By Doug Ward
Education has always been a balancing act. In our classes, we constantly choose what concepts to emphasize, what content to cover, what ideas to discuss, and what skills to practice. As I wrote last week, the choices we make will influence our students throughout their careers.
Higher education is now facing a different kind of balancing act, though, one that involves not just what we teach and who we are but what college is and should be about and how it fits into the broader fabric of society. The recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities made clear just how tenuous a grasp higher education has on credibility and how broad the gap is between internal and external perceptions of colleges and universities.
Consider this from Brandon Busteed, a former Gallup executive who is now president of Kaplan University Partners:
“If you were to take the most brilliant marketing minds in the world, put them in a room for a day, lock them in there and say, please emerge with words that would be the worst possible combination to use in attracting students to higher education, they would emerge with one combination called ‘liberal arts.’ ”
To explain that, he referred to a study of high-performing, low-income students at Stanford. When asked what they thought of liberal arts, they most commonly replied: “What’s that?” Or “I’m not liberal.” Or “I’m not good at or interested in art.”
Lest those of you in professional programs start to feel smug, read on.
The negative connotations of ‘college’
In Gallup polling, Busteed said, Americans express confidence in “higher education” and “post-secondary education.” They see those things as important to the future. When asked about “college” or “university,” though, the warm feelings suddenly chill.
“Why?” Busteed asked. “When we say ‘college,’ we think about traditional-age students. We think about a residential experience. We think about Animal House movies.”
In other words, Americans see a need for education to prepare them for jobs and careers. Increasingly, though, the typical student who needs additional education looks nothing like Flounder, Babs or Bluto and wants nothing to do with a system they see as driven by liberal ideology and populated by drunken misfits more interested in toga parties than in preparing for the future.
“The words are holding us back,” Busteed said.
A new study from the Pew Research Center reinforces that. According to Pew, Democrats rank improving education as the second most important priority for the president and Congress, trailing only reducing health-care costs. Republicans, on the other hand, see defending against terrorist attacks, fixing social security and dealing with immigration as far more important than education or health care.
Another divide shows up in the Pew survey, with about three-quarters of women and those between 18 and 49 years old saying that improving education should be the top priority. Men and older Americans see education as a less pressing issue. The Pew poll doesn’t distinguish K-12 from higher education, but it does point to the complicated relationship Americans have with education of all sorts today. And the way educators see education and the way the public sees education are vastly different.
“Talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in societal education, has been replaced by talk of return on investment: tuition in exchange for jobs,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U said during the organization’s annual meeting. She added: “The fact that Americans believe more in higher education than in colleges and universities is a clear indication that the way we talk about what we do in academia shapes public perception.”
Employers’ conflicted feelings
That perception applies not only to the public whose voices carry weight in state and federal funding of education but to the businesses and organizations that hire college graduates.
A survey AAC&U conducted last year found that only 63% of business executives and hiring managers have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges and universities. That’s higher than the 45% of the public who express confidence in colleges and universities. And if you ask those same business leaders whether college is worth the time and expense, 85% to 88% say yes, according to the AAC&U survey.
The responses indicate a clear ambivalence about higher education, though. Nearly all of the business leaders say they are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and more complex tasks than in the past. Nearly all of them say they are looking for prospective employees who think critically and communicate clearly, possess intellectual and interpersonal skills that will lead to innovative thinking, and have an ability to use a broader range of skills than workers in past years did. Many of them just aren’t convinced that college is preparing students for that.
Many academics will scoff at the focus on business leaders. A university education isn’t the same as job training, they say. It isn’t about tailoring classes to meet the specific demands of the business world and molding students into corporate clones.
I agree. And yet as the cost of college has risen precipitously, students increasingly want assurances that their degrees will lead to good jobs. We can – and should – talk about how our degrees will make students into better people and better citizens, about how our courses prepare students to face the unpredictable challenges of the future. Students want that, too. Above all, though, they want to be able to pay off their loans once they graduate. As Busteed told the AAC&U gathering, today’s students, as “consumers of higher education,” want more efficient and less expensive paths through college, and they want their coursework aligned with the jobs they will take upon graduation.
So we are back to the balancing act that those of us inside colleges and universities face. We want our students to leave with disciplinary knowledge but must help them understand how our disciplines lead to careers. We fret over week-to-week understanding of course material even though much of it is very likely to be obsolete within a few years. We try to teach in a reasoned, meaningful, inclusive way even as a partisan, skeptical public questions our epistemological foundations. We carry the burden of a name – college or university – that has lost its cachet even as a wary and reluctant public continues to see a need for what we do.
What’s the point of a major?
A colleague at AAC&U pointed to an enormous paradox in teaching and learning today. As students flood into what they see as “safe” majors of business and engineering, the liberal arts and sciences have donned the mantle of job skills. English isn’t just about literature and poetry; it’s about the communication skills that employers prize. History isn’t just about an understanding of the past; it’s about critical thinking skills that will get you a job. Political science isn’t just about the machinations of government; it’s about learning to work in groups so you can thrive in a career.
All of those things are true, but as my colleague reminded me, students don’t choose a major because they think it will make them better at group work, improve their critical analysis, or allow them to make better decisions independently. They choose a major because they are passionate about literature or linguistics or biology or politics or French or journalism or (name the major).
So more than ever, we educators must approach our work in multiple layers. We must balance disciplinary depth with broad-scale career skills, short-term understanding with long-term viability. We must learn to explain our majors more meaningfully and our roles as academics more thoughtfully. We must help our students explore the many facets of our majors while helping them connect to the ideas and philosophies of other majors. We must guide students through the details of disciplinary competency while recognizing that only the broader skills and experiences – what the media historian Claude Cookman calls the “residue” of education – generally sticks with students over the years.
Higher education has always been about exploration and understanding. As those of us who make up higher education balance the many demands pressing down on us today, though, we must undertake a broader exploration of just who we are because, increasingly, those on the outside don’t know.
Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.