Shortchanging Students

Okay, okay … I may be beating the proverbial dead horse here, but yesterday, a colleague shared an article written by the the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, bemoaning the continuing elevation of what I’ve called “credentialing” over the sort of broad, liberal education that Americans used to recognize as an ideal. The author criticised the the “current policy rush to move students swiftly and efficiently through their educational paces,” a goal that is too often reached by simply dispensing with such “non-essentials” as history, philosophy, science and the arts in favor of providing “marketable skills.”

I couldn’t agree more. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten that job training is not education.

We lie to our students if we pretend that a quickie program of “how to” courses will prepare them to cope with our increasingly complex, interconnected, globalized world. Learning how to communicate, learning how to learn, learning how to think critically and analytically, and learning how to understand the world in which they live--are the essential survival skills, and inculcating them requires exposure to a broad array of subjects.

Today’s college freshmen can expect to have at least five different careers–careers, not jobs–over their lifetimes. At the same time, they will have to cope with dizzying social changes and increasingly complex political, economic and interpersonal environments. They will need tools not just to earn a living despite changes in the economy, important as that is, but tools that help them live authentic, meaningful lives, and be contributing members of American society.

As the author of the article put it, “The United States is in danger of squandering the opportunity to develop the liberally educated citizenry that both our economy and our democracy so urgently need, a citizenry possessed of that fuller understanding of the world and of the global challenges we face.”

Knowing how to program a computer or run a lab test for e coli or engineer a highway is important and useful, but it is insufficient preparation to be fully human. To the extent we conflate education with job training, to the extent we forgo genuine education–the sort of education that prepares young people for engaged citizenship and richly realized personal lives- we are cheating our students and impoverishing our civic and communal life.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. We owe our students the tools with which to examine–and fully live–their lives.


  1. I agree 100%. How many students coming out of college today lack the ability to really think about a problem? I’m interested in answers–right ones and wrong ones–that try to solve the problem. If I wanted input from a non-thinking being, I’d turn to my computer.

    But now the question is how do we change the nation’s perception that credentialing is more important than thinking?

  2. Frankly, I don’t think many supervisors want employees who can think. They want drones, not those able to critique them.

    Same with political parties. Thinkers no longer welcome! Just do what the leadership says, no thinking outside of the box. Both national parties suffer from a dearth of real thinkers anymore.

    Same with too many educators (secondary or higher). Teacher is right, don’t bother arguing otherwise. After all, whose been through the hazing ritual called “graduate school”? Teacher or student?

    Unfortunately, I believe that you are in a distinct minority, Sheila.

  3. Great post, and yes, I largely agree. But, there would not be a policy rush to get students through college ASAP if the cost of college were not so darn high, with tuition, room and board and related fee increases in the recent past far outpacing anything remotely related to the rate of inflation. I look at the IU’s and Purdue’s of the world –heck, even at the Ivy Tech’s — and I am appalled at how much administrative staff they have, as well as the salaries many of these administrators enjoy. How many people do you think there are in the IU system that make more than $150K a year? While the policy response may not be the one that educational purists may want to see, they might want to look in the mirror and do a little soul searching as to how expensive their enterprises have become. And I have not even raised the issue of the relative value of higher education these days and the massive debt that many students are incurring, only to find themselves unemployed, with few marketable skills, and anywhere from 50K to 200K in debt.

  4. Point well taken. On the other hand, most of the for-profit diploma mills are inordinately expensive as well. We DO need to address this issue.

  5. If you think that the mindset at IU and Purdue (in certain quarters, at least) aren’t “for profit”, I might propose you to be a wee bit naive on the subject.

    Further, I would propose that “liberal arts” (at a minimum) tends heavily towards the status of “diploma mills” in a sense. Parents pay the exorbitant costs and expect a return for their investment, whether or not their child has actually performed at a satisfactory level.

  6. the problem is, IMHO, that colleges want to be a large volume, big box business that is also a value proposition and also a liberal arts facility with high overhead that produces an intangible product of limited monetary value – which is valued and affordable to only a small minority. You can’t really be all things to all people.

  7. Sheila — you are absolutely right about the “for profit” institutions. They are exorbitantly expensive and are essentially vehicles to garner federal education aid dollars. My understanding is that the feds are moving to shut down the abuses of the student loan programs, but one should be wary of them. But my point is how expensive the “public” institutions have become. We really DO need to address this issue, in a thoughtful manner.

  8. Agreement on the merit of being “well-rounded”. And, collectively, we have institutions to be overhauled as far as the eye can see. I suggest Congress first.

    But, with global education rankings for math and science in the teens and twenties, how are we to compete and get out of this hole, without education being held to the same performace accountability and cost containment as the taxpayers face who get to fund education?

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