In his speech in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of making higher education more accessible and affordable for more Americans. My qualms lie not in what he said, but in what he didn’t.
Making higher education more affordable is commendable—and a no-brainer. But the president made no mention of improving quality, a topic of much contention that merits equal attention. In the last year, higher education has bore the scrutiny of many critics, ranging from wealthy entrepreneurs, such as Peter Thiel, to dissatisfied college graduates, such as Michael Ellsberg, to even college professors, such as Richard Arum.
Last year Peter Thiel caused quite a stir when, after predicting a bubble in higher education, he initiated a fellowship that granted 20 students under 20 years old $100,000 under the sole condition that they eschew college in favor of pursuing their own business venture. Author Michael Ellsberg echoed Thiel’s sentiments regarding a bubble in higher education, claiming that college doesn’t make people smarter—it just happens that smart people attend college. He compared it to the sport of basketball: tall people play basketball, but playing basketball doesn’t make you any taller. What college actually does, he says, is make you feel like you learned much, but, as many other people are trying to prove, you could have learned just as much — and saved a lot more money — in a non-university setting. Professor Arum, in his book Academically Adrift, also lamented the quality of higher education, citing self-executed studies that revealed a lack of student development during college in critical thinking and problem solving skills. Students, it seems, are leaving college with a degree and an expanded circle of friends, but little more.
These criticisms above are only a few of the gripes that comprise the current ideological climate in higher education today. If there is, in fact, a bubble, Obama addressed the first part—tuition costs are too expensive; but he didn’t address the second—college quality has not risen to match current prices.
We need to have a conversation about higher education, one that isn’t confined to whether students should attend college. Such a conversation should explore what learning means in a 21st century economy, when, on average, students won’t work in the same field in which what they major, they’ll switch careers three times, and they’ll need to learn the habits and skills necessary for navigating an unpredictable future. Such a conversation will analyze what and how students should learn to prepare for such an economy, and how higher education can implement such preparation affordably—and effectively.
Students used to train for the unknown by developing analytical skills—we referred to this as learning how to think well. In today’s increasingly complex world, where we are constantly reinventing ourselves, we have to learn how to create our own opportunities, how to adapt to our surroundings—now it’s more like learning how to live well.
Obama could have achieved much during his visit by challenging Michigan students to become the future leaders our country so desperately needs right now. He could have provided us with a narrative for what we should aim to do here—develop valuable skill sets, the entrepreneurial mind set, an intellectual curiosity, and a strong moral compass—in addition to the usual narratives fed to us.
If I were Obama, I would have said something similar to the following: college grants you the opportunity to focus on exploring and experimenting, building relationships, and preparing yourself intellectually, physically, and emotionally for a fulfilling future. During these four years, you aren’t responsible for much other than your personal growth. This is the ultimate investment in your human capital. I would have reminded us that it’s not the end of the world if we don’t procure an internship this summer; that we’re defined by more than our major, our GPA, and our first job; that our growth occurs inside and outside the classroom, in textbooks and in great books, in our group projects and in our relationships.
Such a conversation can be nebulous, uncomfortable, and even threatening to some. Controlling costs is one thing, but improving education quality is something else entirely. Some people wouldn’t know where to start. Others have an interest in maintaining the status quo and avoiding the topic altogether. Others still are disgruntled and would rather reform from the outside. In the long run, though, improving our existing higher education institutions – making a long-term investment our human capital — may be one of the best investments we can make.
Therefore, before we can race to the top in higher education, we need to address where we are going and how we should train to get there—in other words, what and how we should learn to prosper in a 21st-century economy and lifestyle.