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A Question for Higher Education

Higher education in the United States is changing. It has changed before, of course, but today institutions of higher education face an impressive array of social forces. These include the globalization of the economy, the emergence of online educational programs, changes in demographic trends that are making prospective students scarce, and budget challenges in state legislatures that make public funding even scarcer.

Universities are not known for being good at changing quickly, but they are adjusting. Some of these adjustments are demanded by students who face shocking tuition bills and who fear mountains of student debt upon graduation. Since students today look at higher education as an investment, they are rightly concerned about the return it will provide. Will the degree they earn produce more income than what it will cost to get it? Incoming students are further aware that most of the desirable jobs in our economy today will require more than a bachelor’s degree. Graduate education is more commonly a part of the increasingly expensive package. If they are to thrive—or even survive—in today’s higher education marketplace, colleges and universities must respond to these concerns.

For those of us who work in higher education, many of these changes seem ominous. When our students are increasingly focused on choosing a major that will best position them in a tight job market, what will become of the liberal arts and our haughty ideal that knowledge should be pursued for its own sake, without regard to pecuniary rewards? Dread ripples through the faculty whenever we hear that a university has eliminated yet another traditional major that couldn’t attract enough students to justify its continued existence. In the past year, Michigan State dropped its classics major, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette eliminated its philosophy major. This past fall, SUNY-Albany announced that it would eliminate several modern language majors, along with classics and theater.

The idea that undergraduate education should be a time of self-discovery also can seem increasingly quaint. As part of my professional duties, I advise pre-law students. Every fall, a few freshmen find their way to my office and ask for a detailed list of the exact classes they should take for the next four years. I tell them all roughly the same thing: “Go find a major that you love and will do well in. Make sure it’s one where you have to read a lot of books and write a lot of papers. Two years from now, if you still want to be a lawyer, come see me then.” Some students like that answer, but lately I’ve been getting a lot of blank stares. And why should they like that answer? These students are paying for a BA that they see as a ticket to law school. If we tell them they aren’t supposed to be preparing specifically for law school, then they are likely to ask what exactly all that tuition money will be going for?

Institutions of higher education must be able to answer that question, and the answer must strike an appropriate balance between the ideals of pursuing wisdom and self-discovery and the practical necessity of preparing students for employment in the modern economy. In “Graduate Education and the Liberal Arts,” Columbia University professor Louis Menand, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), looks at one important and changing aspect of this problem, the relationship between undergraduate education and master’s degree programs. Menand explores the history of graduate-level professional education in the United States and considers what the relationship between the liberal arts and professional education might look like in the future.

The question is not an easy one to answer; these challenges will not be easy to meet.  But American higher education has changed before, and it will change again as it looks for new ways to meet the most pressing needs of our age while maintaining its commitment to the search for wisdom and self-discovery, wherever it might take us.


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