I get tired, angry, disappointed, and frustrated whenever I hear the tired old saw that a university education is a waste.
A disclaimer is in order here.
I am not disparaging the trades/health fields or those who train and work in them. Trades and health workers are absolutely necessary. In many places, they are or will be in short supply. It's honest, interesting work, exactly what many people want, and the pay is good. But these vocations aren't for everyone, couldn't employ everybody, and would leave gaping holes in many other areas where we need people with a university education.
The argument for trades, especially, is so often based on incorrect assumptions. Paglia's article is no exception; she argues that "jobs, jobs, jobs" should be the primary concern for educators, but that there "is little flexibility in American higher education to allow for alternative career tracks" (alternative to the professions, in this case).
First, I would argue that a university education is training for a job, but not directly and narrowly as Paglia and others recommend. The proof is in the pudding; graduates get and keep a range of jobs for which they are uniquely suited. That proof puts the lie to the other assumption - that a liberal arts education (and university education across the board) doesn't lead to jobs, jobs, jobs.
So what exactly is the problem?
The economy is one reason. University is expensive. Job loss is a huge concern right now.
Also, nurses, electricians, carpenters who train specifically for their jobs and then find them are fairly easy to track. Politicians and administrators can point to their successes much more easily, and the concept is simpler to grasp: electrical training = electrical-field job. Easy.
People with university degrees are much harder to track in the job market, and their career paths don't translate easily to flip-chart simplicity. History major =President of the United States (Kennedy).
It's harder to track the psychology major who, ten years later, has become a tv hockey producer, or the religious studies major who is now the director of business and policy for a major tv network. The liberal arts major who works for the defence department, is CEO of a huge company, an astronaut, policy manual writer for the UN, international coordinator for a major annual charity event.
If every interesting, important, and lucrative job had a direct educational path and an accrediting body, life would be simpler. Train for job X; get job X. But it doesn't always work that way.
Plus, a university education is a value-added endeavour. Graduates are more than trained employees. Graduates form the educated citizenry that allows democracy to flourish, keeps zealots in check, and the arts, science, law, medicine flourishing. They are trained to analyze, criticize, theorize, and question.
University graduates are not only employable, they are necessary to the efficient and progressive functioning of society. The biggest expense would be not to have enough of them.