And so colleges in Virginia are now required to provide information for a database that shows what graduates majored in and what they wound up earning 18 months after getting their diplomas. Florida lawmakers have toyed with encouraging students to study engineering by making their tuition cheaper than humanities majors’. Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs.”
“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school,” he added. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
How practical versus idealistic should the approach to college be? I’m somewhat torn, and past columns have reflected that. I applaud proposals to give young people better information about how various fields of study match up with the job market and about projected returns on their investments in college. And for students who want college to be an instant pivot into a job with decent pay, a nudge toward certain disciplines makes excellent sense.
But college is about more than that, with less targeted, long-term benefits that aren’t easily captured by metrics. And some of the reforms being promoted right now lose sight of that and threaten to lessen the value of a degree.
“You just don’t know what your education is going to result in,” Rawlings told me by phone last week. “Many of the kids graduating from college these days are going to hold a number of different jobs in their lives, and many of those jobs have not yet been invented. For a world like that, what’s the best education? Seems to me it’s a very general education that enables you to think critically.” For precisely that reason, he said, the push in China now is for more young people to study humanities, even as the new emphasis here is vocational.
He and Powers raised an additional concern: that the devaluation of any university research that doesn’t have an imminent payoff or attract outside sponsorship could put the country at a global disadvantage down the line. “You never know where scientifically driven curiosity will lead you,” Powers told me, and he’s dead right. Sometimes game-changing, immensely lucrative epiphanies lie on the far side of seemingly esoteric inquiries.
I’d sound yet another alarm. Scratch the surface of some of the efforts to reform state universities and you find more than just legitimate qualms about efficiency and demands for accountability. You find the kind of indiscriminate anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism popular among more than a few right-wing conservatives.
It’s worth noting that Perry has dismissed global warming as “one contrived, phony mess” and that many of the voices calling most loudly for change at the University of Texas are from the tea party fringe.
In other words there’s some crude, petty politics in all of this. And as we tackle the very real, very important challenge of giving young Americans the best and most useful education possible in an era of dwindling resources, that’s the last thing we need.