The real value of higher education

Recently, there was a great Op-Ed by UNC system president Tom Ross.  He does such a good job laying out the real value of higher education that you can see why the Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors decided a “new direction” was needed.  Obviously, the only real value of higher ed is to create worker-drones for specific jobs that will surely stay static over a lifetime.  Ross:

We increasingly view our colleges and universities as nothing more than factories that must demonstrate an immediate return on investment for consumers. Places that only train people for the workforce. We hear constant calls to drive out costs and produce more product at less cost. There is far less talk about academic quality and excellence and more about operational efficiency. We seem to measure the value of education to our students only in immediate post-graduation earnings. Again, I am all for accountability and efficiency, but if that is our sole focus, we may fail to provide the return on investment that is perhaps most valuable for our students – the ability to think, reason and communicate more effectively… [emphases mine]

In some significant measure, our nation has been great because our higher education system has been the best in the world. Our colleges and universities have been the foundation of our democratic society. We have produced talent that remained productive over a lifetime – not because of particular skills taught, not because of preparation for a specific job, but instead because our students acquired the ability to analyze, work with others, understand our world, communicate effectively and appreciate the value of learning throughout one’s life. It is this creative, innovative, adaptable talent that has been our competitive advantage against the world.

Today, however, America’s societal commitment to investing in higher education appears to have eroded. We now spend about 2 percent more on higher education in real dollars than we spent 25 years ago, even though enrollment in our universities and colleges has grown by over 60 percent during that period. We spend about 30 percent less per student today than we did 25 years ago. As a nation, we are disinvesting in higher education, and we are beginning to pay the price.

Great stuff!  If you care about higher ed, you really should read the whole thing.  Meanwhile, Duke Professor Jedidiah Purdy has a nice piece in the New Yorker outlining the “Ayn Rand” approach to higher ed that the Republicans leading our state would like to take:

For several years, there have been indications that the state’s new leaders want to change the mission of public higher education in North Carolina. In 2013, the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, told William Bennett, a conservative talk-show host and former Secretary of Education, that the state shouldn’t “subsidize” courses in gender studies or Swahili (that is, offer them at public universities). The following year, he laid out his agenda in a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Using the language of business schools, he urged his audience to “reform and adapt the U.N.C. brand to the ever-changing competitive environment of the twenty-first century” and to “[hone] in on skills and subjects employers need.” McCrory also had a warning for faculty members whose subjects could be understood as political: “Our universities should not be used to indoctrinate our students to become liberals or conservatives, but should teach a diversity of opinions which will allow our future leaders to decide for themselves.”…

Some version of a cost-benefit calculus for learning is inevitable in a precarious economy with expensive, debt-funded education. But to reconceive of public universities as the meeting place of two markets—students investing in their own “human capital” and private investors looking to influence curricula—is another thing altogether. The point of humanities education is to foster independent, critical thought and broad historical perspective, both in students and in university culture. A successful humanities education makes the obvious questionable and shows that the present is neither eternal nor inevitable. These are not goals designed to pass market tests or bend to the ideologies of wealthy donors.

And, as long as I’m at it, Fareed Zakaria with a nice piece on how we have come to “dangerously” over-value STEM education (I admit to being a little bit guilty of this myself):

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy…

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

Strong case.  Of course, I’d argue for more social science and less humanities :-).  Regardless, I’m not about about to under-value STEM education.  It’s great and super-worthwhile.  And so is having some university degrees that lead clearly and directly to in-demand jobs.  But it seems pretty clear to me that devaluing an actual liberal arts education is not the way to go.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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