I have heard recently two concerns about training for job markets that might be called high-risk, high-reward jobs. The implication is that such training programs are unfair because they aim too high for students’ likely job prospects.
- The so-called crisis of the Ph.D., particularly in the humanities, has spawned arguments that because very few graduate students will achieve tenured positions at R1 universities (as Neal shows here), graduate training should be reformed to emphasize where most students will end up, such as adjunct, small-college, private-sector, and “alt-ac”. The Chronicle carried a related essay, “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” arguing that “Producing a dissertation is particularly poor preparation, he adds, for graduates whose first jobs are outside of academe—now roughly half of new Ph.D.’s with postgraduation employment commitments.”
- One of the criticisms of big-time college revenue sports (football and men’s basketball) is that the athletes are exploited by their universities, which earn large amounts of money while the athletes are “compensated” only with access to education and training that may lead to a lucrative career in the big leagues. But since most such athletes will not end up in the big leagues, or (particularly in football) will likely only play there for a few years, the training model at the collegiate level is portrayed as “unfair.”
In both of these cases, (almost) the only possible training for the rare but highly desireable outcome is the high-risk road. Few graduate students will become academic stars, but all academic stars had to be graduate students first. Few college basketball players will become NBA stars, but (almost) all NBA stars had to be college basketball players first.
From the perspective of a prospective graduate student or college basketball player, it may well be appropriate to exercise caution and avoid such high-stakes gambles. But from the perspective of graduate schools and college basketball programs, it is not necessarily the right policy choice to target training and preparation at the modal graduate/player. My contention is that there’s nothing inherently unfair about a system that aims to produce the few top achievers, even if that means the modal outcome is below ambitions. Of course it would be nicer if we didn’t make the modal people feel like failures, and if there were sufficient employment opportunities for them to make sure that destitution isn’t the alternative. But I’m wary of proposals to change the overall focus to reflect probable outcomes because that may compromise the possibility of achieving the rare but most desirable outcomes.