‘How Do I Pick the Right College, Grandpa?’

Cross-posted at Education Week.

My grandson came to me a few months following up on some earlier conversations we had had about his future.  He was getting ready to apply to colleges and wanted a little help thinking through what sort of career he wanted for himself and what sort of college he should go to.  He’s a bit of a math whiz, having taken Advanced Placement Calculus BC in his sophomore year and gone on to more advanced math with a course at the local community college in his junior year.  He thought he might want to be an electrical engineer, not so much because he had his heart set on it but because he thought that his aptitude for mathematics might give him a leg up and he should be able make a good living doing it.  He was worried about paying off the loans he knew he would have to take out to go to college, and he was pretty sure that he would have to go on to some sort of graduate school eventually, piling up even more debt in the process.

I told him that, if by electrical engineering he meant artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, natural language processing and all the related disciplines, he would be right in the middle of one of the most important revolutions in human history, a revolution that is quite likely to put a large fraction of the Homo sapiens out of work in a few years.  Better, I said, to be in the forefront of that revolution than the victim of it.  And, no small benefit, this arena is likely to be as intellectually challenging as anything else he could possibly do.  Even better, this career choice could be the source of the kind of satisfaction that comes from making a difference for millions of people, if undertaken with the right set of moral commitments.

But I also said that just going into electrical engineering could a be big mistake.  Engineers, especially those working for big firms, are required to specialize quickly.  After a few years nestled in your specialty, and after the raises that you can expect as time goes by, it is not at all unusual to find that your specialty has been superseded by some new technology.  You become both expensive and out of date.  Your employer discovers that she can hire some young person right out of a well-known engineering school who is up on all the latest developments, and can hire two of them for the cost of one of you.  Or she can hire two Chinese engineers who will work for a quarter of what their American counterparts make and participate via the Internet on the same teams you do.  If you fail to keep up with the latest developments not just in your specialty but more broadly, you could easily find that you have to move into a management job if you can get one, because you will be unemployable as an engineer.

Except, of course, if you choose well at the beginning, and rapidly build up expertise in what is turning out to be a very high-demand specialty.  Then you will be at the cutting edge, defining it, and won’t be put out of business by whippersnappers half your age who got to what is now the leading edge before you even knew what it was.  My guess—but that is all it is—is that this cluster of specialties will be on the leading edge for a long time to come.

But, even then, I said, you will be better off if you wind up not just damned good as an engineer, but also very good at something else with which this kind of engineering can be combined, say neural networks and biomechanics.  These are the people in high demand, the ones who can marry related fields to produce the explosive forward development that comes of such combinations.

And finally, I said, I very much hope that you find a way to combine your study of engineering with a first-rate liberal arts program.  Ultimately, I said, your success will depend on your ability to learn new material very quickly, think well, analyze complex material to come up with new and productive insights, synthesize creative solutions to novel problems from sources others might not even have considered, and reflect all these capabilities in very good and substantial written work that is clear and persuasive.  A strong liberal arts program should not only make you strong where the intelligent machinery is weak, it should enable you to live a life that will be fuller, richer, more fulfilling than any engineering education by itself can help you live.  In the end, there is no substitute for Mozart’s, Monet’s or Tolstoy’s expressions of the human spirit, nor is it likely that a machine will in the near future be able to do a good job of producing an incisive essay comparing and contrasting the development of freedom and liberty in Russia and England, explaining why liberty and freedom never really developed in the former and managed to flower in the latter.

As I see it, though there are many liberal arts programs and institutions, there are very few of the kind I am describing, with a well thought-through curriculum that is explicitly designed to produce the kinds of outcomes I described, in institutions whose faculties take full responsibility for defining and implementing a real program with integrity, rather that a collection of courses that individual faculty members might want to teach.

I urged him to find an engineering program that was not all theory but which would give him an opportunity to apply what he was learning as he was learning it, preferably in the lab or in the factory.  I told him there were some engineering schools that alternated time in the university with time in employer settings, really giving students a chance to see the theory at work.

And, not least important, I urged him to find an engineering program whose professors have strong ties to leading players in the fields in which he hopes to work.  That network would prove invaluable when it comes to finding a job and acquiring the kinds of opportunities he would need to grow once he leaves school.

I could, of course, have told my grandson to follow his passion, which is, I gather, the standard advice.  There are two problems with this.  He does not have a passion, one, and, two, there are now a growing number of passions that would impoverish him unless he becomes very, very good at his chosen occupation and enjoys a full measure of luck.  The cluster of fields that I suggested to him is not the only occupational cluster that has promise for young people my grandson’s age, but the advances in intelligent agents and machines is just as steadily, but unpredictably, gobbling up many occupations, some of them both prestigious and well-paying.

It just so happened that, when my grandson asked for my thoughts on his future, I was in the midst of researching the potential impact of intelligent machines on the future of our economy, the job market and education. My grandson is very, very lucky.  He is smart, a member of a family of professionals that is highly educated and goes to a public school system that has offered him opportunities to take courses much more rigorous than those offered to most high school students. The picture of the future that my research was unfolding was very much on my mind as I advised him.  The more I read, the more it seemed to me that his success depended on threading a path through the eyes of one needle after another.  As that dawned on me, I could not help but think of all those young people who do not have his multitude of advantages.  The gulf between their opportunities to learn and what will be needed to enjoy economic security and success seems to be growing every day. I find myself nearly obsessed by this thought these days, increasingly fearful that few in education policy seem to be as concerned as I am that the standards for education are rocketing up and leaving behind a rapidly growing group of young people who will face appalling options when they leave school, or none at all. Not as a result of education policy, but because of developments in the real economy.

So I speak to you here partly as a policy analyst, partly as educator and mainly as a grandparent, out of deep concern for all our children.

Thanks for listening.