Higher Education: Liberal Education or Career Preparation?

Ongoing budgetary problems have exasperated an old higher education debate, that is, what is the mission of a college or university?

The traditional line of demarcation, neatly fitting between the college and university, is that of research versus teaching.  As fascinating as that debate may be, it is secondary to the balance between academic and vocational enterprises.

To some extent every college and university grapples with this issue.  For instance, a predominantly vocational setting such as a two-year college still labors to maintain a core curriculum.  Meanwhile a research university maintains vocational disciplines alongside pure and applied research and humanities studies.

Certainly customer demand is ever pushing the development of so-called “marketable skills” and degrees that lead to jobs.  The rapid recent growth in proprietary colleges, expansion of on-line courses, and broad array of employment focused study, all testify to the pressures of the marketplace.  Yet, much faculty resists.

While I recognize the need for high levels of occupational training in fields as varied as nursing, teaching, accounting, and so on, I must confess to sympathy for the defenders of broad liberal education.  There is great value to the study of the humanities and the theoretics of pure science.  Alas, such ivory tower pursuits are not for everyone.

So the question is, are they right to hold the line for academic learning in the face of demand for occupational training?  More pointedly, what affect will the looming higher education bubble have in forcing colleges and universities to favor one path over the other?

As budgets fall, endowments shrink, and tuition payers revolt, programs will be cut.   A recent survey of college and university presidents, conducted by Inside Higher Education with the Campus Computing Project, shows that 87 percent of presidents are currently discussing, or planning to discuss, the elimination of underperforming academic programs.  Changes are coming.

Though the bursting of the bubble will be tumultuous, I see a silver lining in the process.  A purging period of creative destruction (to borrow the Marxist term) should be beneficial.  It should also drive an embrace of a clarified mission on individual campuses.  A well-defined mission should enable students to better shop for the offering that best suit their needs, promoting efficiency in higher education – something that very few talk about.


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