Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What IS the value of college?

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant

What IS the value of college? President Obama said yesterday at Georgia Tech, "Today a college degree is a ticket to the middle class and beyond. It’s the key to getting a good job that pays a good income." As economic development professionals, we know that the statistics show he is not wrong. People with college degrees tend to make more money and are less likely to be unemployed. Employers want to hire college graduates. 

Part of what I want to ask here is why? The graduates of traditional liberal arts styled colleges aren’t exactly receiving workforce training. We hear plenty of stories in the economic development world about a workforce full of college graduates, but none with the skills needed to fill good paying jobs that require specialized knowledge. 

Last month we read about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s alleged editing snafu that changed the mission of the University of Wisconsin from language about the pursuit of truth and improving the human condition to language about meeting the state’s workforce needs. 

It got me thinking about this question. As a society, we Americans tend to think college is valuable. But, what is it really about college that we value? 

Walker inflamed education professionals across the nation. Mistaken or not the proposed changes to UW’s mission statement point to changing sentiments across the nation when it comes to the value of our colleges and universities. 

The President said yesterday, "Jobs and businesses will go where the best workers are." If colleges and universities are meant to be preparing those workers, maybe their mission statements should reflect that. The pursuit of truth and improvement of the human condition are admirable goals, but in a post recession reality maybe our ideals have gotten too big for our britches. Or, too big for state-funded public institutions. 

The backlash to the news about Walker, however, suggests that workforce training is, at the very least, not all that we value about college. So, what else is it? 

Do we value the pursuit of truth and the improvement of the human condition? Do we think these lofty goals should be pursued in institutions of higher education and subsidized by state and federal funding? Well, do we? 

As economic development professionals, we recognize that pursuing these lofty goals leads to the research and innovation that make institutions of higher education important economic drivers in our communities—attracting clusters of research and development, commercializing innovations, and spurring entrepreneurial activity. 

Do we value these aspects of our colleges and universities as well? Or, might these lofty goals be better pursued somewhere else? In the private sector? Or, by non-profits outside of the higher education realm?

I’m honestly asking. I have a lot of questions. I don’t have answers. But, given current arguments about state budgets, cuts to state spending on higher education, and proposals that would have professors spending more time in the classroom and less time on research, I think we all need to be asking. 

What do we value in our colleges and universities? What is their value to us as students, parents, employers, employees, economic development professionals, citizens, community members, humans? 

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have worked in the economic development world since 2009 and I know the value of (and need for) workforce training and development, but I am also a PhD student in philosophy and I care very deeply about pursuing truth and improving the human condition. I also got my BA from a pretty liberal liberal arts institution (Bard College) where those lofty goals were very much a part of my education. 

Liberal arts institutions like mine talk very little about training a workforce and talk much more about teaching students to think for themselves and to ask hard questions. This is a hard question. We should be asking it.