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.”
The Economist recently found that the countries with a low rate of youth unemployment are those that focus on providing their students with a practical education. Germany, for example, “has a long tradition of high-quality vocational education and apprenticeships, which in recent years have helped it reduce youth unemployment despite only modest growth.”This is a compelling case. But not everyone is quite so ready to jettison the liberal arts. Scott Carlson at the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that the old model still has value:
But a single-minded focus on money pays little heed to one of the best aspects of the American higher-education system: its skill at developing curious, critical-thinking, culturally aware people. Those qualities may have greater financial rewards than critics realize….
The “soft” social skills and cultural lessons have plenty of value—even financial value, [David Brooks] argues. Employers want people who can write, who can intuit what others are thinking, who can learn from others. “These are actually practical skills in an economy that is based more and more on social relationships,” [Brooks] says.
Both of these points have merit. Different students in this country have different goals and aptitudes, and can avail themselves of a multitude of educational options. A single mother, for example, may simply need to be able to qualify for a job that pays more money—something she could accomplish through a vocational program. But for an 18-year-old from a stable, financially supportive family, a liberal arts education may make a lot of sense.Because of this reality, the United States’ higher education system needs to embrace more diversity in the kind of programs and degrees it offers. We need to find ways to make all forms of higher ed more efficient and much, much cheaper. There are a lot of young people out there who are depending on it.[College quad image courtesy of Shutterstock]