OPINION: Careerism is ruining higher education

Since the rise of neoliberal attitudes in the 1980s and 1990s, American universities have shifted to prioritize career advancement over personal development and learning. Careerism, the idea of advancing one’s career often at the expense of social growth, has taken the front seat of the college experience.

IU and the education it offers is no different.

With rising tuition rates, massive student loan debt and significant unemployment, it is no surprise college students are keen on landing a profitable job following graduation. However, the push for career-readiness values profits over people.

While careerist ideologies aren’t going away anytime soon, the least we can do is encourage personal moral development alongside them. IU needs to encourage and uplift student activism, involvement and volunteerism — not ignore it or work to actively shut it down.

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program found 80% of students in the 1960s cited developing a meaningful philosophy of life as their number one reason to pursue higher education.

Today, student priorities are virtually flipped. Nearly 60% of students in 2017 said career outcomes were their primary motivation, while only 23% said they wanted to learn without linking it to career aspirations.

Instead of pursuing meaningful and fulfilling careers, higher education has become an anxiety-driven journey into a hellscape of economic survival.

Without the economic safety nets only afforded to older generations such as social security benefits, student loan forgiveness and universal healthcare, students have no choice but to pursue money laden opportunities. Today, 41% of recent college graduates work in jobs that do not require a degree at all.

Those that do pursue “less-valued” degrees often do so with increased stigma and the age-old question, “What will you do with that after college?” To many, a major without a money-making career attached is cause for concern.

Others that do not have existing economic privilege might opt out of their preferred major for something considered more economically savvy, such as business or informatics.

Careerism has had a degenerative effect on the very purposes universities were created for — personal growth and pursuit of knowledge.

“Never were the university’s responsibilities for the development of character of greater significance than at the present hour,” former IU President Herman B Wells said in his first inaugural address.

Never has IU been further from developing students’ characters than today.

IU’s mission is to create, disseminate, preserve and apply knowledge. But if being financially stable after college is the central goal of the university’s students, this mission is largely figurative.

Around every corner there are events for career fairs, career readiness workshops, resume building events and networking opportunities. You would struggle to find similar resources on how to pursue a meaningful philosophy of life.

At IU, you’ll find every major school has a page dedicated to career services. Schools such as the O’Neill School of Public & Environmental Affairs even require students take career readiness courses in order to graduate. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it puts pressure on students to focus on classes that will land them a job, foregoing the exploration of subjects outside their majors.

The focus on career oriented paths is simply a reflection of what a society values in its people. Even IU’s budget reflects what it values. Departments fostering critical thinking such as philosophy receive roughly the same annual funding as what the Kelley School of Business spends on career services alone, according to the IU budget for 2020 to 2021.

College is meant to be a place of personal development, expansion of knowledge and critical thinking. Instead, the neoliberal reach into our classrooms is more prevalent than ever.

“Through such an impotent education, we are in very clear terms telling our students that the classroom is not a space for critical questioning and action, but instead is a sterile place of indoctrination,” Daniel Saunders, a professor in educational policy, said in a 2007 CIRP analysis.

Higher education no longer values critical thinking. Careers have become less about pursuing knowledge or working to improve society and more about resume building and networking. This mindset stifles activism, volunteerism and personal development.

In a world that consistently leaves humanity and empathy out of the picture, changing the moral narrative within higher education should be a goal — not an afterthought.

Rebekah Amaya (she/her) is a junior studying law and public policy and critical race and ethnic studies. She wants to go into immigration reform advocacy.

By Lim Jon