Restricting Liberal Arts: A Dangerous Higher Education Policy

Blog Post by: , on February 6, 2013

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory recently suggested that public funding for higher education should support only those academic programs that have clear paths to jobs. This comes on the heels of similar remarks by Florida governor Rick Scott, who wants a tiered tuition plan. The remarks of a number of conservative lawmakers portend either deep cuts in liberal arts programs at public universities, or higher tuition prices for students seeking such degrees.

History suggests that liberal arts degree programs cannot all be a waste of time and money.

Scores of great thinkers and successful individuals have obtained such degrees, including Governor McCrory himself. The last five U.S. presidents all obtained liberal arts degrees—in the fields of economics, foreign relations, history, political science, and sociology. Indeed, the only two presidents since Herbert Hoover (a geologist) to obtain a college degree with a clear employment path after graduation were Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter: graduates of West Point and the Naval Academy, respectively.

One of the most disturbing effects of eliminating funding for higher education in the liberal arts would be the potential increase in the inequality of opportunity. Although students would be free to major in political science, music, and literature at private institutions, not everyone can afford the tuition without extensive scholarship aid. In which case, only those with the most means and the most access could be free to pursue their passions. Public institutions provide an important service to students from a variety of backgrounds and currently do not put constraints on their pursuits. And this service has paid off in producing amazing individuals. In the past two years alone, over half a dozen Rhodes Scholars have come from public institutions in the United States, with degrees in liberal arts fields.

Critics have been quick to point out a number of other problems with this plan. For one, who should be in charge of deciding what is valuable and what is not? Additionally, fast-growing, high-demand fields often emerge without any one particular degree path feeding into them. Assigning an economic value to degrees is very difficult; predicting the future economic value of degrees is virtually impossible.

Perhaps more importantly, these plans assume that education is solely about the bottom line of a salary or a job. Certainly the significant rise in the number of individuals pursuing higher education over time has been fueled by young people looking to lock in their financial success with a credential. But there is more to a college degree than purely the economic side, and even students realize that. Some of our greatest leaders and scholars, figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, believed that broad education for the masses was an important part of citizenship democracy, freedom, and happiness. Higher education builds good citizens by promoting critical thinking and teamwork, and providing valuable social experiences.

Unfortunately, these new plans would likely further erode these values. Important research during the past decade has found that higher education institutions are increasingly becoming a means to an end for students, and failing to instill important critical thinking skills. By removing or limiting the option of majoring in liberal arts fields, policymakers would also shrink the size of those programs and the number of students taking them as elective courses. The focus of higher education would narrow, along with the exposure of students to diverse ideas and ways of thinking.

We cannot afford to restrict so severely the options of students pursuing higher education at public institutions. Education policies that increase inequality, reduce the value of education, or limit the focus of education are simply bad policies. An education policy that does all of these things is public education suicide.

S. Michael Gaddis is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill studying education policy and inequality and a Blog of the Century Contributor at The Century Foundation. Beginning this fall, he will be an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Penn State University.

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