It is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up a newspaper, open a magazine, or walk into a bookstore without being confronted with yet another screed about the problems of higher education in America, each one seemingly more shrill than the last. With book titles such as Academically Adrift, or American Higher Education in Crisis?, or Why Does College Cost So Much?, it is no wonder that the parents of a prospective college student are confused and frustrated as they enter the season of campus visitations.
By way of welcoming the start of college this fall, The New York Times recently devoted its entire Sunday magazine (Sept. 13) to a series of articles collectively entitled Collegeland. If anyone thought it was safe to go back into the academic waters, these articles will frighten them back to the beach before they get their ankles wet.
There is no question that problems abound in the world of American higher education; they are serious, and they need to be addressed. But the good news is that genuine efforts are under way at many colleges and universities to implement solutions to these problems. Not every college is deaf to the voices of criticism. Consider three of the most vexing concerns:
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.
In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out just how pervasive has become the branding of higher education by politicians and media pundits as being primarily – even exclusively – a mechanism for job preparation. And this idea is apparently not a passing fad. The idea that the value of college is to provide the training young people need to “get a good job” is being treated as a truism among a number of probable candidates for the Republican nomination for president in the 2016 election. In Part 1, I quoted Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a specific example.
Because the proposition that the purpose of higher education is job preparation is likely to become even more prominent in the coming months, it is important that we consider the origins and merits of this idea.
Recently, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who some consider a potential contender for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, has been in the news for comments he made when announcing his proposed state budget (The New York Times, Feb. 4 and Feb. 17, 2015; Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 5 and Feb. 16, 2015). In addition to calling for a $300 million, two-year cut in state appropriations to the University of Wisconsin system (a 13 percent reduction from its current appropriation), Gov. Walker also called for a change in the university’s mission statement, removing century-old language such as “search for truth,” and “improve the human condition,” and substituting instead “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
In the first of three parts of this series, I discussed the general topic of what has been called a “jobless recovery,” following the Great Recession of 2008. In parts two and three, I examined at length the culprits that have been implicated as being the cause of our weak economic recovery: an outmoded and, to date, unresponsive system of higher education; and income and wealth inequality.
Analyzing the root causes of this unusually poor economic recovery is important not merely to ensure that blame is correctly assigned. The real importance lies in our efforts to remedy the problem: If we are focused on the wrong cause, not only will our solution fail to revive the economy, but also the potential for harm in repairing something that wasn’t broken could be enormous – and, in the long run, further negatively impact the nation.
Last week, I provided an overview on a topic of vital importance: the highly uneven nature of America’s economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008. Corporate America and its shareholders are doing very well – but the great majority of wage earners are not. What accounts for this unevenness? Noted Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw is quoted as saying, “The best way to address rising inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment,” (The New York Times, “Income Inequality and the Ills Behind It,” July 30, 2014). Is this statement true? Or does the real answer lie elsewhere?
During the presidential election campaign of 1992, and on the heels of a short, sharp national recession, James Carville, a political advisor to the Clinton campaign, famously characterized what the election was all about by coining the phrase that I’m using as the title of this blog post.
Now here we are, 22 years later, and in every political campaign since the Great Recession of 2008, this same phrase—although now tellingly focused specifically on jobs—is the basis of the platform of almost every candidate for office.
The problem is that the focus on jobs—understandable, given that in almost six years the economy has not fully restored the jobs lost in 2008 and 2009—goes well beyond mere political sloganeering. It permeates every conceivable facet of society:
Last week I complained about unreasonable expectations being placed on colleges and universities. I rather quickly assembled a list of 10 such issues (there are actually a few more), and I indicated that in Part 2 of this topic, I would offer an opinion about what higher education can (and should) do – and what is simply beyond our capacity to correct.
I’d like to start with three related issues that represent numbers 1, 2 and 7 in my list from last week:
More low-income students need to be admitted at top private schools;
The pipeline to college must be widened; and
It’s all about college completion rates.
On January 16, President Obama convened more than 100 higher education officials (most of whom were either the presidents of elite colleges or heads of community colleges or public university systems) to seek commitments on four areas of concern:
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.”