Higher Education Misconceived

CAMBRIDGE – Ever since economists revealed how much universities contribute to economic growth, politicians have paid close attention to higher education. In doing so, however, they often misconceive universities’ role in ways that undermine their policies.

For example, US President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed the need to increase the percentage of young Americans earning a college degree. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile aim that can contribute to national prosperity and help young people realize the American Dream. Yet economists who have studied the relationship between education and economic growth confirm what common sense suggests: the number of college degrees is not nearly as important as how well students develop cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving ability.

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Failure to recognize this point can have significant consequences. As countries embrace mass higher education, the cost of maintaining universities increases dramatically relative to an elite system. Given that governments have many other programs to support – and that people resist higher taxes – finding the money to pay for such an effort becomes increasingly difficult. Universities must therefore try to provide a quality education to more students while spending as little money as possible.

Accomplishing all three objectives – quality, quantity, and cost efficiency – simultaneously is difficult, and the likelihood of compromise is great. With graduation rates and government spending easy to calculate, educational quality, which is difficult to measure, is likely to be the objective that slips. No one need know – and thus no one can be held accountable – when graduation rates rise but the hoped-for economic benefits fail to materialize.

A second misconception by policymakers is that the only important benefit from a college education is the opportunity that it gives graduates to find a middle-class job and contribute to economic growth and prosperity. But, while this contribution is important, it is not the only one that matters.

Apart from finding a first job, college graduates seem to adapt more easily than those with only a high school degree as the economy evolves and labor-market needs change. They also tend to vote at higher rates, engage in more civic activities, commit fewer crimes, educate their children better, and get sick less frequently by adopting healthier lifestyles.

Researchers estimate that these additional benefits are worth even more than the added lifetime income from a college degree. If policymakers overlook them, they run the risk of encouraging quicker, cheaper forms of education that will do far less to serve either students or society.

These misconceptions are clearly evident in government leaders’ speeches over the past two decades. As former President Bill Clinton remarked in his State of the Union address in 1994: “[W]e measure every school by one high standard: Are our children learning what they need to know to compete and win in the global economy?” Since then, George W. Bush and Obama have echoed similar sentiments when speaking about their educational-policy goals.

The same attitudes are manifest in other countries as well. A telling example is the shift in jurisdiction over British universities since 1992 from the Department of Education and Science to the Department for Education and Employment, and, in 2009, to a new Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills.

This shrunken conception of the role of higher learning is unprecedented. It ignores what were long regarded as the most essential aims of education: strengthening students’ moral character and preparing them to be active, informed citizens. In light of this tradition, the recent shift to material objectives comes as something of a surprise. John Maynard Keynes prophesied in the 1920’s that as countries grew wealthier, people’s preoccupation with money and possessions would diminish. Instead, just the opposite has occurred.

Granted, democratic political leaders must be responsive to the people, and money and jobs are clearly on people’s minds. According to a recent survey, among first-year university students in the United States in 2012, 88% cited getting a better job as an important reason for attending college, and 81% listed “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal.

But it is also true that 82.5% of these freshmen sought “to learn more about things that interest me” as an important reason for attending college, and 73% wanted “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas.” Among the objectives they considered “essential” or “very important,” 51% mentioned “improving my understanding of other countries and cultures,” 45.6% cited “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” and substantial fractions listed such goals as “becoming a community leader,” “helping to promote racial understanding,” and “becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment.”

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In the end, surveys suggest that what people want most is not wealth so much as happiness and the satisfaction that comes from a full and meaningful life. Money helps, but so do other things, such as close human relationships, acts of kindness, absorbing interests, and the chance to live in a free, ethical, and well-governed democratic society. A stagnant economy and lack of opportunity are undoubtedly problems, but so are low voting rates, civic apathy, widespread disregard for ethical standards, and indifference to art, music, literature, and ideas.

It is the responsibility of educators to help their students live satisfying, responsible lives. However well or badly universities perform this task, their efforts to succeed at it are worth fighting for and deserve their governments’ recognition and encouragement. After all, as Louis Brandeis observed: For good or ill, “our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher.” If our leaders regard education merely as a means to jobs and money, no one should be surprised if young people eventually come to think of it that way, too.