There are certain purchases we make in life that can be bought at any discount store because those items, though wholly necessary at the moment, are designed to be used up and discarded. On the contrary, there are investments that must span a lifetime.
With that in mind, I am discouraged and, quite frankly, alarmed by the combative stance that many politicians -- including President Obama -- take toward the role of higher education, and what they perceive to be our failure to educate and prepare students for employment.
The president proposes to reform higher education by assigning each college and university a series of points that, from the outside looking in, determine the value of each institution based on graduation rate, average time to degree, the debt students incur while attending, the time it takes graduates to obtain a job, and the salaries graduates earn. Not only will this evaluation be tied to the amount of federal support a college will receive, the Obama administration also encourages states to follow suit with their funding calculators.
At my institution, like many others around the nation, we tout the success stories of alumni. And independent surveys have shown that Marietta alumni are unusually successful in their careers. Their stories allow us to make a connection between the quality of education and experience on campus to a potential outcome. We know this approach appeals to parents and prospective students, but we also realize this is a small measurement of our success in preparing them for the real world.
Most institutions of higher education have prepared their graduates for the world of work through rigorous coursework, identifying appropriate internships and career direction through professionals at a career center. This approach has worked in the past, and I see no reason to believe that we have become worse at it in recent years. So doesn't it make more sense to look at the factors that have caused the economy to slip? I know we are teaching our students a number of theories in our economics and finance courses why this phenomenon is consuming the American way of life.
Questions about success on campus and students earning degrees are becoming louder and louder with each passing day. At colleges and universities, we provide plentiful resources like writing centers and tutoring programs to assist all students with the hope that they will reach the ultimate goal of earning a college degree. But it's not practical to think everyone will do so. For whatever reason, some students just won't make the cut.
Does that mean the system is broken? Of course it doesn't. The U.S. higher education system is the envy of the world, but right here in our country it is consistently and mistakenly criticized for not living up to its promise. I have been asked many times by my counterparts in other countries, though, to share with them the secret of running a successful liberal arts institution.
They see what makes the U.S. higher education system great. They see what we offer is this great range of opportunities to base our educational philosophy on religion, the great books or even work expectations.
What defines the institution is the institution itself -- with input from faculty, students and staff. And accreditation is based on the notions that the institution defines its goals, outside experts decide if these goals are being met, and students decide if the institutional goals are consistent with their own. The range of choices is one of the great qualities of the U.S. approach and I don't believe having a homogeneous higher education system is the answer.
The Obama administration looks to speed up the education process so college students can take the fast track to getting a degree, and will go so far as to stack the deck financially for those institutions willing to get on board with this style of education. While that sounds innovative and efficient on paper for the everyday shopper, and may be the right choice for some students, I argue that earning a college education is as much about experiential learning as it is about test taking.
This proposed hurry-up-and-learn style of education sets the wrong example of what an educated society should be. Rather than developing interests and fostering a love of learning, racing toward a degree implies that there is an end to learning, a point in which a student can put down the books, stop asking questions, pick up the tools of the trade and start producing.
Yes, it is important for college graduates to be able to find work, to pay their college debts and to make a life for themselves, which is what this proposed plan is all about.
But here's the rub: President Obama's plan may work for the short term, but by design, a residential liberal arts education is proven to prepare its graduates for that first career, and the second, and the third, and for that first job transfer to another state or country, and for that opportunity to be a community leader, and so on.
It is the responsibility of colleges and universities to prepare students to enter the real world; but it is a liberally educated person who, with his or her innovative, creative and analytical mind, will change that real world into a better one.