Higher Education Takes Two Divergent Paths

While the debate about whether college is even worth the investment lingers on, for some the discussion has shifted to questioning what it means to be college educated—or what should it mean. Will the answer be decided by college educators or politicians, and how might the outcome impact the work of academic librarians?

We’re barely half-way through the calendar year, and it is already looking like a fairly consistent theme is emerging in the ongoing national conversation about higher education. Previously, one of the big questions was “Who needs college?” Anecdotes about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became evidence that college was hardly the path to real success in America. One father even swore he’d never send his children to college. Never mind the repeated studies that clearly demonstrate that over the long term, for the average American, a college education leads to greater success than a high school diploma alone. The folly of asking that question seems to have subsided somewhat, and it may be that massive open online courses had an impact. Now that higher education is becoming more accessible and more affordable for many, why debate whether or not attending is a good use of time and money? Now the question is shifting to the matter of what should students get out of their college education. Should it be strictly skills-focused career preparation, or some version of a liberal arts education that is not career-driven, but serves to prepare students for whatever road they may choose to travel in life?

Higher Ed Versus Politicians
Even when tuition was affordable, there was still some discussion about what makes for the best college experience. What are the best books to read? What’s the proper mix of courses from the different disciplines? Now that tuition leaves so many students struggling with post-graduation debt, with potentially severe implications for our economic future, the very foundation of the meaning and point of a college education is being questioned. Frank Bruni’s New York Times essay on “Questioning the Mission of College” did so in eloquent fashion, and even he admitted that he was on the fence in this debate. Bruni brings to our attention the growing tension in this debate between politicians and higher education leaders. It’s one thing for presidents or faculty to raise questions about what it means to earn a college degree, and to discuss how to structure a curriculum to deliver the best possible education. It’s quite another when politicians seek to define what higher education should be based on strictly on economics and evaluations. That’s exactly what is happening in multiple states, where governors and other legislators are seeking to impose a variety of restrictive measures on higher education, all in the name of efficiency and proving to taxpayers that a college diploma is still the ticket to a job.

Different Directions
If you want to get a good sense of the two directions in which our country is headed when attempting to provide an answer to Bruni’s question, consider the opposite visions of a college president and a governor. To answer the question “What is College For?” the Chronicle of Higher Education asked multiple college presidents to share their thoughts on what it ought to be. Carolyn A. Martin, the president of Amherst College, said “College in the development of intelligence in multiple forms…College is for learning how to think clearly, write beautifully, and put quantitative skills to use in the work of discovery.” Her full response is worth reading, but that gives you a taste of what she and the other presidents had to say. Compare this to the direction in which college is headed in Florida. That’s where Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation ensuring, he said, that “Florida students are prepared for college and careers, and have the necessary skills to compete for jobs in a competitive global economy.” The new law makes it clear that the state is moving to a heightened state of accountability, which will no doubt lead to a far more career-focused curriculum.

Adding fuel to the fire is a new report from the organization College Measures, which finds graduates of two-year technical schools earned thousands more than college graduates one year after graduation. While the study’s authors admit their findings say nothing about potential lifetime earnings of vo-tech or college grads, or a graduate’s ability to adjust to a changing jobs environment over the long term, legislators and parents may point to such facts as proof that college graduates need better training for jobs that pay well. Reflecting those concerns, the deployment of new metrics to determine the success of higher education in Florida will include measures such as average wages of employed graduates. Given the degree to which the visions of our leaders differ when it come to defining what it means to be college educated, is there little surprise that we’re all left wondering where this is all headed and what it will mean to work in the higher education enterprise.

Finding a Balance
In his essay, Bruni asks if what we really want is for colleges and universities to serve as job training centers for corporate America. Those of us who dedicate our efforts to the education of our students and supporting faculty scholarship know how we would answer Bruni. Acknowledging that tuition is costly, debt levels are high, and many students and their parents are expecting their college investment to pay off with a career opportunity, we know the pressure is on higher education to deliver results, not just diplomas. As Bruni puts it, the challenge is finding a balance between being idealistic and practical. Do we educate our students for a job they can obtain after graduation, or for the many different possible careers they might have throughout their working years? I think Jeff Selingo was on the mark in one of his essays when he wrote that we need to “build consensus around a diverse higher-education system that is flexible and responsive—yet accountable—to a generation of learners where one mode of teaching no longer fits all.” Our system of higher education can achieve some form of well-roundedness, so that it is balanced between idealism and practicality.

Contributing to the Consensus
When academic librarians say their work helps students become lifelong learners, they might imagine that the direct benefit is providing students with the means to become effective employees and citizens, quite possibly even savvy, clear thinking consumers and researchers. Those skills learned at the hands of librarians will, we hope, help our students to make a difference where they work and in their communities. It’s nice imagery and part of our noble cause. As our presidents and provosts seek the middle ground between politicians demanding accountability and their own strongly held beliefs that it has to be about more than career preparation, I think we’ll want to pay close attention to this debate about what college is for. If the academic librarian’s function is to support the mission of the institution and the mission of the institution is to prepare students for jobs, what does that mean for our work? Would a growing emphasis on job preparation create new opportunities? Whatever role we take on in helping our institutions find their way in this new uncertainty, it should be one of helping the effort to achieve that consensus that works in the best interest of our students. Ultimately, what is at stake is their future.


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