Give Colleges More Credit (Opinion)

Ann McClure's picture
Thursday, July 5, 2012

Higher education as we know it is about to come to an end. After all, there are no jobs for college graduates, certainly not for liberal arts students. Moreover, even were such students employable, they come out of school so burdened with debt that they will never dig their way out. The educational equivalent of eight-track tapes, traditional colleges and universities will vanish almost entirely, replaced by slimmer, more technologically advanced online and for-profit models.

As college presidents who hear such proclamations over and over again, we find ourselves suppressing the urge to yawn, and not because we lose sleep over them. Rather, we are reminded of Marcel Proust's splendid observation in "Remembrance of Things Past": "The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been 'great changes.'"

We take comfort in the fact that for more than a century predictions about the impending demise of classic higher education have met the same fate: They have been utterly wrong. Around 1900, David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford, forecast the end of the liberal arts college. Others foresaw financial ruin for higher education during the Depression, when public colleges suffered 40% reductions in funding and private institutions lost more than a quarter of their endowments and more than 70% of gifts from benefactors. Then came proclaimers of the end of educational excellence resulting from democratization associated with the GI Bill, followed by prophets of demographic devastation from the large baby boom generation, and conversely, from the baby bust.

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