Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

In Defense of Higher Education

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By Christian S. Hartranft '12, Post-Graduate Fellow

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“The American public and senior administrators at U.S. colleges and universities overwhelmingly agree that higher education is in crisis, according to a new poll, but they fundamentally disagree over how to fix it and even what the main purpose of higher education is.”

So begins a recent article in Time’s aptly named series “Reinventing Higher Education” – a collection of pieces that encapsulates a recent consensus of the mainstream press and American public: that higher education in the United States must either prove its relevance or reform immediately if it wishes to survive. Some proposed solutions include increased online course offerings, cuts to less-popular academic programs, and even tuition incentives for students majoring in subjects thought to be more “in demand” among employers. As the quote suggests, the poll in question (conducted online by GfK Custom Research North America in early October) reveals that 89% of the public and 96% of college administrators believe that higher education is “in crisis.” These numbers are so shocking because they represent near-uniform agreement that American colleges must change the way they operate or face extinction – a conclusion with immense consequences for our system of education and, indeed, our way of life here in the United States.

I would argue that such a pronouncement may make for a good headline, but that it heralds neither the imminent demise of American higher education, nor its irrelevance.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some very real problems with the current model, including obvious financial issues like rising tuition costs, associated student debt, and increased percentages of incoming classes relying on institutional financial aid (which, while effective in attracting the best students in the short term, is almost certainly unsustainable in the long term without lowering costs). And the fact that so many college administrators seem to fear for their profession, as the Time poll suggests, indicates that their concerns may be rooted in real experience with negative shifts in the educational landscape. These issues must be dealt with, or higher education will, indeed, face a crisis.

But a college education is not, as many are now starting to think, an overpriced boondoggle being irresponsibly forced upon those who would do just as well without it. According to employment statistics released by the U.S. Department of Labor in October, the unemployment rate among individuals with a bachelor’s degree was 3.8% for the month, compared to rates of 8.4% for high school graduates, 12.2% for those without a high school education, and an overall rate of 7.9%. In short, education level directly correlates to an increased likelihood of employment – the number one concern of not only politicians, but also a skeptical public, and particularly parents asking the question “is college a worthy investment for my children?”

The numbers above seem to answer that question with an unequivocal “yes!” A college education is a means to an end – an incredible, enriching, transformative experience in and of itself, but something that, at its core, is a mechanism by which we achieve the real goal: a life of meaning. Our lives are defined by what we do, and the fact that people with a college education are more likely to be able to do the things they want to do better, and with more of an impact than those without one, should serve as all the proof one needs that higher education not only serves a purpose, but is an essential gateway for many into a successful adulthood.

Why is this true? Because, as Franklin & Marshall’s president, Dan Porterfield, writes in a Huffington Post blog post addressed to high school students:

“[A college education] will be the springboard for the higher-order thinking you will need for success in graduate or professional school. It will empower you to adapt to future changes in your profession and in society that no one can even imagine today. It will help you become an independent thinker and problem solver who creates ideas that influence others. It will likely be the crucible in which you forge your personal commitments and philosophy of life.”

College is where we learn about ourselves and others, develop critical thinking skills, and grow used to looking at complex issues from multiple points of view. These are intangible yet essential skills, fostered in the unique environment that is a four-year, residential college education – immeasurable in their impact, but impossible to achieve elsewhere. They enable graduates to compete for opportunities in ways that those without a degree cannot, making them more savvy in their analytical abilities and better able, as Porterfield discusses in his blog post, to adapt to ever-increasing changes in both established and emerging industries.

Higher education is not without its faults, but it does not require the overhaul called for by many observers. The current model is effective in achieving positive outcomes, as demonstrated by the unemployment numbers discussed above, and would be best served through improvement, not replacement. While college is not for everyone, it undeniably benefits those who partake in it, preparing them holistically for further study, the workforce, and life. Rather than bemoaning the future of higher education, let’s celebrate what it continues to accomplish, while simultaneously working to improve upon what already works so well.

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