College for Firefighters

More education, so the thinking goes, will improve economic productively by increasing the quality of work Americans are capable of doing.

Along with this, however, comes something interesting: it becomes more difficult to get many jobs without going to college, even jobs that didn’t used to require college at all.

According to an article by Paul Fain in USA Today:

In the past a firefighter could climb career rungs through experience and training. A degree wasn’t important. But that has changed over the last decade, experts say, as the fire safety industry has followed the lead of corporations and other government agencies, where virtually all top executives hold bachelor’s degrees, and many have advanced degrees.

Charlie Crowther, associate professor of fire science and emergency management at St. Petersburg College, in Florida, said a college degree increasingly helps firefighters earn more and advance through the ranks.

But does it make them better firefighters?

No one seems to know. This push for firefighter education seems to come from many new municipal requirements that require fire station executives to hold certain academic degrees. While the article reports that community colleges and for-profit institutions have eagerly jumped on the higher education bandwagon for American firefighters, it’s hard to tell if career firefighters with college degrees (associate, bachelor’s or even master’s) actually put out fires faster or save more lives. And that’s actually the only thing that matters here.

In many ways this looks curiously similar to the labor market for allied health jobs in the United States. Here regulators and professional organizations have pushed for more education requirements, forcing those who want to enter the professions to assume high debt to even be considered for such jobs. It certainly doesn’t hurt patients to have educated health care providers, but there’s little evidence that bachelor’s degrees in nursing and respiratory care, or doctorates in physical therapy, improve health outcomes at all.

There are some 336,000 career firefighters in the United States. But that’s only 30 percent of the total firefighters in the country. The majority of them are volunteers, and in many places don’t even need to have a high school diploma to serve. How’s that working out?

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer