Higher Ed | Viewpoint

The End of Liberal Arts Education?

Historic forces in higher education may have serious repercussions for K-12

My husband recently retired after 40 years in education. He's done everything from teaching (high school and college) to publishing (textbooks and software) to consulting. He's seen every swing of the pendulum--very little impresses him as a true game changer.

But when Harvard and MIT announced their joint online open-education initiative, he made a statement that, in the past, would be the kind of hyperbole he'd scoff at: "This might be the death knell of the traditional college."

Not that the Ivy League is about to collapse any time soon, but my husband was tapping into forces at work right now that are fundamentally challenging the assumptions and the future of traditional higher education.

The first force, of course, is the technology. If someone in rural Iowa can take an engineering course for free at Harvard, what are the implications for Iowa State?

Skeptics may point out that the course is non-credited, so it has no real standing in the world. But consider: Technology may soon permit "seat-time" credits to be replaced by rigorous demonstration of knowledge and skill, however and wherever these are learned. And that demonstrable skill acquisition may turn out to be more valuable in the real world than a degree based on credits.

Which leads me to the second imploding force in higher ed: the cost of those credits. A private four-year college degree easily runs to $200,000. Public institutions are not much cheaper. My in-state tuition at the University of Michigan in 1974 was (this is not a typo) $800 per year; including all expenses, a four-year degree cost then about $10,000. Today, that same degree runs more than $100,000. This kind of hyperinflation is forcing young people to find other--non-credited--pathways to adulthood and careers.

But don't statistics show that people with college degrees have better jobs and more economic security than people without? Maybe so… in the past. And here is force No. 3--right now our college grads, many of whom are saddled with crushing lifetime debt, are flooding an economy that cannot provide them jobs at all, much less lucrative careers.

Moreover, it's important to remember that college is not--nor has it ever been--"job training." Even grads with "practical" degrees (like engineering) are rarely trained for specific jobs, but rather given foundational knowledge for their chosen profession. Higher education's true historic calling has been to teach young people how to think and reason; to prepare them for whatever choices life presents; to help them become thoughtful, contributing members of civil society.

Many families value that mission, but weighed against a $200K price tag with no guarantee of a good job, a liberal arts degree may not seem like such a sound investment. If families start to abandon traditional college pathways, this will put tremendous pressure on K-12 institutions to intensify the part of liberal arts education that we call 21st century skills--higher order thinking, problem solving, critical reading and reasoning, verbal and digital literacy--because many students may not get the chance to build those skills in college.

So if you thought the announcement between MIT and Harvard had no bearing on your job, you might just think again.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at [email protected].