I have a narrative to tell. It will sound familiar to those of you who know the history of American higher education and who are concerned about the challenges we face today and in the near future. In the first three entries of this blog, I will establish my premise that blending the liberal arts with professional training is one of the key strategic directions in which many institutions of higher education should go. To get to this point, I need to begin with some of the current challenges that we face…
Much has been written about what is wrong with higher education. The litany is familiar to all. We have lost our world-wide advantage. Students are not learning. Faculty are not teaching. We have accommodated student demand in a way that has watered down the education we provide. Our costs have increased at a rate far beyond the inflation rate. Institutions spend too much money on dormitories and fitness centers. Students are leaving with far too much debt. The increased economic “value” of higher education is not being realized by our graduates. We have abandoned true education and are providing training for the professions.
While each of these critiques has some validity, it is also true that American higher education continues to be valued and revered. Perhaps the more accurate assessment is that American higher education has earned its reputation, but serious challenges lie ahead.
As if the problems confronting traditional higher education were not enough, the economic downturn in the first decade of the century presents a significant new challenge. Criticism about the price of higher education was already on the rise. With the economic crisis that began in 2008, students are even more unsure of their ability to pay for college, are worried about the debt that they and their families are accruing, and are questioning the value of a college degree.
It appears that the “value proposition” in the minds of prospective students and their families has shifted. There was a time when families believed in the value of a college degree and would save and sacrifice to have their students earn a degree at the “best” college. With more constrained resources, consumers of higher education are understandably concerned about price. Many are no longer looking for the “best” college for their students, but instead looking for the “best bargain” for marketable skills. While no one can be certain about where higher education is headed, it is not likely that student choices will return to the “value proposition” that existed prior to 2008.
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How can higher education adapt? Often, the critics of higher education fail to offer sufficient corrective measures or new solutions. I offer a more positive approach: to identify the components of an institution’s liberal arts and professional training programs and to take the strategic actions necessary to “mash up” the liberal arts and professional training. My basic premise is that rather than presenting students with a choice between the liberal arts and professional training, students would benefit greatly from a blend of the two approaches.
A liberal arts degree might prepare graduates for life, but there is too little focus on the first job out of college. A professional education may do a good job preparing graduates for their first job, but that training is not likely to give the flexibility to prepare them for their second and third jobs. A program that combines these two approaches prepares graduates for the first job, their second job, and beyond. Students (and the parents of traditional age students) who are concerned about beginning their careers (and paying off their loans) should find this combination to be an attractive option. Employers should also prefer students who arrive as career-ready and prepared for life, in other words, with important professional skills but who are also prepared to advance in and contribute more to their businesses, institutions and communities.
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My research and observations are not meant to promote one type of institution over another. Rather, I have been identifying and examining “markers” that help strengthen efforts by institutions to blend the liberal arts and professional training, for example, interdisciplinary first-year seminars, service-learning courses, electronic portfolios, community service, and capstone courses. I have also visited institutions that demonstrate “best practices” around the confluence of the liberal arts and professional education and I will be sharing my experiences in future blog entries.
If one visualizes a continuum of institutions from “pure” liberal arts at one end and concentrated professional training at the other, a graph of these “markers” and “best practices” would approximate a “normal curve.” To put it simply, the extreme tails of this continuum will have fewer opportunities to blend the liberal arts and professional training. The greatest confluence of these two approaches will occur at colleges and universities whose missions are about blending the liberal arts and professional training. I contend that based on student and employer demands today and in the future, all types of institutions will need to continually examine how their missions and programs support students both in obtaining their first jobs and preparing them for life.
William H. Weitzer is currently a Senior Fellow at the Spencer Foundation. After completing his Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology, he has served for thirty years in administrative positions at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Wesleyan University, and Fairfield University.
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