Trump, Loans and the Liberal Arts

If enacted, a proposal by Donald Trump would result in only the wealthy gaining the benefits of the kind of liberal education that is the foundation for success, argues Lynn Pasquerella.

July 29, 2016
 
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The most significant challenge facing higher education today is our growing economic segregation. College completion rates for those at the lowest socioeconomic rungs continue to lag far behind those of their wealthier peers, not only due to diminished financial resources but also because of a lack of social and cultural capital. Redressing this phenomenon will require offering an education that prepares each and every student for success in work and life, while inspiring them to take seriously their social responsibilities in a society plagued by persistent inequities.

In fact, the board of directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where I serve as president, expanded the organization’s mission in 2012 to embrace both inclusive excellence and liberal education as the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice. The addition of inclusive excellence as one of AAC&U’s foundational principles reflects the ideal that access to educational excellence for all students -- not just the privileged -- is essential not only for our nation’s economy but, more important, for our democracy. Democracy cannot flourish in a nation divided into haves and have nots.

The equity imperative as an essential component of educating for democracy has been at the forefront of my mind during the past few weeks of nonstop coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I have been particularly focused on the potential impact of various higher education policy proposals on AAC&U’s objective of advancing a public-spirited vision of inclusive excellence as inextricably linked to liberal education.

While higher education issues were pretty much absent from the Republican convention speeches, an earlier proposal by Donald Trump, developed by Sam Clovis, his educational policy adviser, to restrict eligibility for student loans in order to make it more difficult for those at “nonelite colleges” to major in the liberal arts previously caught my attention. Indeed, I am convinced that, if enacted, it would risk exacerbating what Thomas Jefferson termed an “unnatural aristocracy,” where only the wealthy gain the benefits of the kind of broad and engaged liberal education that Clovis himself insists is the absolute foundation for success in life.

Trump’s proposal makes at least two serious errors about the value of a college degree in today’s world. It assumes, first, that one’s undergraduate major is all that matters and, second, that only some majors will prepare students for success in the workplace. The evidence from AAC&U’s own surveys of employers, and from many economists, suggests that this is simply not the case. As noted in the title of our 2013 report of employers’ views, “It Takes More Than a Major,” more than 90 percent of employers agree that “a graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Students can develop such cross-cutting skills in a wide variety of chosen disciplines, if the courses are well designed and integrated within robust, problem-based general education programs.

A student’s undergraduate experience, and how well the experience advances critical learning outcomes, is what matters most, with 80 percent of employers agreeing that all students need a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences. A liberal education fosters the capacity to write, speak and think with precision, coherence and clarity; to propose, construct and evaluate arguments; and to anticipate and respond to objections. And it offers what employers value the most: the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, to engage in ethical decision making and to work in teams on solving unscripted problems with people whose views differ from one’s own. In a globally interdependent yet multicultural world, it is precisely because employers place a particular premium on innovation in response to rapid change that they emphasize students’ experiences with diverse populations, rather than narrow technical training.

The data confirm what we already know: students in all undergraduate majors can and should gain the outcomes of a broad liberal education. Therefore, we need to be vigilant in rebutting accusations of irrelevance and illegitimacy leveled specifically at the liberal arts and sciences and to recognize those charges for what they are: collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy in which only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions. Trump’s ostensible presumption that college is only about workforce training is dangerous to our democratic future.

Of course, it is unclear whether a proposal to use student loans to steer students away from certain majors could be implemented, given the challenges of predicting career trajectories based on majors and types of institutions. (After all, I was a philosophy major who began at a community college under funds from the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, Pell Grants and Perkins Loans.)

Still, in order to restore public trust in higher education and destabilize the cultural attitudes at the basis of Trump’s policy proposal, we need to demonstrate in a more compelling way to those outside of the academy, Democrats and Republicans alike, the extent to which we actually are teaching students 21st-century skills, preparing them to solve our most pressing global, national and local problems within the context of the workforce, not apart from it. To do so, our institutions of higher education must come together to engage in an honest assessment of our effectiveness and undertake a collaborative exchange of best practices. Our shared commitments to equity, democratic and economic vitality, and inclusive excellence demand nothing less.

Bio

Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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