The classic model and value of a 4-year college education is increasingly being called into question by a number of people who have criticized its cost-benefit ratio, its real-world skill applicability, and its role in shaping civic responsibility. A 2019 Forbes article by Brandon Busteed about the future of college degrees boldly predicts a disruption of the “going to college to get a job” trajectory that reverses the process or at least interweaves work experience with college experience as a benefit of employment. It is not difficult to imagine that in the college year following the current pandemic, not only will fewer young people be able to afford college, but more potential students are considering other educational paths and possibilities.
Concurrent with this downward trend in higher education, we have seen a rise in young people’s concerns for climate change with a 2018 Gallup Poll showing that 70% of 18 to 35-year old people “worry a great deal/fair amount about global warming.” Many college students are relatively well informed about climate change and are interested in becoming involved in addressing it. But while environmental activism to “do something about climate change” is the easiest way for students to become involved in the activist networks, organizations, or projects, it’s also the easiest way to gradually fade out of it. There are multiple reasons as to why there appears to be high turn-over in student activism, on campus and beyond, even if students continue to care about an issue. But after many years of talking to undergraduates about getting involved in campus activism, I noticed one recurring theme: most students are simply overworked and overwhelmed in today’s “culture of busy” campus climate. The result is campus activism fatigue, for a lack of better word.
The days of college being a time in a young person’s life to be envied for its built-in fun and leisure components are coming to an end. If college was once thought of as training wheels for the real world, now it’s more like hard core boot camp with small margins for error; the pressure to maintain a high GPA while filling every possible time slot with extracurricular activities that might pump up a CV just enough to beat out the future job competition overwhelms many. When students are presented with yet more opportunities to volunteer for this or that project or “cause” of sorts, the mere thought of adding another commitment to their schedules often ends up inducing dread, not desire. In short, even students who care about becoming involved in climate change projects burn out on the job of being in college before they even enter the working world.
Part of the problem is the institutional structure of higher education: it is linear and inflexible. By the time students graduate, their cumulative knowledge is at least 4 years older than the current state of most modern professional fields. Young professionals have to keep learning to stay up to date in their fields anyways and that process is anything but linear or inflexible. In addition, the most desirable modern marketable skills, such as networking and insider industry knowledge, are often learned after graduation. This doesn’t make sense at all: not for the recent graduate entering a professional field, nor the professional field itself. Especially technology fields that depend on constant iteration and adaptation suffer knowledge lags or gaps that could cost them a spot in the relevance race. Imagine having graduated with a photography degree right around the time Kodak went out of business because Canon went digital and revolutionized the entire market.
Cellular agriculture is to conventional agriculture what Canon is to Kodak: agriculture degrees or a disciplinary focus on agriculture would be of little use to the space. Not to mention that students who want to work on ending animal farming would hardly want to major in animal agriculture. Yet, there aren’t any degree options in “ending animal farming” just like there aren’t any degree options in “ending racism” or “ending homophobia.” This is mostly the work of volunteers and non-profit organizations who appeal to and tap into active participation that – you guessed it – emerges because people care. And while it is of course very important to raise awareness and draw attention to a problem by, for example, publicly protesting human injustices, the solutions most often depend on those who are empowered to effect systematic change, and not just on those who care about effecting it.
Greta Thunberg is the case in point. As much as I admire Greta, who has inspired millions of students to walk out of classrooms to join her in her passionate school strikes for climate change, I have a better idea. Let’s get those kids back into the classroom and put the CARE about climate change into the CAREER of solving the problem. Greta managed to make students care about climate change by leading the walk out. But what if, hypothetically, she could lead millions of students back into the classroom to demand concrete career paths into climate change solutions? Imagine that a million students are suddenly equipped to spend 8 hours or more every day on cultivating meat, dairy, and eggs for the masses without a killing a single cow or chicken in the process. The entire global behemoth of animal agriculture as we know it would have to close up shop. The only survivors would be those who quickly restructure their production model and make the first graduating class in cellular agriculture a generous job offer they couldn’t refuse. And that is exactly why we need to focus on creating degree programs in cellular agriculture.
What would such a degree program look like? And why would this move be more effective than enticing students to volunteer, outside of their study schedules, and outside of their classrooms, to participate in climate change activism?
I would imagine the first cellular agriculture degree program to be a minor degree housed in an obvious disciplinary home such as Environmental Studies. All students would need to take an introductory course that covers both scientific and non-scientific aspects of the field. After that, student could choose, but would not necessarily have to, a Bachelor of Science (BS) track or a Bachelor of Arts (BA) track.
The BS track would develop along concentrations in chemistry, biology, medicine, or biomedical engineering foundations that would serve students with a clear passion for scientific research, applications, development, and lab work. The BA track can broadly include the humanities, psychology, business/economics, law, and the social sciences. It doesn’t matter if students have a passion for writing, designing, conducting quantitative or qualitative research, marketing, business model/plan development, ethics, politics, regulation, or studying cultural adaptation. Skill development would be reverse-engineered and would follow industry needs and challenges.
Despite the divergence in BS and BA degrees, it would be vital to create an interdisciplinary cohort that can learn together and from each other. This means BS trackers and BA trackers would spend a significant amount of time together, so that student with a chemistry or bio-engineering focus can talk to students with a philosophy or sociology focus. This will disrupt the creation of so called “silos” of knowledge and socialize students to have a holistic understanding of the field and even more importantly, learn to talk across disciplines as this is already the norm in, and the point of, many intellectual think tanks. Cross-pollination of knowledge and being able to communicate it effectively across different audiences would be integral to graduation in the program.
Another educational track division could unfold across the for-profit, company-based vs. non-profit, academic field. Although the goal of the program is to produce professionals who could work in either field and who have marketable skills in many different areas of the field, student interest can drive either choosing one track over the other, or a combination of skills that fits specific job positions. Internships or apprenticeships would be a critical, experiential learning element in the program. Partnerships with companies and institutions are vital for the success of the program, and companies and institutions would be incentivized by benefitting from student work which could potentially lead to later job recruiting based on familiarity with the students.
One thing that would make this fundamentally different from other degree programs would be that ideally, there is no “time-to-degree” timeline. If a student has an opportunity to work on a project with a company because they are productively and passionately engaged in any one aspect of cellular agriculture production or development, the rule would be to “stop the clock” to allow for flexibility of degree. This could also work in Busteed’s “work to get a degree” model where the company pays for the students’ education as a benefit of employment. All program requirements would be flexible enough to allow for company- or organization-issued “certifications” of skills sets mastered in the field. Especially non-traditional students who cannot stay on a consistent program path for various reasons might benefit from these alternatives.
Most importantly, these trajectories would transform interest in climate change into impact on climate change. Cellular agriculture degree programs that grow with an industry and for an industry present a new model of folding environmental responsibility into professional development right from the start. Capitalizing on students caring about climate change and connecting the “why” question of major choice (or minor choice, for starters) to urgent ecological and social problem-solving measures should be convincing enough to college administrators invested in progressive degree programs.
Cellular agriculture companies and organizations are always looking to hire young talent. Let’s make their job candidate selection easy by letting the first line of college graduates’ CVs read “Minor in Cellular Agriculture.”