Most colleges, for all their reputation as hotbeds of political liberalism are, in terms of institutional culture, quite conservative. There are many causes of this (perhaps the subject of another post), but the effect is that changing their educational mission/philosophy/approach is extremely difficult.
Back in ‘the day,’ colleges were seen as sites for adolescent socialization and for what I might call “avocational” education. There was no straight line from studying the liberal arts to a job on Wall Street or main street. As with many cultural artifacts, the popular, embedded image of college is tied to the “liberal arts.” Many of us had a background and outlook that encompassed this approach. So, too, did most of those in college faculties and administrations.
In the 21C, many things have changed: much broader enrollment, much more diverse faculty and student body, and an expansive public culture around the correlation between a college degree and lifetime earnings/American Dream. This campaign has generally been successful in increasing percentages of young adults going to college, but that very success has contributed to the dilution of the economic benefit of a college education itself.
Simultaneously (causal relationships are not clear), educational demands on the workforce have increased and the percentage of high-end jobs (previously the implicit right of a college graduate) has gone down. The result is that college is becoming principally a matter of educating a middle-to-lower middle sector of the work force, as well as training “better” students for the post-graduate education which is increasingly required for the top-level jobs.
The “flip-side” of this has been the oft-noted “hollowing-out” of the “middle class” in the US.
The upshot is that all jobs require more education; at least a “college education,” even if the resulting status and average earnings of college graduates is not what it used to be. However, most colleges (by which I focus on large public universities and smaller, non-elite private schools) haven’t re-thought their purpose and offerings. Student demand for job-focused courses, often egged on by anxious parents, has increased. Demand for apparently “irrelevant” liberal arts/humanities courses has been steadily dropping. Well-rounded education to foster new generations of adults/citizens is giving way to vocational education for a relatively less-well-off sector of the rising generation.
Even more troubling are the relatively weak educational foundations the average college student brings upon matriculation, both in terms of substantive knowledge and, more importantly, basic writing and analytic skills. This pressures colleges to back-fill for high school education, making it even more difficult to move students towards knowledge and skill levels previously expected.
At one level, traditional elites can easily bemoan the decline of the humanities and the breadth of education as a dilution of the way college “should be.” At another level, however, while the percentages of college students taking such courses are down, it’s not clear that the percentage of 25-year-olds in general who ever took more than a couple of college liberal arts courses is declining. It’s just that a significant number of them are now taking vocationally-oriented courses in college, whereas before they either went into the workforce after high school, community college, or some other training.
This presents a host of problems around rethinking the nature of college education (still run by administrators and faculty with a liberal arts bias) as well as a challenge to how we think about the education of citizens. National governments are ill-equipped to deal with the increased integration of the global labor market and rise of automation; leading to anti-democratic (Trumpian?) pressures. We may soon learn the degree to which democracy is a long-term human teleology supported by principle and rational, thoughtful citizens or just a phenomenon that is historically contingent upon the presence of a middle-class (educated, reasonably well-off economically).
Beyond the civic aspects, it also seems that parental pressures and other short-term thinking (unsurprising for young people) is leading them astray by pushing them away from liberal arts and educational breadth. The labor market will only get more dynamic over the coming decades (both within and across “careers”), at least in those sectors to which college graduates aspire. There is little chance of colleges providing adequate long-term vocational education, so such graduates will be on their own. A vocational focus in college also limits their exposure to critical thinking and communications skills which are already sought by employers and will be essential to adapt to the long-term labor market.
There are no “magic wands” to resolve these concerns. Institutional sclerosis is widespread both at the collegiate level and more broadly in the educational system. Our society has underfunded education for decades, and the cultural infrastructure of family/community support for study necessary to ensure social and substantive foundations for well-educated adults will take a couple of generations to repair, even if we start promptly.
Of course, it may well be that replicating the past is impossible and foolish; even focusing on “correcting” for past deficits may be just “fighting the last war.” We need some broad and radical rethinking here; precisely the kind of thinking for which our graduates are increasingly ill-prepared.