things will evolve, it is helpful to place things via some sort of lens.

The line I hope to draw via this essay is the distinction between education and vocational schooling. I know there are nuances to this argument – I am purposefully making generalizations here as I think through the differences.

I think about education as the act of teaching people how to learn. “Learning to learn” is a very abstract effort that requires a combination of rational AND irrational frameworks, learnings, and lessons. The content, perhaps, is uncomfortably unimportant here. It is very hard to measure the efficacy of “education” on any short term capacity.

Vocation is more about helping you learn the skills necessary to succeed at work. You learn technical skills that are directly relevant to how you perform in the workplace. Vocational effectiveness is very measurable in any short term capacity – is there a tangible return on your investment? Are you now getting a job? A higher paying job than you would have? That is ROI positive.

The best colleges originally started as vocational institutions, but over time became educational institutions.

Here is the problem: for decades, we have been unable to really measure “the fluffiness that lies within educational teachings.” This has created a cult-like religion around the purpose of college (we must ALL go to college) which has been supported by social standards and public policy. The problem, however, is that as prices have risen, consumers are beginning (finally) to do more calculations on the ROI of investing in education.

Of course, there is value to signaling. In essence, colleges are good filters (of what exactly) and provide signaling to employers that these people are smart people. But will there be other ways to get signaling? Is that really their product?

Most people cannot afford to spend a quarter million dollars on “education.” Most people, likely, want vertical mobility out of their investment. They do not want 4 years of abstractly learning.

The problem with this change (or awakening) of consumer preferences is that traditional colleges are not designed for vocational studies. In other words, their incentives are not aligned with (and their significant balance sheet of existing assets) or designed to maximize to optimize a student’s ROI. The classroom is not built for learning tangible skills. A 1.5 hour lecture is not relevant for most students. 30 to 1 learning is not effective! Colleges are slow to experiment. They think information is their competitive advantage. And, worst of all, they are not ready to be actually measured on efficacy.

This is bad. Really really bad. For decades, colleges have enjoyed the “abstractness of education.” Come to college to become a better person! To broaden your horizons! To learn to learn! That is a defensible pitch. It is super hard to measure and very very challenging to refute.

Enter vocational studies. Very very easy to measure (on a direct basis) because you can just see the average graduating salary you get for making an investment in the product.

Over the next few years, higher level institutions will awaken to this shift. They are already realizing that students want value out of their degree (what a novel concept). And they will try to transition. They will begin to offer more coding bootcamps. They will offer more skill-based workshops.

These will fail compared to alternatives (a la Lambda School). They will fail because schools are set up to be institutions for education (learning how to learn – reading assignments, exams, labs, etc.).

I think education is a fundamental component of my learning. I highly value the ability to learn to learn and admire people who excel at this trait.

I do not think, however, that it should be the status quo for people to spend tons of money on this “vacation-esque endeavor.” There are tons of solutions I am excited about that smart people are working on (perhaps high schools should focus more on education, perhaps college should be way more fun, apprenticeships?, vocational training, community colleges, home schooling, grants, more traveling, etc.).

DISCLAIMER: This does not apply to all professions. There are some where the lecture is well suited for teaching valuable skills.