Higher Education and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 3)

Is the purpose of college to get a good job or to have a great life?

In the first two parts of this series, I addressed some of the ideas regarding higher education that are being promoted by various candidates for president of the United States. In Part 1, I examined the wisdom and folly of eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities. In Part 2, I raised the inconvenient question of what problem the solution of free tuition is intended to solve – and what unintended consequences might result from such a policy. Now, in Part 3, I want to consider yet another factor that explains why there is such divergence of opinions regarding higher education on the part of our presidential candidates.

“Is the Purpose of College to Get a Good Job or to Have a Great Life?”

I don’t mean that question facetiously. Many people would ask why one should have to choose between these two highly desirable outcomes – or they would say that having a great life must, of necessity, also mean having a good job.

But although the presidential candidates haven’t spent time debating the merits of good job versus great life, it is clear that some of the candidates are focusing heavily on the role that higher education plays in creating graduates who can qualify for well-paying jobs, thereby creating a stronger national economy.

However well meaning this focus may be, it fundamentally redefines the historic purpose of higher education, the roots of which are in the liberal arts. To be sure, the Morrill Act (1862) created colleges of agriculture and engineering. Moreover, the 20th century saw an explosion in the number of academic majors directly linked to specific professions and areas of employment. The great majority of today’s college graduates promptly enter the job market. Isn’t it reasonable, therefore, to think that a college education should be focused primarily – even exclusively – on preparing today’s students to be successful in their chosen area of employment?

And yet almost all nonprofit public and private colleges and universities still reserve a significant fraction of the credits required to graduate for courses in the liberal arts and sciences – and even today, students majoring in the liberal arts typically form the largest single block of students on campus. There are private colleges that only offer majors in the liberal arts.

Are they wrong? Some of our presidential candidates clearly think so. One referred to liberal arts colleges as “indoctrination camps” (“Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016). The same candidate had previously advocated for training more welders, rather than creating more philosophers (“Sorry, Marco Rubio. Philosophy Majors Actually Make Way More Than Welders,” The Washington Post, Nov. 10, 2015). Yet in fairness, it is important to note that this perspective is not restricted to one political party. President Obama once famously said:

“But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” (Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 31, 2014).

So if the public is subsidizing higher education, does it have the right to direct its support preferentially to the creation of skilled workers needed by American business and industry, and ignore the interests of students who wish to study some esoteric subject? And if we adopt the policy of free tuition at public universities, does that give the public even more right to define and describe the curriculum at those universities?

It is interesting to turn the clock back a century, and to consider the perspective of the only American president who had previously served as a university president: Woodrow Wilson. At a time when less than five percent of adult Americans had a college degree, and when elitism and racial bigotry reigned, Wilson said the following:

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

In other words, he was advocating for a small group of liberally educated leaders and thinkers, and a much larger group of laborers and people in the trades – a world that would consist of a few bosses (almost all of whom would be white males), and a great many workers.

Is this the world to which we want to return? Didn’t we shed the elitist image of higher education with the passage of the G.I. Bill after WW-II – a bill that demonstrated, once and for all, the ability of working class people to obtain a college degree, if just given the chance?

There is a real danger that we could see education at public colleges and universities transformed into training programs for specific jobs in specific industries: workers prepared for the present, but not for a future where entire industries disappear within the lifetime of a given worker. What, then, would those displaced workers do with skills that American industry no longer needs? In short, has the purpose of higher education now been reduced to credentialing for a specific purpose, rather than being focused on breadth and depth of knowledge, and the creation of skills that can be transported when society’s needs change? Do we, as a country, care only that young people obtain jobs, and not at all that they have a life where they can participate meaningfully as leaders in their communities, and as people who appreciate the scope of human understanding?

Let’s consider a second quote from Woodrow Wilson, speaking to his students at Princeton:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Wilson spoke these words more than a century ago. To be sure, he was speaking to the privileged elite – the handful of young men (Princeton did not accept women students until 1969) who had the opportunity to receive a college education. But surely we do not want to return to an America where the sons and daughters of the One Percent receive a full and complete education at a pricey private college, while the sons and daughters of the 99 Percent can aspire only to be trained for a particular job or trade at a public institution. And this is the hidden danger behind free tuition at public colleges and universities – that over time the politicians who will control the purse strings will reshape the curriculum at these institutions to favor “practical” education at the expense of the opportunity students now have to think and learn and explore the collected wisdom of humankind – and in the process to become well-rounded individuals who will still secure good jobs but who will also have great lives.

Free tuition at public universities? It sounds too good to be true – and it is. If America wants to create greater opportunities for more young people to have the chance to pursue their dreams to the best of their abilities, and without regard to the circumstances of their birth, improving K-12 education and expanding the Pell Grant program would be far more effective, and no more expensive, than making public higher education tuition-free.