Perpetual Crises in Higher Education

In a recent article on the problems college grads are having finding employment, journalist Alina Tugend writes that as the parent of a high school student, her heart sinks when she reads another “news story or opinion piece quoting employers who charge that four-year colleges and universities are failing to provide graduates with the skills they need to become and remain employable.” Although she notes that college graduates are still doing much better than high school graduates in the post-crash economy, the article still boils down to employers’ dissatisfaction with the training college students receive.

As the parent of a soon-t0-be first year high school student and a college professor myself, my heart also sinks when I read another article of this sort. Ms. Tugend’s offers a bit more of a complicated story than most, but it still boils down to a confusing stew of vitriol and anecdote. Let’s blame mostly public educational institutions for the dearth of jobs out there. Let’s reduce employability down to the lowest possible denominator since we all know that this is just one harried race to the bottom. And citizenship? Huh? The very idea that education might also serve to train students to be useful, critical, and thoughtful citizens of a democracy never enters into the picture.

I’m not saying that universities couldn’t do a better job of educating students. Of course we can. Many departments suffer from forms of anti-economism that are counterproductive and elitist. On the other hand, believing that some technological fix — as if a digital humanities overlay or teaching students the latest iteration of Photoshop — can solve the problem of unemployment is ridiculous.

I find this all also interesting in the context of rising college tuitions and the fact that a college degree remains outside the realm of possibility for more and more students. Seems a bit more than coincidental that a liberal arts education invested in allowing students the enormous luxury of learning and thinking is becoming the source of all our students problems.

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