The economic outlook for college graduates may be improving, but not fast enough for Florida Governor Rick Scott. Gov. Scott supports the notion of staggering tuition rates for Florida undergraduates; the proposed plan would use state funding to freeze tuition for students in "high-skill, high wage, high-demand" majors, while students in less "worthy" majors would see their tuition rise. "Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so," said Gov. Scott. There's some irony, of course, in charging students in less lucrative fields more money for their studies, but Gov. Scott's logic is clear: students go to college solely to get a job.
Nor is he alone. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently unveiled a plan to link state funding for the University of Wisconsin system to alumni employment. "Are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?" Gov. Walker asked, apparently disregarding the degrees that students want to earn. In North Carolina, Gov. Patrick McCrory is developing legislation to alter the basic dynamic of state funding for education. Only one metric counts. "It's not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs," Gov. McCrory said.
All three of these governors have taken their cue from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose aggressive education "reform" agenda links state funding to graduation rates and prioritizes technical training for all state schools. Technical training plays an important role in community colleges, and we should not underestimate the value of a skills-based degree. But higher education is not one-size-fits-all: many students go to college to gain an education that will open up a lifetime of opportunities. That is why colleges teach courses that stretch students' minds and deepen their understanding.
As these governors push ahead with their education agendas, troubling effects have already emerged where employment status has been allowed to hijack education policy. In Virginia, colleges must now report the salaries of their recent graduates, broken down by major. Available online, these data are meant to allow students to choose majors based on their potential earning power, and the accompanying report then ranks universities by the average salary of their graduates. This ranking is specious. How indicative of the total value of a college degree is any paycheck, much less the paycheck at an entry-level job just months after graduation? As others have said, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Yet treating all college as vocational training encourages just that kind of simplistic thinking -- reducing the value of an education to a single number.
In pursuit of a diploma, students may study anything from archaeology to zoology; they not only absorb material but they learn how to learn. University campuses are filled with rigorous thinkers, great works of art and literature, ground-breaking scientific laboratories, and a vast array of engaging cultural activities. In this challenging and inspiring environment, students develop the habits of mind that will enable them to make lasting contributions to our democratic society, as well as the workplace. More than ever before, self-government depends on a well-educated citizenry capable of making difficult choices on complex issues. Today's students are preparing themselves as tomorrow's citizens. Likewise, the workplace increasingly requires an ability to deal with complex problems -- an ability that a university education fosters.
In tough economic times, with pressure mounting to prove that college is "worth it," we need to remember that the fundamental value of a college degree lies in planting the seeds of lifelong learning. One of the authors of this article declared a major in ancient Greek and Latin 50 years ago, despite his uncles' protests that a classicist would never be able to find a "real job." Though it is still too soon to determine the total return on investment, because it keeps on growing, the peculiar choice of major seems to be holding up pretty well.
The other author has just earned a degree in chemistry and history, with little thought of becoming either a chemist or an historian, but with every intention of using that education for the rest of her life. The ability, and the inclination, to think critically, to comprehend complexity, to grapple with the uncertainty of human knowledge: those are the enduring lessons of a college education, and that education does not end with the receipt of a diploma. We don't shut off our curiosity or our creativity when we leave campus, and, contrary to the views of some political leaders, the benefits of a college education can't be measured by the size of a bank account a few months after graduation. Higher education is both an individual and a societal endeavor, and we do a disservice to our students and our nation when we focus on immediate employment at the expense of broad and deep education.
Hunter Rawlings is President of the Association of American Universities and a former President of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Lillian Aoki, a Policy & STEM Intern at the Association of American Universities, graduated from Cornell University in 2012.