You sure you want that $200,000 hat?

Whether thoughts of the coming year bring joy or fear, recent months’ debate over the value of higher education should give you good reason to have second thoughts. Bwog daily editor Matt Schantz reviews the literature.

Richard Heffner, host of PBS’s Open Mind, began an interview with former Dean Moody-Adams with a provocative quote form MiMoo herself: “Some contemporary critics will wonder whether any liberal arts education can ever be anything more than a ‘remnant of economic privilege.’ Moreover, in a time of extraordinary economic upheaval and crisis it is not unreasonable to ask the larger question of whether there is an appropriate fit between the ideals of a liberal education and the broader demands of a sometimes brutal market economy.” Moody-Adam’s response to these critics: a confident “yes.” She asserts that a liberal arts degree is both economically viable— Columbia provides students with “intellectual cognitive capacities that will suit them well whatever line of work or profession they choose”— and anti-elitist. The liberal arts endow all students with cultural capital (a fancy word for the ability to name drop with the best of ‘em) regardless of socioeconomic background. Yet Moody-Adam’s argument, long the prevailing mantra of the liberal arts education, has come under close scrutiny recently, in part due to an alarming statistic that’s been making the headlines.

In Academically Adrift, sociologists Josipa Rosksa and Richard Arum examine the current state of higher education using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a test designed to measure critical reasoning administered to students as incoming freshmen and a second time after they’ve completed sophomore year. According to their results, 45% of students don’t learn anything in their first two years of college due to lack of rigor. Students studying the liberal arts who took classes that required more than 40 pages of reading a week and writing more than 20 pages a semester improved the most. The statistic was the perfect sound bite to ignite further debate around an already hot topic. While some critiqued the methodology and recommendations of Academically Adrift, almost all agreed that higher education in America is broken.

William Deresiewicz argues that the problem facing today’s universities lies neither in the lazy student nor the aloof professor but in the corporate business model that many universities have recently adopted, in his article for The Nation, ‘Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education’. Universities are relying on grad students and part-time faculty to do the heavy lifting, taking away opportunities for newly tenured professors (of which there are fewer and fewer) and creating a self-defeating cycle. Meanwhile, hiring of non-faculty personnel has exploded. Deresiewicz argues that tenure is not the problem but the solution; if profit-minded universities are to change, professors must use the great security tenure has given them to create those changes from the inside-out.

In his review of Academically Adrift, Peter Brooks argues that it is not tenure, but the growing gap between public and private universities, largely caused by the divide between America’s wealthiest and least wealthy (elegantly layed out here by our own Joesph Stiglitz), that is the greatest challenge to higher education. His argument resembles Deresiewicz’s but is fortified by a more focused critique of Academically Adrift in which he examines the origins of the CLA test. Margret Spellings, who popularized outcomes testing like the CLA was a vocal critic of higher education, and its questionable metrics.

Academically Adrift concludes elite colleges “do not create distinctive lives and careers” based on a survey of the ‘73 class of Princeton. Brooks concludes that the problem of America’s universities is symptomatic of the wealth gap, and only by addressing the larger issue can anything be done to fix higher education.

In his New Yorker article ‘Live and Learn,’ Louis Menand, unlike Brooks and Deresiwicz, accepts the conclusion of Academically Adrift and wonders if the liberal arts education is not meant for all. Menand identifies three main arguments for why higher education matters: it provides the raw material out of which grades are made, reinforcing the meritocracy; the liberal arts offer exposure to timeless and beautiful thoughts which all deserve to explore (the view taken by Dean Moody-Adams); college provides training for future employment. The liberal arts only has a place in the former two philosophies. Jamming a LitHum syllabus down the unwilling throat of someone who is only attending college as part of a path towards, say, beverage management (Menand’s example), may not be fruitful both because it wastes precious teaching resources and if the student is not willing to put in the work there is no outcome. Menand proposes that the liberal arts still matter but should not be obligatory. Many professions do not require a college degree but applicants are forced to have them in order to be competitive, the system needs to be redesigned to provide the liberal arts for those who are motivated and an alternative for those who are not.

And the debate continues! Just two days ago The New York Times published a Room for Debate in which several educational authorities from technocrat Peter Thiel to our own Judith Scott-Clayton were asked whether “our society devote[s] too much time and money to education.” Those who say yes point to skyrocketing tuition rates, the disconnect between university learning and job skills, and draw parallels to the housing bubble. The naysayers point to the lower unemployment rate and higher salaries of college graduates.

One of the sole voices of dissent, The New Republic columnist Kevin Carey, dismisses the recent crop of stories as unoriginal and alarmist: the same story has been told for decades, he argues. Such articles will always draw readers because recent grads and their nervous parents enjoy seeing their anxieties projected onto the national stage. But his argument that colleges grads all eventually find their way to meaningful nonprofit consulting jobs because “that’s how things work out for people who get college degrees” is both an elitist oversight and a misreading of the larger questions examined by others. There has never been a question over whether highly motivated, engaged, well-connected students will make it in the real world (nor do the results of the CLA suggest so), the better question, the one that many responses are trying to explore, is whether a liberal arts degree makes sense, economically and philosophically, for those at public and less-prestigious private institutions, and if it is, then how can we change the system to make those degrees better.