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Independent Outlook

Our fascination with numbers stems from our faith that numbers are more precise than words. But journalists and public officials too often use numbers that are so simplified as to be misleading. The quick numbers on low salaries and high unemployment rates for liberal arts graduates, for example, suggest the opposite picture from what the details reveal. That is, new liberal arts graduates may earn less at first than classmates who majored in professional fields, but over time this gap closes. These glib statistics reveal more informative patterns just below the surface.

Recently, I participated in a meeting of Oregon college presidents that explored ways to streamline educational offerings and create efficiencies based on one another’s strengths. Though together we arrived at similar conclusions, the strength of America’s higher education system is found in its diversity of approaches. To be truly effective, we must also be distinctive, offering a wide set of alternatives to our students.

It’s become fashionable to prize innovation in higher education, not only because university research produces new knowledge that enriches our lives and changes our understanding of the world, but also because new campus programs are themselves markers of institutional vitality. It is less fashionable to celebrate colleges and universities as custodians of the world’s cumulative knowledge and conveyors of it to the next generation.

To demonstrate more accurately the financial worth of college degrees, at least six states in 2012 explored the use of databases to publicly disclose income levels of graduates in specific fields. Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education brought its initiative to fruition in the fall through its Wage Outcomes Report, which provides information about the immediate employment/salary experiences of alumni who remain in Virginia after graduation.

Unintended consequences will frequently result from unique events. Barton College (N.C.) fashioned one of the most dramatic finishes ever played when it won the DII National Men’s Basketball Championship in spring 2007. In the last 45 seconds, a single point guard sank five baskets. The shot that won the game dropped with 0.1 seconds to go. (If you love basketball and have not seen this clip, it’s on YouTube under “Barton College Basketball.”)

It’s been a surprise to see how eager many college trustees, foundation officers, and government officials are now for the same freedom students and faculty members enjoy on campus to try out new ideas. Many have become enamored with the idea of “disruptive innovation,” drawn from Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997). Arguing that incremental change is often inadequate when organizations face altered circumstances, he asserts that disruptive innovation is the best way to re-position an organization. His main examples relate to hard disk drives and excavators.


The 20-year-old “bubble era” of rapid expansion and leveraged prosperity in American colleges may have been a novelty; it did not, however, fund or build much that now seems original. Too bad, because there is a difference between movements or institutions (as there is for poets and scientists) that are original, truly springing from fresh inspiration, and those that are merely novel, highly derived forms growing from already familiar soils. The Great Recession continues a residual perplexity like a weather front hovering upon the shoreline.

As I write this, the markets have tumbled again, the Chronicle notes "renewed jitters" at colleges and universities, and Moody's warns of a mounting backlog of deferred maintenance on campuses, a sign to rating agencies of weakened financial positions.