Democrats & Liberals Archives

Higher Education, Workforce Shortages, and the Devaluation of the Liberal Arts

Student loan debt and higher education reform have been hot button issues for young voters in the 2016 election season, and for good reason. As it stands, America’s rising cost of higher education has caused students to critically analyze their ROI when applying for college.

This is due, in part, to the 2007 economic downturn, where insurmountable budget cuts and inflated tuition costs forced students to pay more for college. As a result, millennials have amassed trillions of dollars in student loan debt, are more and more frequently defaulting on student loan payments, and remain largely ill prepared for the workforce--despite being the most educated generation in history.

Although American universities consistently rank highly among global institutions, It's clear that the state of higher education in America is unsustainable if it continues down the path that it's headed towards.

Upcoming shortages in STEM fields in particular have attracted political attention over the past few years, and as a result, many Republican leaders have dismissed colleges and students alike who find value in studying the Liberal Arts.

Earlier this year, conservative Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, informed the associated press that he planned on redistributing the state's higher education budget in order to prepare for an impending STEM workforce shortage. Effectively, Bevin would allocate more money to schools that produced a higher number of STEM graduates, and would take away funding from schools who graduated a higher percentage of liberal arts majors.

Incentivizing schools who produce certain numbers of graduates is nothing new. In 2013, a Florida task force on education proposed that majors which are economically in-demand ought cost less, thereby demeaning the value of degrees in the Liberal Arts.

In a similar vein, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated that he wanted to make sure that America remains "a place of opportunity," where "everyone has a fair shot" and "get[s] as much education as they can afford."

Donald Trump's higher education plan doesn't stray far from his Republican predecessors. According to Matt Krupnick, Trump's plans would do wonders for future computer scientists, but little for French majors. Trump has proposed a plan which would allow private banks and colleges to make decisions weighing student loan decisions with their proposed major.

"Computer scientists probably would have little trouble borrowing money, but French majors might encounter challenges," Krupnick notes on The Huffington Post's blog. "Banks would be free to tailor loans based on students' career paths...the main idea is to give borrowers better information about whether or not they'll be able to pay back their loans."

While the idea itself comes from a desire to make colleges prod colleges into being more forthright about job prospects after college, the intended result may differ drastically. Furthermore, a number of educators disagree with the Republican frontrunners policies, arguing instead that the Republican party as a whole fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of higher education.

At the center of the educator-Republican dissent lies the fundamental question of whether education exists to meet the needs of vocational holes in the job market, or whether higher education serves a higher purpose of nurturing and shaping learners who will be able to adapt to a changing job market as they age.

For Boston University professor Jay Halfond, there is an inherent flaw in the line of thinking that suggests that higher education exists to meet the needs of the job market alone.

"In my view, it is dangerous and even corrupting to proceed down a path that shows that higher education ensures lucrative jobs soon after graduation," Halfond told the education blog EvoLLLution, "But we need to do a far better job demonstrating the relevance of a broad, general education, while linking what we teach to what is critical in the professional world."

He's not wrong. Education in the liberal arts and humanities is frequently labeled a "waste of time and money" by public officials. Articles illustrating the myth of the unemployable humanities major have been surfacing for years now.

But education rooted in the liberal arts ensures that students receive instruction on many of the skills that employers deem most valuable, including critical thinking, written and oral communication, and the ability to balance contextual issues.

Furthermore, the education of the American people should not be an entirely presidentially monopolized process. Trump's proposals are not only classist, ensuring that people requiring federal assistance can only pursue certain programs, but it also shows a lack of understanding of higher education in the workforce.

"The objective of public universities should not be to produce predetermined numbers of particular types of majors but, rather, to focus on how to produce individuals who are capable of learning anything over the course of their lifetimes," argues Arizona State University President Michael Crow. "Every college student should acquire thorough literacy in science and technology as well as the humanities and social sciences."

As his own school's Liberal Studies program professes, "studying the humanities allows learners to make connections across various fields, and apply that knowledge to solving real-world problems, while gaining skills applicable in any industry." These skills will be drastically important in years to come, as students will need a broad skillset in order to adapt.

Although Trump and his campaign staff have yet to decry the liberal arts as a whole, one of his most senior campaign advisors, Jay Clovis does suggest that there is a problem with only studying humanities, stating earlier this year, "If you choose to major in the liberal arts, there are issues associated with that."

Of course, today's politicians are operating under the consensus that America is in the midst of a STEM workforce shortage, which is true. However, there are other complex issues happening all around the globe today that will require minds who have been trained in global cultural competence, those which have a mind for history and art, and most of all, those who are trained to handle marketplace changes with ease. All of these qualities stem from a broad, transdisciplinary approach to higher education.

When it comes down to it, leaders in education agree that the objective of the university should be to create an environment rife with opportunities for teachers to develop learners of a high caliber.

If universities continue to make sure to focus on their primary foundational purpose, rather than adapting curriculum to meet the demands of the workplace, students will have no problem adapting to the future needs of the workplace.

Posted by DanikaK at October 12, 2016 8:17 PM
Comments
Comment #408566

Danika,

Thank you for taking the time to shed light on this important issue. If this was a normal election, we may even have had a good-hearted discussion of our higher education system. Unfortunately, the Republican nominee’s crimes are going to distract from this salient issue.

Posted by: Warren Porter at October 12, 2016 9:39 PM
Comment #408983

very good blog for share us thank you…….

Posted by: dileepb at October 24, 2016 12:22 AM
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