Higher education is constantly under attack these days:
- The costs of education are too high…
- We are reducing access and increasing inequality…
- Students receive inadequate training for the job market…
- Technology is making the traditional residence-based educational experience obsolete…
- Educational institutions are rigid and calcified…
These are all common critiques. Underlying such attacks are raging debates pitting competing ideas of the function of higher education against each other amid a shifting political-economic-technological landscape. Higher education has become, in some ways, the locus of a proxy battle over our society’s future. Rather than covertly engaging on the issues, we would be well served to openly consider our choices and develop a holistic policy addressing our competing needs.
Three seismic shifts underlie the pressures on higher education, and any solution or policy or approach must consider all three in terms of balancing the tensions between them. First is the fact that we are continuously evolving our republic, especially with respect to increasing suffrage and access to self-governance. Originally only permitting a limited group of male, European-background citizens to vote and lead, we now include blacks, women and other previously excluded groups, though in some cases, obviously, suffrage is still lacking in reality. A core belief of our system, having its origins with the Greeks, is that participation in self-governance requires critical independent thinking, and it was this belief that provided the aspirational goal upon which our higher education system was built. The result of our increased political participation, both morally and practically, is a tremendous increase in demand for higher education and the results we expect from this education.
Second, we have seen the ascendance — some would say triumph — of economics as a societal organizing principle. Matt Burriesci in a June article in Guernica, “The Arts and Humanities Aren’t Worth a Dime: Against Correct Answers and Workplace Utility,” argues that this is the result of a process that began with John Locke’s observation that the existence of government is reliant on the existence of private property, ergo “political freedoms [are] reliant on economic liberty.” Today, we see that principle in full bloom as economic value and how we measure such value have become the standard by which we judge almost all things. This shift — placing economic measure before all else — creates significant pressures on higher education. The previously mentioned expansion of universal participation in our society also dramatically increases demand for access to the keys of economic success. And with Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicating that future areas of economic success — where we will see the greatest increase of the best-paying jobs and growth — will require at least some, and possibly substantial, higher education and skills training, that demand grows still higher. At the same time, we have seen many industries outsource training as economic value — as manifest in the bottom line — becomes our overwhelming focus. So, in our current environment, we demand that higher education meet all of our needs, yet do it at as low a cost as possible and with a clear, measurable success.
The third seismic shift concerns technological advances. As always, they have consistently altered the shape of labor markets, decreasing the need for human labor in many areas. As a response, we have looked to insure adequate training where we perceive the greatest need: the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Adding additional pressure on higher education, many people hold the perception that students are inadequately prepared in STEM areas as compared to other countries. Despite these common beliefs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the greatest areas of job growth during the next 10 years will not, in fact, be in STEM areas. In decreasing order, they will be healthcare support/practitioners/technical occupations, construction and extraction occupations, personal care and service occupations, computer and mathematical occupations, and community and social services occupations. At the same time, in what may seem to be a contradiction, business leaders profess to seek, first and foremost, workers who can think independently and creatively to address ever-shifting, ever-more-complex problems.
Taken together, it is easy to see the framework for the pressures on higher education:
- we face a dramatically increased demand for higher education so that a larger part of our community can have access to the economic and political spoils of success;
- businesses are looking for pre-trained graduates, who have both the specific skills necessary to do the requisite jobs and the critical thinking skills to work independently and productively; and
- the training we offer must be economically viable and provide value for both the student and the community.
It is true that these issues have always concerned us. What has shifted is the balance between these issues and our expectations around them. Unlike other countries where the state determines which track a student enters, we previously structured our educational system with varying opportunities for students to get the set of skills they wanted and that we needed as a society. We had skills-based vocational schools; we had liberal arts schools offering broad critical thinking; we had research institutions focused on creating new knowledge. Today, however, we are unwilling to accept the inherent stratification such a system yields; we expect every student to have equal access to all the tools necessary for success. Unfortunately, we have not organized our response in a coherent structure or policy, leaving our higher education institutions at sea and to their own devices in an intensified market environment.
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” perhaps the apotheosis of 2,000 years of evolution towards self-determination, relies on critical independent thinkers to be successful, and we designed a liberal arts education to teach this. Burriesci says that “discernment and courage, sound judgement, an appreciation of the past, and good character” are, and always have been, required to lead the way into the future. Whether we believe Burriesci or our business leaders pining for independent creative thinkers, such an education is clearly indispensable. Despite how critical it is to the success of our political life, our increasing reliance on quantitative and verifiable results has moved that education, to our detriment, to the sidelines.
The challenge we face — to develop both critical thinking for success and skills training for a modern labor force in those we educate — can only be achieved by a top-to-bottom reconsideration of our curriculum and how we design the limited time that students can spend in their studies. It is not possible to believe that we can simply expand what we expect from higher education institutions while reducing costs. Instead, we must look to redesign the experience of education in order for society to achieve its goals. While some might deem this an impossible task, history has shown that our capacity to master increasing knowledge and experience over time has been successful. I have no doubt that we can succeed again as our environment continues to evolve. All we need is the willingness to engage holistically while keeping our sights on the big picture of our needs as a society.