America: Last Bastion of the Liberal Arts

Creation, Donald Jackson with contribution by Chris Tomlin, Copyright 2003, The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

Creation, Donald Jackson with contribution by Chris Tomlin, Copyright 2003, The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

Recent travels have taken me to Carson-Newman University outside of Knoxville, TN, and to the Oklahoma City Art Museum for events related to The Saint John’s Bible.  In both places, the excitement around The Saint John’s Bible was palpable.  At CNU, the faculty and staff were excited about the possibilities for using the Bible in classes and in extracurricular programming but also about using this powerful combination of art and theology to build community with those who live near the University.  In Oklahoma City, the Museum staff  knew that the SJB would delight most museum members and regular patrons, but they were even more excited about the possibilities of drawing new visitors to the Museum who might be curious about the first illuminated, handwritten Bible in 500 years.  The expressed hope was that these new visitors would find the power of calligraphy and illuminations moving enough to encourage future visits to the Museum to explore many other forms of artistic expression.

In both cases, the individuals who brought The Saint John’s Bible to their communities believed in the power of art and scripture to give joy and meaning to those who experienced this masterpiece.  This belief is completely consistent with the goals of the creators of this Bible –Donald Jackson and the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.  They had the lived experience of art making life more meaningful and enjoyable; they understood the human need for beauty.

These experiences are troublingly at odds with news out of the United Kingdom that there will no longer be an A-Level Course in Art History.   Briefly, A-Levels are the college preparatory courses that British high school students take in anticipation of the subjects they will study at University.  To drop a subject from the A-Level options is to signal the lack of perceived importance of that subject and to severely limit the pool of students who might choose to study that subject at university.  And, as the British model requires university students to commit to a single subject of study, with no liberal arts or breadth requirements, the number of British students exposed to art history as an academic subject is likely to drop sharply, possibly threatening the existence of the subject at many universities.

The reason for dropping art history from the A-Level options was given as a desire to drop “soft” subjects to encourage students to choose “hard” disciplines when they get to university, implicitly suggesting that in a world where education is apparently viewed instrumentally, “hard” subjects are the best preparation for the 21st century job market.  A government spokesperson said, “Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve – and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front.”

The Guardian article notes that this is “the latest in a cull of perceived ‘soft’ subjects following the curriculum changes begun by the former education secretary Michael Gove.”

This instrumental view is mistaken in at least three important ways:

  • First, the idea that the humanities cannot be studied rigorously and provide students with excellent preparation for the kind of thinking and communication that will be demanded of them in the market place is naive and lazy.  The ability to analyze ideas, explore different perspectives and communicate clearly are at the heart of the humanities and are certainly consistent with what employers say they want.
  • Second, the equally naive idea that we know what subjects will best serve students over a 50 year career has surely been soundly refuted by the rise of the internet, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and any number of fields that were non-existent a few decades ago.
  • Finally, to view education as simply or even primarily about economic returns is to view  individuals narrowly as simply homo economicus, economic actors with no interest in or need for meaning, relationships and community.
Image: Pete Ashton via Flickr

Image: Pete Ashton via Flickr

Despite some of the world’s finest universities and a centuries-old educational tradition, the British model of higher education, which has largely been adopted by most of the world outside the United States, is disappointingly narrow.  Students are typically limited to studying one subject for their undergraduate degrees, which provides great depth but almost non-existent breadth.  This move to further narrow the options of students by discouraging the study of “soft” subjects–primarily defined as the humanities–will ill-serve students and the British economy.

Give me an accountant who knows some art history or a chemist who understands Kant or a lawyer who knows about the Council of Trent any day.  The uniquely American liberal arts curriculum, and its attendant liberal arts colleges, have served our country, its citizens and economy well for over two hundred years, and I see nothing in the future that will change that, regardless of the shifting educational fashions abroad (or at home).

By |October 19th, 2016|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

More “Crippling” Debt?

A milestone in consumer borrowing was recently passed.  Consumer borrowing for cars topped $1 trillion for the first time.  Did you see this news on the front page of papers across the country?  Not likely.  If you saw this story at all, it was probably in the business section where is was treated as a cause for celebration.

CNBC wrote:

Auto Loans Roar to Trillion Dollar Level
With auto sales cruising at a near record pace, the amount of money borrowed by car, truck and SUV buyers topped $1 trillion for the first time ever.

Here is the Wall Street Journal:

Given Americans’ love of cars and debt, it was just a matter of time before zipping past a new mile marker: $1 trillion in auto loans outstanding.  With the recession now six years behind in the nation’s rearview mirror, lending for automobiles has sharply accelerated: Around $119 billion in auto loans were originated in the second quarter of this year, a 10-year high, according to figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

On the other hand, if you are the least bit interested in higher education, you undoubtedly know student loan debt has topped $1 trillion, and this represents a crisis.

Here is a Forbes headline about this borrowing:

How the $1.2 Trillion College Debt Crisis is Crippling Students, Parents and the Economy

Two significant types of borrowing of the same order of magnitude that are viewed quite differently by the media and the public.  The Wall Street Journal made an explicit link, but suggested it might be good to take out a car loan:

Americans have racked up more than $1 trillion in both auto-loan debt and student-loan debt, which surpassed $1 trillion for the first time in 2013. The overall indebtedness of U.S. borrowers remains lower than before the recession, owing to declines in home-loan and credit-card balances. But with low gas prices, a growing number of jobs, and an aging automotive fleet, many people have found it an opportune time to get a new vehicle.

Black Mortarboard and dollar, concept of education finance

Auto loans create jobs that boost the economy despite the fact that the borrowers’ assets begin losing value the instant they  drive off the lot.  Student loans are a crushing burden that limits life choices despite evidence that educational investments have a high rate of return and benefit borrowers a over a lifetime.  The contrast might be simply perplexing if it were not so potentially harmful.

Credit basically allows individuals to shift their consumption–be it an automobile, vacation, home or education–to the present based on a promise to pay the debt in the future.  Any kind of borrowing can be either harmful or helpful.  There are plenty of anecdotes about over borrowing that has made individuals worse off.

But handled responsibly, borrowing can make households much better off and strengthen the economy.  The whole concept of micro lending in developing economies is built on the idea that borrowing can be extremely helpful to individuals and the reality that economies that do not have robust credit markets are likely to be underdeveloped and have limited growth prospects.

Millions of American and their families are economically better off because they were able to borrow to invest in education. The growing chorus of individuals and media stories that paint student loan debt as an unmitigated bad that should be avoided at all costs are doing real harm to students who would benefit from higher education, and, as I have noted previously, those most likely to be harmed are the least sophisticated young people who come from families that have little experience with higher education and who don’t understand how to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of judicious borrowing.

I was told recently of a young man who had been accepted to Saint John’s University and was excited about coming.  He subsequently received his financial aid package, which included a modest loan as well as scholarships and work study, as do the vast majority of our aid packages.  (Ironically, the median student debt at graduation for the two-thirds of Johnnies who borrow is just under $30,000, equivalent to a modest car loan.)  This  young man then changed his plans and decided to live at home and attend a local community college, telling his Saint John’s admissions counselor that he did not want to a have any loans when he graduated from college.

Maybe this was the right choice for this young man.  He may have a great a community college experience and be able to save enough to then transfer to a four year institution and graduate debt-free.

But it is also possible that at this student would have benefitted tremendously from the  holistic, residential, liberal arts experience at Saint John’s and that by under-matching in his college choice he will have more difficulty achieving his full potential, personally and professionally, because somehow he had come to believe that any student debt was a burden he could not and should not bear.

By |October 4th, 2016|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

Disconnect on the Value of College?

SJU students in class discussion

Photo: Steve Woit

For those of us in the academy, the value of higher education is rarely questioned.  We are products of this world, and we believe in our educational mission.  But every year we must convince students and their tuition paying parents of this proposition which we take for granted.  Certainly the significant and consistent data about the returns on a college degree help make this case, but high school seniors do not necessarily read research reports as they consider their post-secondary options, so the “conventional wisdom” as conveyed by the media can certainly influence the beliefs and ultimately decisions of young people and their families.

Recent survey research by the non-profit, nonpartisan Public Agenda organization suggests some worrying trends in this “conventional wisdom.”  As the researchers report in the summary of their research, “Our new survey suggests public confidence in higher education is waning.”  Specifically:

For many years, when we asked the public the question, “Do you think that a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world,” an increasing percentage of Americans said yes. That trend has shifted since the Great Recession. Now, just 42 percent of Americans say college is necessary for workforce success, a 13 percent drop from 2009. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree, a 14 percent increase from 2009.

The graph below shows the significant drop in beliefs about the necessity of college in the last decade:


When researchers asked about the value of college as a good investment, the respondents were split.  Slightly more than half of those surveyed, 52%, viewed college as “still the best investment for people who want to get ahead and succeed,” while 46% of respondents said “a college education is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.”

These result stand in stark contrast to what alumnae of the College of Saint Benedict and alumni of Saint John’s University say about the value of their college education.  Our Institutional Research office surveys CSB and SJU alumni three years after they graduate, after they have had time to get settled personally and professionally, to assess the outcomes of their residential, liberal arts experience.  Below are some of the results from the most recent four years of data from the graduating classes of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.  The results are the range of outcomes over those four years.

  1. The liberal arts education I received at CSB/SJU has contributed significantly to my personal and professional development.
    Those responding: Strongly agree or agree
    Between 86%-92%
  2. Faculty and staff at CSB/SJU recognized and appreciated my talents and helped me to develop them.
    Those responding: Strongly agree or agree
    Between 86%-90%
  3. My current paying job uses skills I developed as a CSB/SJU student.
    Those responding: Very much or quite a bit
    Between 67%-79%
  4. How well did your CSB/SJU experiences prepare you to perform your work ethically and with integrity?
    Those responding: Very well or quite a bit
    Between 86-92%
  5. How well did your CSB/SJU experiences prepare you to thinking critically about complex issues?
    Those responding: Very well or quite a bit
    Between 86-92%
  6. How well did your CSB/SJU experiences prepare you to write clearly and effectively?
    Those responding: Very well or quite a bit
    Between 80-89%
  7. How would you rate the quality of your overall experience at CSB/SJU?
    Those responding: Excellent or good
    Between 94-98%

The differences between the two groups of respondents is striking.  Obviously one group is a random sample of adults whose experiences with college vary widely and likely includes some respondents with no experience with higher education.  The CSB and SJU respondents all had a significant and largely successful college experience–they graduated.  As Jon McGee, our Vice President of Strategy and Planning, notes, “The survey is our own and is unique to us.  Therefore it is not comparable to other institutions.  That said, by nearly all of the measures included in the survey, our alumni describe tremendous outcomes.  They attribute extraordinary value to their CSB and SJU experience, value that we believe would surely be comparable to the best colleges in the country.”

I take two things away from these incongruous results:

  1. I am very proud of the educational experience we provide our students.  We promise them a great residential liberal arts experience that will serve them well personally and professionally throughout their lives and, according to them, we deliver.
  2. The public perceptions about higher education seem unfairly and even dangerously pessimistic.  While I know that not every college can deliver what we are able to do, the evidence on the value of higher education is beyond dispute.  Yet the public has apparently come to view higher education as an increasingly optional path into the working world.

It may be optional for that first job after high school, but for the vast majority of individuals who seek a solid middle class life and a meaningful career with opportunities to grow and develop, college is essential. Most concerning to me is that those students whose choices might be swayed by this “conventional wisdom” are those who are most likely to be harmed by limiting their post-high school options.  It is not the young man living with his college educated parents in an upper middle class suburb who will decide that “there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree.”  But the young man in an urban center who would be the first in his family to go to college might well internalize this skepticism about higher education, seek other ways to succeed without college and end up limiting his possibilities for a lifetime.

Those of us working in higher education will naturally continue to stress the value of a college education, but to make sure that all young people can make a well-informed decision about what is best for them, all of us need to share our own experiences of benefits of college.  Johnnies and Bennies are especially well-positioned to make this case, given the great experiences they report.

Not everyone should necessarily go to college, but every young person should take full advantage of their talents and a great four year college experience is the best path for many seeking to fulfill their potential.

By |September 26th, 2016|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments