I had several reactions to this column in the New York Times on the purpose of a college education. My perspective is that of someone who works in higher education both as a faculty member and as the director of a public policy center that offers many programs to students, both in and out of the classroom.
First, there are the usual laments in the article about the need for colleges to provide a liberal arts education as the basis of an engaged citizenry. I wholeheartedly agree that a liberal arts education can achieve that end. I do not necessarily agree that we are best served by having that happen in college. More specifically, why should we use years 13-16 of a student’s education to do that? Why can we not do most of that in years 9-12 or earlier? The confusion about what should happen in college is in part derived from a confusion or a failure of execution in earlier years. Why not set a goal for an engaged citizenry by the time citizens are 18? We could then relax a bit about the broader implications of whether some universities are not focused enough on the liberal arts or whether they teach some standardized curriculum. (For more, I recommend this post from the Berkeley Blog.)
Second, the article references recent policy proposals about making the college decision more transparent or financially remunerative, particularly with an eye toward a first job after college. I understand that federal and state governments should be looking to get their money’s worth, given how much of higher education they subsidize or provide. But I view the efforts as largely inconsequential. There are thousands of colleges. Most of them say up front what their philosophies are. Even acknowledging that there is not always truth in advertising, there is no impediment other than time and sophistication to picking a good match. (This was the original motivation for the article.) As in other markets, there are intermediaries whom you can pay to economize on your own time or compensate for your own lack of sophistication as a consumer.
Third, the most interesting part of the article is the discussion of what some schools are doing to create more interesting learning experiences through multidisciplinary courses or sequences of courses on a given topic. This part is worth quoting:
One example, she said, is the Pathways program at Santa Clara University in California, in which students in all majors take thematically based sequences of courses that draw together several disciplines. Sustainability, the idea that the current generation can meet its needs without sacrificing future generations’, can be studied, for example, from the point of view of business, history, philosophy and politics. And at Indiana University, the Liberal Arts and Management Program offers interdisciplinary courses like “The History of the Automobile: Economy, Politics and Culture.” This program enables students to learn their specialty in the context of history, literature and other liberal arts.
“Universities need to be more creative in their thinking,” she said. And while internships can help bring a practical piece, faculty members need to oversee what is being learned and connect it back to the rest of the academic learning — something that is not done enough, she said.
This is something that we try to do at my Center in our public policy minor, but we and the rest of my institution could be more focused on thematic learning in this way.
Fourth, the most damning indictment of higher education in the article is that nowhere is the possibility of a student graduating into a life of entrepreneurship even remotely considered. Why are we not taking the smartest people and encouraging them to create something new, rather than wait in some form of a queue for a job to open up? I have taken to saying that education does not create jobs, it just qualifies you for a job. If you want to make the article author’s life easier, create a system that facilitates job growth, rather than focusing on job types. This is a very important problem colleges should focus on.