Last year, as Washington State faced a severe budget crisis, legislators embraced a novel way to fund student financial aid: a public-private partnership between the state and private corporations. Called the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the fund attracts private donations and matches them with public money in order to support students in science, technology, and other “high demand” fields.
Washington’s legislators, like their counterparts around the nation, are shifting the purposes of college away from the civic and personal toward the economic and vocational, undermining the broader goals that have historically been part of American college education. (Even in the 1862 Morrill Act providing federal support for colleges in “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” legislators recognized that college education demands both “liberal and practical education.”)
The idea for the fund originated in a task force established in summer 2010 by Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat. The task force was made up of 16 members and chaired by Brad Smith, a senior vice president at Microsoft. The vast majority of task force members represented the business community. There were a smattering of higher education administrators, but no faculty or students. There was only one elected leader, the mayor of Everett, Wash. The task force’s composition alone makes clear Governor Gregoire’s approach to higher education: align it with the needs of the state’s major corporations.
Nowhere on the panel were the other interests of society represented. There were no social workers, no doctors or nurses, no ministers; there were no teachers nor civil servants; there were no artists, no writers. It should not be surprising, then, that the task force recommended a financial aid policy that not only offers corporations tax breaks but allows them to determine which college programs are worthwhile. As a Tacoma News Tribune editor wrote, there would be more aid for some students, but less for those “pursuing a degree in, say, history or business or education.”
Such an approach challenges the idea that a collegiate education is a liberal education first and a vocational education second. It ignores the civic and personal purposes of liberal education. It threatens the general education curriculum designed to prepare future leaders. It reduces students’ ability to choose majors based on their own interests, goals, and values (unless of course they are already wealthy enough to turn down financial aid).
But the scholarship fund is only one piece of Washington legislators’ larger effort to transform the broader purposes of college. Although the per-student cost of educating a college student in Washington has not changed dramatically, the share of that cost paid for by students and families has grown substantially. This shifting burden makes it harder for students to take a chance with a liberal arts major, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also means that students and their families are paying more for college and looking for ways to save money.
In response, legislators have been offering students ways around colleges’ general education requirements. Unlike a major, general education is the heart of the curriculum because it represents what all students must learn to graduate. It is designed to ensure that students receive the kind of broad education in the arts and sciences that will allow them to grow as human beings and be better civic leaders. The liberal arts also offer students the skills employers most desire: the ability to think, analyze, write, and find creative solutions to problems.
But legislators have no interest in these broad goals and want students to get their general education requirements out of the way fast. For example, Washington’s “Running Start” program urges students to take general education courses in high school, where it is cheaper for students and the state. A more recent program authorizes high school teachers to teach college credit courses in partnership with local colleges. Both programs send students the signal that general education courses are a hurdle to overcome and not worth students’ time and money.
Last year, Washington policy makers launched a serious attack on liberal arts education. First, they authorized the establishment of Western Governors University-Washington, an online institution with no faculty and the most minimal of liberal arts requirements. Instead, WGU promises students degrees in vocational fields as fast as they can earn them. Second, legislators urged colleges to design three-year degrees for advanced students, which would probably mean limiting their time on campus to receive a broad education. And, finally, legislators established the Opportunity Scholarship Fund.
The broader context in which the Opportunity Scholarship Fund is situated should trouble all Americans. It threatens to transform the very purpose of college education. At a time when many commentators are noting the economic value of a liberal arts education, and our foreign competitors are embracing the liberal arts college model, it seems shortsighted for us to turn our back on it. More important, by reducing students’ access to the liberal arts, they, and our society, will lose something extremely valuable.
Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.