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Tossing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

Today's institutional choices and their influence on tomorrow
University Business, Jun 2009

A PREMISE OF HIGHER EDUCATION is that if you study hard and do well in your courses, you will be rewarded at the next stage of life. Not only is knowledge an asset that helps a new graduate succeed in the world, but people in authority who respect the graduate’s achievements will make decisions that can influence the lives of other young adults for the better. The challenge for each student is to prioritize goals, then decide which major to pursue and eventually which career and civic responsibilities to assume. The prudent answer to the fundamental question, “What do I want to do professionally and with my life?” always balances preferences against perceived opportunities.

This predictable pattern was often manifested a generation ago as the most talented college seniors chose medical school or PhD programs in scholarly fields. A decade later, college seniors with superb records more often chose law school over other options.

Cost cutting has been done in ways that are notably selfless and have benefited students.

Most recently, lured by reports of astronomical bonuses and lives of luxury, many star undergraduates have chosen majors in economics and finance. Their calculation has been that the combination of a rigorous course of study and their innate intelligence will lead to careers that influence major institutions, support comfortable lives, and provide a worldview for understanding an otherwise unpredictable universe.

The collapse of financial markets, the contraction of the housing market, and the loss of Wall Street fortunes and Main Street savings will most likely lead to changes again in the choices students make among professions. Perhaps the public outrage over the greed and immorality of some leaders of financial institutions will also lead to renewed emphasis on civic responsibility.

Whatever the new career choices by students, it’s likely that their mass disenchantment with the exaggerated claims supporting a decision to major in economics, business, or finance will also influence their preferences among majors. Why, today, would anyone choose to major in a field that leads to careers in discredited institutions and has been so wrong in providing a framework for understanding the world?

This shift in career choices could be most significant for colleges that insist on general education in the liberal arts as underpinning for preprofessional studies, and it could be exacerbated by some of the steps that colleges are taking now to cope with the economic downturn. Hardly passive as the economy has deteriorated, many colleges have made dramatic innovations in cutting costs and devising new models of undergraduate education. Private colleges have been especially quick to launch imaginative and entrepreneurial approaches to their own revitalization. The cost cutting by colleges has been done in ways that are notably selfless and have benefited students.

The contrast couldn’t be greater with financial institutions that, also faced with budgetary problems, gave large bonuses to senior management and imposed new fees on consumers. Look, for example, at many colleges’ recent reductions in faculty compensation and increases in teaching loads, delays in construction of needed facilities, and cancellation of planned tuition increases.

For students, institutional belt-tightening has led to important educational opportunities: A four-year degree in three years is now possible in a small but growing number of institutions; so-called “frills” in co-curricular activities have been eliminated in return for a lower tuition charge; more courses are being offered with the convenience of online, asynchronous delivery; and study abroad programs are being shifted to lower-cost, less-visited parts of the world where immersion in a foreign culture has even more educational value.

Colleges need to be deliberate about whether these changes should be touted as short-term or long-term fixes. Students, meanwhile, may see these innovations as detracting from higher education’s premise—that when college students do well in a demanding course of study, good things will follow.

The confidence of many young people in society’s institutions is already tenuous. Even before the recent economic meltdown, young people did not trust employers to look out for their long-term welfare, they preferred personal savings to company retirement plans, and they doubted that Social Security would play a significant role in their retirements. Until the emergence of the Obama campaign, we were also in a period of declining interest among college students in political and civic affairs. As economists of higher education have noted, the lifetime earnings advantage of college graduates is narrowing.

Government officials have tended to view all college-going as the same, with little attention given to the variability of content and quality. Today, with the economy in crisis, pursuing a dream job has been replaced by the challenge of finding any kind of job.

A major in economics makes less sense when the discipline has shown itself to be so unreliable in explaining the world. In this environment, an even more extreme possibility is that students will not value the serious study of any field when the premise of college-going has been contradicted by recent experience. Future students may enroll in the lowest-priced, least demanding institution in order to gain the expected credential of a college degree, with no concern for the quality or content of the degree program or the campus experience. Pragmatism is just inches away from cynicism.

Choices that colleges make during the next few years will influence students’ attitudes for much longer. Stripped-down and accelerated degree programs, for example, will save money for both students and institutions during the current crisis but could undermine the future market for four-year residential programs that offer rich co-curricular dimensions.

Already, consumer advocates and journalists are advising high school seniors to verify that the college where they intend to enroll in September will offer the distinctive features that were promised in March. If a student chose a specific college because it offers an education in which formal courses and a rich array of co-curricular activities are purposefully coordinated, it would be counterproductive for the college to announce that educational features beyond the classroom really do not matter very much and have therefore been eliminated. If a state government furloughs public university employees for two days per month, will students believe that the education provided by a 90 percent faculty effort is really as good as the one offered with 100 percent effort, and should universities pretend that it’s as good?

When describing the advantages of the less expensive versions of a college education, we need to avoid making it more difficult to resume promotion of the more effective (and appropriately more expensive) model whenever the economy does recover.

Each college needs to decide how to describe the less expensive version of itself, encouraging the best students to pursue fields that address the country’s greatest needs—engineers who will develop technologies that make us less dependent on oil and other nonrenewable resources; physicians and nurses who are committed to reducing costs and broadening access to health care; teachers who are interested in educating those K-12 students with the least adequate preparation; and government officials who are tenacious in their regulatory role. There are few short cuts to achieving and sustaining high quality.

Richard Ekman is president of The Council of Independent Colleges,