When the economy goes down, one expects the liberal arts -- especially the humanities -- to wither, and laments about their death to go up. That’s no surprise since these fields have often defined themselves as unsullied by practical application. This notion provides little comfort to students -- and parents -- who are anxious about their post-college prospects; getting a good job -- in dire times, any job -- is of utmost importance. (According to CIRP’s 2009 Freshman Survey, 56.5 percent of students -- the highest since 1983 -- said that “graduates getting good jobs” was an important factor when choosing where to go to college.)
One expects students, then, to rush to courses and majors that promise plenty of entry-level jobs. Anticipating this, college administrators would cut back or eliminate programs that are not “employment friendly,” as well as those that generate little research revenue. Exit fields like classics, comparative literature, foreign languages and literatures, philosophy, religion, and enter only those that are preprofessional in orientation. Colleges preserving a commitment to the liberal arts would see a decline in enrollment; in some cases, the institution itself would disappear.
So runs the widespread narrative of decline and fall. Everyone has an anecdote or two to support this story, but does it hold in general and can we learn something from a closer examination of the facts?
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of bachelor's degrees in “employment friendly” fields has been on the rise since 1970. Undergraduate business degrees -- the go-to “employment friendly” major -- has increased from 1970-71, with 115,400 degrees conferred, to 2007-08, with 335,250 conferred. In a parallel development, institutions graduated seven times more communications and journalism majors in 2007-08 than in 1970-71. And while numbers are small, there has been exponential growth in “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” “security and protective services,” and “transportation and materials moving” degrees. Computer science, on the other hand, peaked in the mid-80s, dropped in the mid-90s, peaked again in the mid-2000s, and dropped again in the last five years.
What has students’ turn to such degrees meant for the humanities and social sciences? A mapping of bachelor degrees conferred in the humanities from 1966 to 2007 by the Humanities Indicator Project shows that the percentage of such majors was highest in the late 1960s (17-18 percent of all degrees conferred), low in the mid-1980s (6-7 percent), and more or less level since the early 1990s (8-9 percent). Trends, of course, vary from discipline to discipline.
Degrees awarded in English dropped from a high of 64,627 in 1970-71 to half that number in the early 1980s, before rising to 55,000 in the early 1990s and staying at that level since then. The social sciences and history were hit with a similar decline in majors in 1970s and 1980s, but then recovered nicely in the years since then and now have more than they did in 1970. The numbers of foreign language, philosophy, religious studies, and area studies majors have been stable since 1970. IPEDS data pick up where the Humanities Indicator Project leaves off and tell that in 2008 and 2009, the number of students who graduated with bachelor's degrees in English, foreign language and literatures, history, and philosophy and religion have remained at the same level.
What’s surprising about this bird’s-eye view of undergraduate education is not the increase in the number of majors in programs that should lead directly to a job after graduation, but that the number of degrees earned in the humanities and related fields have not been adversely affected by the financial troubles that have come and gone over the last two decades.
Of course, macro-level statistics reveal only part of the story. What do things look like at the ground level? How are departments faring? Course enrollments? Majors? Since the study of the Greek and Roman classics tends to be a bellwether for trends in the humanities and related fields (with departments that are small and often vulnerable), it seemed reasonable to ask Adam Blistein of the American Philological Association whether classics departments were being dropped at a significant number of places. “Not really” was his answer; while the classics major at Michigan State was cut, and a few other departments were in difficulty, there was no widespread damage to the field -- at least not yet.
Big declines in classics enrollments? Again, the answer seems to be, “Not really.” Many institutions report a steady gain in the number of majors over the past decade. Princeton’s classics department, for example, announced this past spring 17 graduating seniors, roughly twice what the number had been three decades ago. And the strength is not just in elite institutions. Charles Pazdernik at Grand Valley State University in hard-hit Michigan reported that his department has 50+ majors on the books and strong enrollments in language courses.
If classics seems to be faring surprisingly well, what about the modern languages? There are dire reports about German and Russian, and the Romance languages seem increasingly to be programs in Spanish, with a little French and Italian tossed in. The Modern Language Association reported in fall 2006 -- well before the current downturn -- a 12.9 percent gain in language study since 2002. This translates into 180,557 more enrollments. Every language except Biblical Hebrew showed increases, some exponential -- Arabic (126.5 percent), Chinese (51 percent), and Korean (37.1 percent) -- while others less so -- French (2.2 percent), German (3.5 percent), and Russian (3.9 percent). (Back to the ancient world for a moment: Latin saw a 7.9 percent increase, and ancient Greek 12.1 percent). The study of foreign languages, in other words, seems not to be disappearing; the mix is simply changing.
Theoretical and ideological issues have troubled and fragmented literature departments in recent years, but a spring 2010 conference on literary studies at the National Humanities Center suggests that the field is enjoying a revitalization. The mood was eloquent, upbeat, innovative; no doom and gloom, even though many participants were from institutions where painful budget cuts had recently been made.
A similar mood was evident at National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a gathering of some highly regarded assistant professors in the humanities and social sciences this past February. They were well aware that times were tough, the job market for Ph.D.s miserable, and tenure prospects uncertain. Yet their response was to get on with the work of strengthening liberal education, rather than bemoan its decline and fall. Energy was high, and with it the conviction that the best way to move liberal education forward was to achieve demonstrable improvements in student learning.
It’s true that these young faculty members are from top-flight universities. What about smaller, less well-endowed institutions? Richard Ekman of the Council of Independent Colleges reports that while a few of the colleges in his consortium are indeed in trouble, most were doing quite well, increasing enrollments and becoming more selective. And what about state universities and land grant institutions, where most students go to college? Were they scuttling the liberal arts and sciences because of fierce cutbacks? David Shulenburger of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities says that while budget cuts have resulted in strategic “consolidation of programs and sometimes the elimination of low-enrollment majors,” he does not “know of any public universities weakening their liberal education requirements.”
Mark Twain once remarked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The liberal arts disciplines, it seems, can say the same thing. The on-the-ground stories back up the statistics and reinforce the idea that the liberal arts are not dying, despite the soft job market and the recent recession. Majors are steady, enrollments are up in particular fields, and students -- and institutions -- aren’t turning their backs on disciplines that don’t have obvious utility for the workplace. The liberal arts seem to have a particular endurance and resilience, even when we expect them to decline and fall.
One could imagine any number of reasons why this is the case -- the inherent conservatism of colleges and universities is one -- but maybe something much more dynamic is at work. Perhaps the stamina of the liberal arts in today’s environment draws in part from the vital role they play in providing students with a robust liberal education, that is, a kind of education that develops their knowledge in a range of disciplinary fields, and importantly, their cognitive skills and personal competencies. The liberal arts continue -- and likely will always -- give students an education that delves into the intricate language of Shakespeare or Woolf, or the complex historical details of the Peloponnesian War or the French Revolution. That is a given.
But what the liberal arts also provide is a rich site for students to think critically, to write analytically and expressively, to consider questions of moral and ethical importance (as well as those of meaning and value), and to construct a framework for understanding the infinite complexities and uncertainties of human life. This is, as many have argued before, a powerful form of education, a point that students, the statistics and anecdotes show, agree with.
W. Robert Connor and Cheryl Ching
W. Robert Connor is the former president of the Teagle Foundation, to which he is now a senior adviser. Cheryl Ching is a program officer at Teagle.
It has by now become received wisdom: college students today are less interested in traditional subjects, and have become more professionally oriented. They’ve voted with their feet, choosing business, pre-med, and engineering majors over German, art history, or comparative literature. Clearly, it’s in the zeitgeist. Unfortunately for humanities professors, however, lower enrollment can translate into the elimination of entire departments: just ask German professors at the University of Southern California. But what’s to be done? The client is king, and students are our clients in higher education. The only problem with this logic is that universities in fact bear a considerable responsibility for the brain drain away from the humanities. By raising the cost of education to stratospheric levels, we oblige students to seek a higher return on their investment. It is this sort of economic calculation, I suggest, and not some alleged generational change, that is driving students in droves towards preprofessional degrees.
The rising cost of undergraduate education, especially at elite private institutions, has understandably become in these unforgiving economic times a target of much angst. Particularly jarring, for critics, is the increase in expenses related to administrative support: the percentage of staff who do not teach at Williams College – 70! – is routinely portrayed as thick layer of glut, ready-made for the chopping block.
I happen to disagree with most of these critics. Having gone to a public university in Europe, I am incessantly amazed by the advising, counseling, curricular opportunities, and overall support that students receive at Stanford University, where I teach. I remain profoundly jealous of their education, which I believe is second to none. At the same time, I am not blind to the source of this charmed life. It’s frightfully expensive to employ the staff needed to run the overseas programs, writing centers, freshman seminars, extracurricular activities, summer school, etc., that help make Stanford the university it is. I do not doubt administrators when they say that the average cost per student exceeds the already obscene tuition fees charged.
While the skyrocketing cost of college education is no doubt inexplicable from the outside (why should tuitions increase at a pace far faster than inflation?), the answer, from the inside, appears fairly humdrum. Put simply, universities are engaged in an arms race: they compete to bring the best-armed students to their campuses. This means incessantly inventing new programs. Stanford offers freshman seminars? Harvard will too! Yale has highly rated residential education? Penn must improve! Top schools similarly compete for faculty academostars, luring them not only with high salaries and other perks, but also a reduced teaching load. The price for such celebrity academics, of course, gets passed on to the student. This arms race at the top – and liberal arts colleges seem to suffer from the same educational-industrial complex – thus drives the cost of attending the Ivies way up. And when students have to pay 40 grand to attend Cornell, other colleges and universities must raise their tuitions as well, to stay in competition.
The exponential rise of tuition costs is not, therefore, the result of some nefarious plot. Most professors (alas) are not lining their pockets, and the salaries of top administrators are still dwarfed by those of CEOs in the private sector. The money raised by higher tuitions does actually provide students with more services and opportunities. To repeat: I am unceasingly jealous of my students at Stanford. But there is a hidden cost: once students (or their parents) are called upon to deliver their pound of flesh, they fall under a huge amount of pressure to make that investment pay.
I cannot help contrasting this situation with my own experience as a student, at a public university in Switzerland. I paid the equivalent of $35 a semester in tuition; halfway through my studies, the price was raised, after much protest, to $300. It was a fairly bare-bones experience: our professors were world class, but there was zero support for students. We had no advisers, no writing center, no extracurricular activities, no dorm – we didn’t even have a graduation ceremony. Because the cost was so low, however, we had remarkable freedom – freedom to take as many seminars as we wanted, to space out our exams, to try out new subjects, and more generally, to take as long as we wanted. I spent six years as an undergraduate, the norm at the time (although you could technically graduate in four).
European universities are now in a different sort of financial crisis, and I doubt we have many administrative or curricular lessons to learn from them. But they do remind us that the cost of an education can act as a filter for intellectual choices. Students will be far less willing to take risks when they’re paying a fortune to enroll. It’s not the zeitgeist: it’s common sense.
The irony, of course, is that a B.A. in French or classics provides students with many of the qualities that employers most commonly request, such as critical thinking, cultural proficiency, and good writing and communication skills. A solid liberal education is just as beneficial for the vast majority of professions; in addition, it prepares for a life well-lived, and not just for a career. But if universities continue to charge as much as they do, they will progressively steer students away from the very subjects that, until recently, constituted the very core of the university.
There is no easy or obvious remedy for this situation. It is hard to imagine an incoming university president at a leading institution, say, pledging to halve tuition. Of course, at institutions with large enough endowments to offer generous financial aid packages, a considerable percentage of students do not even pay full tuition. But these institutions can probably be counted on two hands; the vast majority of colleges and universities depend heavily on tuition to fund instructors and staff, sustain campus buildings, pay heating bills, etc. Some have suggested cutting back on athletic facilities or other extracurricular programs, yet in many cases the funding for these expenditures comes from targeted donations.
Until the tuition imbalance stabilizes – and eventually Congress may well intervene to ensure that it does – humanities departments need to act more aggressively to ensure their survival. Increasing the turnout of majors may be beyond our reach, but we perhaps need to rethink the relationship between research and teaching. Do highly specialized courses offered by individual departments provide the best kind of background in the humanities for students headed for careers in law, engineering, finance, or science? Or do we need to offer more cross-disciplinary courses, ideally team-taught by faculty from different departments, on core questions and topics in the humanities? The bulk of our teaching is geared toward majors and graduate students. If we do not want to be the victims of the next recession (or, if it lasts long enough, the current one), we also need to target those students who feel they do no longer have the luxury of specializing in a humanistic subject.
Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.
The entire nation is reeling with the devastating events in Tucson and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. While we do not yet know the full details of this tragedy, nor do we understand the true motivation that led to the killings, authorities indicate she was the clear target. We all struggle to understand how anyone could do something so heinous.
Scripps College, a small, women’s liberal arts college is Gabrielle Giffords’ alma mater. So we are particularly heartbroken by the tragic events and are rallying around Gabrielle and her family. As we hold her in our hearts, we are unified in our voice that Gabrielle embodies the values of Scripps College and a liberal arts education, and thus represents the best the nation has to offer.
Gabrielle is a role model, not just for our students, but for all women and for all Americans. She did not shy away from her calling to be a leader. With grace and determination, she has become an outstanding and courageous public servant. Gabrielle Giffords’s career shows that she is fiercely independent — framing her positions on issues thoughtfully and humanely, and, in the words of our founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, "with confidence, courage and hope."
Listen to her own words. In her 2009 commencement address at Scripps, Congresswoman Giffords told our students: “The safety of the world depends on your saying ‘no’ to inhumane ideas. Standing up for one’s own integrity makes you no friends. It is costly. Yet defiance of the mob, in the service of that which is right, is one of the highest expressions of courage I know.” Prescient words.
Public service, in all forms, is courageous. Respectful disagreement — the ability to hear another’s viewpoint despite your own, without hate and distortion — has been lost in the current political climate. Gabrielle Giffords believes in her calling to enact change through the political process in an open, honest, and authentic manner, without harsh criticism or inflammatory rhetoric.
Gabrielle deeply appreciated her liberal arts education: the exposure to different ideas, different ways of thinking. In her words: "What Scripps forced you to grapple with was a peeling back of the human onion in order to discover the supreme value of the soul and how crucial it is to maintain personal integrity and honesty." She believes in free exchange of ideas, understanding difference, and taking a stand based on rational and critical reasoning. As Martha Kantor said to the Annapolis Group in 2010, "A liberal arts education teaches us [that] empathy is hard-learned, but demagoguery is easy."
What can we take away from this tragedy? We have a responsibility to the victims and their families to learn from this event. A senseless act must be turned into an opportunity for this country to unify, to learn from Gabrielle Giffords about the power of constructive and collaborative dialogue. To embrace human dignity, to resist the temptation to point fingers and blame, but to change the discourse for the betterment of our future. We are, after all, a democracy — a democracy that requires an empathetic and knowledgeable citizenship and respects the right to disagree.
Lori Bettison-Varga is president of Scripps College.
Submitted by Mary Crane on January 17, 2011 - 3:00am
As director of the new Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College, I recently hosted an inaugural symposium that brought in five important public intellectuals to talk about "Remapping the Liberal Arts for the 21st Century." My premise was that on my campus, at least, with a new humanities building in the works and a significant commitment to a new institute, we could proceed for one day as if the liberal arts were not in crisis, and turn the conversation instead to what we might say about liberal arts education, and how we might question and redefine it, if we didn’t have to spend all of our time hunkered down in foxholes of defense.
The talks were splendid and discussions were fruitful, but no one was able entirely to resist the impulse to assume a defensive posture. Liberal arts professors today seem incapable of talking about what they do without metaphorically assuming a "duck and cover" position.
Why is this? And is it in the best interests of the liberal arts that we are perpetually defending them?
Of course, the perpetual posture of defense is grounded in reality: Louis Menand, one of our speakers, has provided the data to prove it: "From 1955 to 1970, the proportion of liberal arts degrees among all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually had risen for the first time in this century; after 1970, it began going down again. Today, only one-third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States are in the liberal arts, and less than one-third of these are in humanities. The most common major by far, according to the American Council of Learned Societies, is business, with 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees are awarded in this field."
Although many private universities and colleges are, like Boston College, making new investments in the humanities and liberal arts, access to this kind of education is being eroded at public institutions, as evidenced by the recent decision of the State University of New York to end many language programs. And in these harsh economic times, many students feel that liberal arts education is a luxury they can’t afford.
I think, as well, that humanities professors, who are most often the advocates for the liberal arts, feel generally underappreciated, since our culture (and even university culture) sometimes seems not to value what we do. Speakers such as the Rev. John O’Malley of Georgetown and Alan Ryan of Princeton University both offered nuanced, cautious, and effective defenses of the power of liberal arts education to confer upon students a critical awareness of the world, and a kind of intellectual freedom through immersion in a discipline. But a nagging sense of marginalization can also sometimes lead liberal arts faculty to become defensive.
It can be dangerous for our cause when defense turns into defensiveness. Defensiveness is not necessarily a healthy attitude to inhabit for a long period of time. Defensive people are often not very persuasive, because they’re afraid to entertain any critique of what they’re defending. When defense becomes automatic, it may close off inquiry and innovation.
Professors who teach liberal arts subjects may not be their most convincing defenders, anyway. Although most of us had a liberal education, it was for us also a vocational education. I knew as a college sophomore that I wanted to be an English professor if I could manage it, and the courses I took in English, history, and Latin were, for me, a pre-professional education with a specific career goal in mind. Even people who came late to the decision to pursue a career in the academy ended up using their liberal arts education for professional purposes. So many liberal arts faculty don’t have direct experience of the kind of education that they are recommending that students pursue. I’ve spent my whole adult life in a university setting. I believe that liberal arts education confers skills in reading, writing, and critical thinking that will be useful for many non-academic careers, but I have not experienced this myself.
We are also not especially credible as the first line of defense, since our jobs depend on the perpetuation of liberal arts education. When Stanley Fish suggested in his New York Times column that “I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists,” many readers were horrified, but he was putting on the table what must undermine the most ardent professorial defense in many non-academic eyes.
I would make two suggestions. Of course, we do need to be able to defend ourselves, and to explain what we do in accessible terms. But I think that instead of always trying to defend liberal arts education by ourselves, we might work to marshal others who may bring kinds of credibility that we lack to contribute to the defense. Former students could attest to their experiences; managers could speak to the skills they want. It would be interesting to see if brain imaging could shed light on the effects of different kinds of higher education on the brain. Instead of always defending, we can show what the liberal arts can do. Catharine Stimpson, one of our speakers, gave a moving talk on liberal arts education and the problem of war at our symposium demonstrated how a range of liberal arts disciplines might illuminate some difficult aspect of the human condition. Liberal arts faculty at Boston College and elsewhere increasingly write for general as well as specialized audiences and these efforts let people outside the academy experience the benefits of our habits of thought. (Note: This article was updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
Second, I think we should try to leave off defending for long enough to see what we could say about liberal arts education if we let ourselves think about it more speculatively and less defensively. I believe that liberal arts education needs to rethink its scope and definition for the 21st century. Many people treat "humanities" as a synonym for "liberal arts" or assume that the humanities are necessarily central to it, but are they now central in the same way that they used to be? As fields like cultural studies and area studies blur the boundaries between the humanities and social sciences, the center of gravity may have shifted in productive ways that we need to acknowledge.
Liberal arts can sometimes be conflated with a Western intellectual tradition, but in our era of globalization, its boundaries need to be broadened and reconfigured and the importance of language learning rearticulated in this context. Faculties of arts and sciences include the hard sciences, and they are part of a liberal arts education, but are usually not central to discussions of its importance. How would liberal arts education look if science played a more prominent role? Attention to the relationship between liberal arts education and professional education and building of bridges between the two might give students the confidence to pursue a liberal arts degree. Service learning initiatives like the PULSE program at Boston College,a service-learning program that combines mandatory weekly community service with an examination of classical and contemporary works of philosophy and theology, There are efforts around the country to do all of these things, and yet I’m afraid they are sometimes drowned out by the loud clamor of lament and defense.
I propose that all professors who are concerned about the future of the liberal arts try this thought experiment: pretend, for a moment, that we inhabit a utopian world where the value of liberal arts education is universally accepted. If you are freed from the burden of defense, what can you imagine? What can you create? The future of liberal arts education may well depend on our collective response.
Mary Crane is the Thomas F. Rattigan Professor of English and the director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College.
In 1994, relying on 1988 data on liberal arts college degree completions, David Breneman optimistically concluded that “unlike many colleges and universities in recent decades,” liberal arts colleges “have refused to shift curricula toward more immediately marketable technological or vocational subjects. In fact one can almost view these colleges as standard bearers, holding out the promise and the reality of education for education’s sake.”
Indeed, in 1987, nearly 90 percent of the graduates of 225 private liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News had majored in liberal arts areas of study (the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences). More than 95 percent of the graduates of the 50 highest-ranked colleges had majored in these traditional areas. Not surprisingly, the less highly ranked, less wealthy colleges had graduated more technological and vocational majors. Still, almost 85 percent of those college graduates majored in liberal arts areas.
By 2007-08, however, the picture had changed radically. The percentage of graduates at all 225 colleges who majored in vocational areas had nearly tripled. The growth was most notable at those outside the top tier. More than half of the graduates at the lowest ranked colleges were now vocational majors. But even at the top ranks, the percentage of vocational majors had more than doubled -- from 4.2 to 10.4 percent.
Sadly, liberal arts colleges are becoming less and less the standard bearers for the liberal arts.
My new book, Liberal Arts at the Brink,examines the dramatic growth in demand for vocational majors (such as accounting, business administration, computer programming, insurance, law enforcement, nursing, and parks and recreation) and the concomitant decline in demand for liberal arts. It explores why this massive demand shift is occurring, whether it is reversible, and if so, how.
While more and more students are willing to pay a cost-covering price for vocational education, colleges are being forced to discount their tuitions further and further below the cost-covering price to attract students to liberal arts. On the basis of public commentary, one would think the future viability of liberal arts colleges depends on endowment growth, not on reversing the precipitous drop in demand, despite the obvious facts that (1) an endowment, no matter how large, will not persuade students of the value of a liberal arts education, and (2) being able to cut financial aid discounts a few percentage points would strengthen a college far more than it could hope to achieve by yet another fund-raising campaign.
The question I would like to raise here is, why isn’t the reality that liberal arts education is becoming less and less wanted the number-one topic of discussion at and among liberal arts colleges? I have no ready answer. Certainly, it cannot be that liberal arts college administrators are unaware of the demand shift driving their colleges to become more vocational. Even if they did not know the same thing was happening at other colleges – which seems highly unlikely – the annual completions data relied on in Liberal Arts at the Brink are readily available from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Perhaps harried college presidents, endlessly pressured to raise more money, simply lack the time and energy to focus on what they are selling so long as students are buying it.
Perhaps college administrators know their alumni want to hear "our college is getting more applications than ever," not "most of our graduates have not taken a single history course and fewer and fewer of them are majoring in liberal arts disciplines." Then, too, as between "we saved the college but not liberal arts" and "we saved liberal arts but not the college," which would college officials opt for?
Could it be that, in their secret hearts, liberal arts college administrators believe liberal arts education is a luxury we can no longer afford, and simply don’t want to talk about it?
If college administrators don’t talk about the declining demand for liberal arts, it is unlikely anyone else will. The media has little interest in liberal arts education, and, it seems, neither does the federal government. A 55-page report on the future of higher education by a special commission headed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, published in 2006, discussed vocational education at length, but did not mention liberal arts or liberal arts education. Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan often talks about higher education in the U.S. as though the only issue is a better technically-trained workforce.
The cases liberal arts colleges make to attract high school students focus on getting a good job and financial well-being after graduation, understandably so given that jobs and economic security are by far the major concerns of both students and their parents. In so doing, however, the colleges’ own words reinforce the demand for vocational education. Further, when College A advocates for liberal arts education, it makes the case for why a student should attend College A rather than College B, not why a student should attend College A or College B. In competing for students, colleges deplete their own meager resources while driving up each other’s costs. The tragedy of the commons is at work.
Declining demand for liberal arts is the elephant in the parlor of liberal arts colleges. The problem will not be solved without close cooperation among them. This will not happen so long as their leaders refrain from openly discussing the problem.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press).
The old saying that the privileged class “does not know how the other half lives” seems true in higher education.
At my private liberal arts institution, a faculty committee is concerned that a rule requiring three years of service between a paid untenured leave and paid sabbatical leave is unfair to some faculty members. The faculty is resisting another committee’s proposal to meet a government mandate by adding instructional activities to courses that we consider equivalent to four-hour courses elsewhere yet meet for only three hours per week here. Adding instruction undercuts our recent reduction to a five-course teaching load, and will seem even more like a “take-back” when faculty members calculate how little they will benefit from the small percentage raise approved for 2011-2012, which will be sliced into pieces for merit, equity, and market adjustments to keep each rank near the middle of its comparison group.
These concerns are similar to those at other selective private liberal arts colleges and universities, but readers who work at other types of institutions must be thinking, “Give me a break!” when they read about our woes. For us, these are not trivial issues, as they deal with equity and fair compensation. But they are trivial compared to the larger financial issues confronting this nation’s higher education system -- they are little chunks of ice compared to the iceberg of problems crushing less financially secure private institutions and almost all public institutions.
In his eye-opening 2008 book,The Last Professors:The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue argues that American higher education is being divided into two sectors based on financial stability and prestige. My concern is that the “haves” are aware of neither the problems affecting the “have-nots” nor the fact that strains underlying those problems are destroying the foundations of nonprofit higher education as a whole. It is time for those in wealthy, selective institutions to “wake up and smell the coffee” of a national affordability crisis.
Consider the young people growing up in our own college town, who rarely attend our private college or any private college, more typically attending institutions supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our new governor has just announced his budget proposal, which would represent, according to Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, the “single-largest appropriation cut in the history of higher education.” The 50 percent reduction in appropriations would decrease support of the 14 state-owned institutions and four state-related institutions by $660 million, including reducing support of Penn State’s budget by $182 million from an already low 8 percent to 4 percent. Public college tuitions, already above average for the nation, could increase as much as 20-25 percent. How would this affect our children and those of our neighbors?
Similar funding crises in other states are in the news, but those of us working in the relative comfort of selective private education generally have not realized the extent of the problem. Nor have we recognized that many of the major public institutions now receive so little support from their states that they are appropriately designated public-assisted or state-assisted. Tom Mortenson’s analysis in the February 2011 Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY illustrates not only the dramatic increase in average state fiscal support for higher education from 1961 to 1980 but also the more remarkable decrease of 39.8 percent from 1980 to 2011, with 2011 levels approximating those of 1967. Mortenson describes as ironic the concurrence of the funding decrease with this era’s emphasis on the relationship of higher education with income and well-being.
However, it is this very human-capital benefit that has allowed government to abandon responsibility for supporting higher education as a public good and shift cost to the consumer. Less directly, it has has allowed private institutions to shift their emphasis away from need-based aid guaranteeing affordability. My colleagues do not want our private college to educate only wealthy students, and they definitely want a public alternative for students who cannot afford private higher education.
But they need to know the trends in state funding, that students qualifying for Pell Grants (i.e., lower income students) rarely attend our institution or any of the top-tier private institutions, that need-based aid plays a shrinking role for needy students in both private and public education, and that the average debt for graduates who borrow to attend private and public institutions is high and growing higher.
Although the need to defend the value of high-cost private education has made us accustomed to thinking of public institutions in this state and elsewhere as competitors, I would ask my colleagues to think as citizens interested in the welfare of the population of our state and nation, and the welfare of the nation’s system of higher education. We should do so because, even though higher education benefits the individual graduate, it still is a public good. This public good comprises both the contributions of the graduates to society and the existence of the colleges and universities as cultural institutions that are contributors to new knowledge and repositories of knowledge, both knowledge with obvious practical benefits and knowledge with less obvious benefits such as helping us understand what it means to be human.
We also should think as defenders of higher education as a whole for the sake of equity -- because our own educations have been supported as a public good. Some government or nonprofit entity granted us part of the cost of our higher education not as personal gifts to individuals but because of a belief that it was fair for equally capable people to have equal opportunities, or that it was good for society for people like us to have that education. This help was given through government support of our public or private institutions, scholarships, subsidized work-study, subsidized loans, or, less visibly, through subsidies beyond the advertised cost provided by endowments of nonprofit private institutions. Finally, we should support public higher education, as well as our own private sector, because it is likely that our grandchildren, if not our children, will be unable to afford private higher education.
I would ask my colleagues to recall the educational history of their own families. My family has benefited enormously from the past generosity of the American higher education system and government support. In the late 1930s, my father was able to work and put himself through his low-cost hometown public institution. My mother received a scholarship to a private woman’s college; when her family ran out of money, an administrator there paid her remaining fees out of back wages owed her by the financially strapped institution.
In the 1960s, my husband and I both received generous need-based scholarships to selective private institutions, and mine was supplemented by a National Defense Education Act loan (50 percent of which was forgiven for my first five years of college teaching). Our graduate education was entirely paid by the government (National Science Foundation and Public Health Service) and by our private university’s endowment.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, over half of both our children’s tuition at private institutions was paid as a tuition benefit by my current institution. Both of our children also received advanced degrees at low-tuition public institutions, one with a teaching assistantship that paid even that tuition. Most of my colleagues have similar histories, perhaps with a larger contribution from public education. If private tuitions continue to increase at many times the rate of inflation, public tuitions continue to increase at a rate faster than private tuitions, and loans increasingly replace scholarship aid, will our grandchildren have similar opportunities?
Surprisingly, the College Board website presents the projected average for four years of tuition and fees for students beginning in 2028 at a private institution ($340,800) or an in-state public institution ($95,000) as though families can prepare for these costs. In his 2010 book Crisis on Campus, Mark Taylor argues that a four-year education at the more expensive top-tier private colleges and universities, which currently cost around $50,000 per year, would cost an astounding $661,792 for a student beginning in 2028. Such costs would seriously undermine the argument that the human capital benefits make even an expensive private school education “worth it” in terms of future earnings.
Although the skyrocketing costs of higher education are not primarily due to increases in faculty salaries, I do not think my colleagues realize the extent to which budget problems are being addressed in both the private and public sectors by using fewer full-time professors in continuing positions (ergo, “the last professors” of Donoghue’s book title). Over half of faculty members now are part-time, and part-time positions are the norm in the rapidly growing for-profit sector. Even among full-time professors, more than 40 percent are temporary or off the tenure track. Thus, only about 30 percent of faculty members fit my colleagues’ image of a traditional professor.
Less secure positions are cheaper and more flexible, making them hard for financially challenged institutions to resist. Although the attention of continuing faculty may be limited to their own sector, the job markets of the private, public, and for-profit sectors are connected. An excess of qualified applicants relative to full-time openings, the willingness of qualified professionals to work for lower pay and benefits in temporary positions or to work part-time without benefits, and the focus of our professional organizations on issues like tenure in full-time positions rather than on fair compensation and conditions for part-time and temporary faculty all depress the compensation structure for our profession as a whole.
My colleagues might expect that public institutions’ flat salaries for the past two years (plus unpaid furloughs and loss of paid sabbaticals, travel funds, and basic support) will give institutions such as ours an advantage in hiring. But any advantage likely would be temporary. Institutions such as ours have other urgent needs, as well as the need to slow tuition increases. Because compensation at private institutions is based on success in hiring and on comparisons with the overall AAUP rank averages, as well as comparisons with like institutions, faculty compensation at all but the wealthiest private institutions eventually will be negatively affected by salary difficulties in the public sector. We will all suffer if public institutions lack sufficient funds.
What steps would I urge for my colleagues and faculty members at other private institutions? We are experts at gathering information and sharing information on complex issues. We know how to make a case. We need to make sure that the situation of higher education as a whole is understood.
We need to ask our administrations to lobby for public higher education, and we need to support the lobbying efforts of the public sector. Writing our representatives matters; state legislators count constituents who are pro and con, and they also need information to bolster positions on the public good and affordability. Treating higher education as a private good can appear to be an easy answer for voters who are aware of large state deficits unless they have heard the argument for the public good. Although getting information to voters in general is somewhat unpredictable, we have direct access to our students, most of whom are eligible to vote in a state. In general, we need to stand with public higher education rather than competing with it, and we need to help make the case that higher education is a public good.
Eugenia P. Gerdes is professor of psychology and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University.