Yes, Markets Work In Higher Education

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(By John Carroll)

University of Wisconsin Stevens Point succumbed to market pressures and is abandoning the notion that they can survive as a traditional liberal arts college. They are eliminating majors, and probably faculty too. Students simply aren’t buying what they’re selling. Rather than mourning the loss, we should celebrate the transformation.  Markets work, even in higher education.

UW-Stevens Point recognized this new reality in their Point Forward document, which reads, in part, “The most relevant metrics related to the curriculum are the enrollment trend lines of academic programs in which students are choosing to major. In today’s environment, these trends are shaped most directly by the clarity of career pathways offered in each major and the potential return on investment that students perceive” (emphasis added). College is too expensive not to consider the return on investment, and the job one can get after graduation.

UW-Stevens Point is eliminating 13 majors. Tenured faculty positions in English, French, German, Spanish, history, philosophy, political science, sociology, geography, geoscience, and music literature are at risk for reductions in force, or out-right elimination. Disciplines important to teacher certification will remain, but in a reduced form.

Although critical thinking is the foundation for all academic inquiry, and is the most versatile and portable of job skills, continued commitment to important academic disciplines, like philosophy, have fallen victim to market forces. To bring greater relevance to their field, philosophers should focus on applying their discipline to the job market, and not asking students to analyze Summa Theologica’s hermeneutic circle.

The Romance Is Gone

I recently asked my economics students why they were in school. The nearly universal response was “to get a better job.” Some said to save money, or to raise their GPAs before transferring to a four-year degree program, but their ultimate goal was getting a good paying job.

For students, in general, and nontraditional students, in particular, college is not a romanticized journey of self-discovery where they are exposed to a variety of academic disciplines in order to find the one that suits them best. It is not education for education’s sake, but education as a means to an end. Earning a college credential has been reduced to a transaction.

There have always been transactional elements to going to college. Students pay tuition, they purchase books, some buy meal plans, and some rent dorm rooms. Transactions all, but the act of going to college was for a different purpose. Some students can afford to be idealists, seeking education for the Platonic “Good,” and for the benefits intellectual inquiry brings. Most view it as necessary expense to get a good job. The current trend implies going to college is more akin to buying tools for a tool kit. It is merely a transaction to buy a credential.

Transactional Credentialism

Transactional credentialism rejects years of brainwashing that everyone needs a four-year college degree. The specter of crushing debt, and few employment prospects, makes four-year degrees less attractive. Celebrity host, and social commentator, Mike Rowe recommends some should join the trades rather than joining a fraternity. College is fine, but it’s not for everyone.

People can have fulfilling, financially successful lives without earning a baccalaureate degree. According to Mike Reeser, Chancellor of Texas State Technical College, in the wake of 2017’s hurricane Harvey, salaries for electrical lineman jumped from $65K a year to $85K. Those are good jobs. Yet, the idea of a baccalaureate degree being the only path to prosperity persists.

Employers value what you can do more than the breadth of one’s knowledge of 5th century philosophy. Having written 30 pages on St. Augustine’s City of God, while intellectually stimulating, is less valuable to employers than being able to code in Python, or sting electrical lines.

Unless of course the paper is exceptionally well written, but even then, no HR manager will read it, ever. Students perceive spending a semester studying philosophy as a waste of time. Doing so will have little, or no value on the job.

How Can I Use This?

Students are rejecting the idea that college makes one a more well-rounded human being, and reading Gilgamesh has relevance to their career goals. They want tangible, applicable, and immediately usable skills. While adult students typically have had little patience with liberal arts classes, more and more traditional age students are asking, how will reading Gilgamesh help me on the job? And how will I use this? Too often, the answer is, you won’t.

For an increasing number of students, the purpose of college has changed from learning critical thinking methods to acquiring the skills needed to accomplish career related tasks.

UW-Stevens Point acknowledges that students are not being served well by an outdated curriculum, and they are voting with their feet. The liberal arts don’t have to die. They do need to be transformed to be more career relevant. Kudos to UW-Stevens Point for recognizing this trend, and more importantly, taking corrective action.

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