Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” discussed the widespread notion that higher education’s purpose is, first and foremost, to prepare students for the workforce. Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” focused on the idea that higher education actually serves a multitude of purposes, preparation for a career being perhaps the most important, but far from the only, purpose. Part 3, “A New Hope,” considered the findings of a Gallup-Purdue study that correlated particular experiences and opportunities students had as undergraduates with a subsequent rich and fulfilling life – and surely “a great job and a great life” is something that all prospective students (and their parents) desire.
In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out the growing consensus, particularly among some prominent Republican governors, that the primary purpose of higher education is to prepare students to obtain a well-paying job after graduation. In Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” I noted the fragile balance struck by higher education faculty, regardless of whether their particular focus is in the liberal arts, in professional or applied fields, or in community college teaching, in support of the notion that higher education is a big tent, and there is room for several different purposes and outcomes for a college education. Different campuses have different missions; there is no single purpose that encompasses all of them.
I have been sorely troubled in recent months by conflicting – even diametrically opposed – reports that claim either that most jobs in the future will require a college degree, or, alternatively, that most jobs will not require a college degree.
Here are two quick examples. A report from October 23 from TheBlaze TV quoted Mike Rowe (of “Dirty Jobs” and many TV commercials for Ford Motor Company) in an interview with Glenn Beck. In the interview, Mr. Rowe belittled the notion of taking on debt to obtain a college degree when there are so many jobs available in the skilled trades. (Just for the record, Mr. Rowe earned a B.A. in communication studies from Towson University.) Summarizing the interview, TheBlaze TV noted, “Of the roughly three million jobs that companies are struggling to fill, Rowe said only 8 to 12 percent require a college degree.”
In an article on Oct. 30, The New York Times reported that in Stanford University’s undergraduate division, 45 percent of the faculty are in the humanities, but only 15 percent of the students are humanities majors. Harvard University has seen a 20 percent drop in humanities majors in the last decade, and nationally only 7 percent of students are majoring in the humanities, half the percentage seen in 1970. Elizabeth City State University, a historically black university in North Carolina, may eliminate degree programs in seven programs, including history, in part because of declining student interest in these majors.
Do the humanities still have a place in American higher education? Or are colleges and universities destined to become a collection of training programs for the professions? Is there no middle ground?
Last week, I commented on Charles M. Blow’s March 9 column in The New York Times, which focused on the problem of student debt. I discussed the factors that contributed to the sudden growth of educational debt and steps that are necessary to rectify the problem (or would at least prevent it from becoming worse).
I ran out of room before I could get to the issue of assessing how big a problem student debt really is – hence, Part II this week.
On the one hand, student debt has increased dramatically: roughly $1 trillion in total debt, more than twice what it was just eight years ago, and larger in size than the total of all credit card debt. On an individual level, approximately half of the student population borrows to finance their education, and they graduate owing an average of about $26,000.