Saturday, December 2, 2017

Do colleges and universities in America do more harm than good? Of course not!

I was shocked to learn that a substantial portion of American adults believe that colleges and universities do more harm than good. Really? What leads them to this conclusion? The web and talk radio are filled with people making such assertions (but offering no evidence). You will see and hear that: it costs too much to go to college; there’s no guarantee of a good job after graduation; student loans are destroying every student’s financial future; college faculty are brainwashing their students – biasing them against traditional American values, teaching them Marxist ideas and misleading them about what it takes to succeed in life; university administrators are claiming more and more tuition money for themselves, and amassing gigantic endowments; and there are an increasing number of useless majors and frivolous subjects being taught. Some of these same observers are convinced that most young people should become mechanics, plumbers, and welders, so they can live a good life without wasting time and money getting a college degree. Finally, according to these critics, colleges and universities are coddling students, encouraging them to cave in to political correctness and banning right-thinking speakers. If you read the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper produced by people who know something about what’s actually happening on campuses in the United States, academic are on the defensive -- obsessed with the most outlandish claims of their online critics. We see story after story about a very small number of high profile campus confrontations. Very little space, though, is devoted to detailed analyses of what is really being taught, the dramatic changes that have taken place in instructional methods (in most fields), the ways that universities are reconfiguring themselves to ensure that their graduates can meet the demands of a changing (global) job market and the actual impact that college and university study has had.

What we rarely see in the Chronicle, hear on the news or read on the web, are accounts of the vast majority of students and faculty in 90% of the colleges and universities in the country, going about the business of teaching, learning, pursuing basic and applied research and providing service (often as part of applied learning programs) to local and distant communities, agencies, and companies. Unless you spend time in a legitimate sample of colleges or universities on a regular basis, sit in on classes, read the materials students are assigned, read the theses and project reports students produce, analyze the research findings of the faculty and talk with their community and industry partners, you would have no way of knowing the startling success that two-year colleges, four year colleges, public and private colleges and research universities are having – often in the face of substantial under-funding. They continue to prepare the next generation of workers, citizens, managers and leaders while amassing new knowledge and innovative technologies that make it possible to improve the quality of our lives, use our resources more wisely, organize ourselves productively and govern ourselves effectively.   It’s a good thing that our higher education system is working as well as it is, and not the way the critics claim. If they were right, America would have long since lost its competitive edge. New jobs wouldn’t be created at unprecedented rates. Investment capital would have migrated to more friendly locations with better prepared workers, more effective managers and more stable and accountable regulatory systems.  But, that’s not the case. More of the brightest people from all over the world are still trying to make their way into our colleges and universities.

Unfounded claims about the diminishing value of higher education in America have nothing to do with what really happens in 90% or more of the classrooms, laboratories and field-based learning settings around the country. On most campuses, students and faculty are too busy to worry about what the latest self-aggrandizing guest speakers has to say. The amount of class time spent debating the latest front in the culture wars is trivial. The vast majority of media-based critics don’t spend nearly enough time inside colleges and universities to understand how students, teachers and administrators go about their day-to-day tasks. One reason for this is that many of the people voicing unfounded criticisms have neither the knowledge or the skill to understand the substance of what’s happening. It takes no knowledge or skill to repeat unsubstantiated claims aimed at attracting attention on the web.

If everyone teaching and every student studying at a college or university in America were to tweet two lines about the most important thing they are learning or doing research about (under the banner #I’m learning what I need to learn or # I’m teaching what I need to teach), we could quickly rectify the built-up mis-impressions.   My tweet would say (#Teaching urban and environmental planners how to lead and support public and private agencies and organizations in the US and around the world).  

There wouldn’t be space in our tweets, but maybe we could also convince the media (of all kinds) to include stories about the new inventions emerging from university laboratories, the start-ups being created in dorm rooms, and the assistance students are providing to a wide range of communities. Most people would be surprised to learn about the new interdisciplinary majors and concentrations that have been created in data science, biotech, applied social science, design science, conflict resolution, user experience design, and a host of other fields at a wide range of colleges and universities. It would be great to see independent documentation of how the requirements in all kinds of degree programs have changed over the past ten years, and how opportunities for hands-on learning and internships have increased in pre-professional studies programs all over the country.


It shouldn’t be hard to create an overwhelming counter-argument showing that all citizens need constant access (throughout their lives) to the learning opportunities that colleges and universities provide, across many fields, for continued skill development and personal fulfillment.  And, our society depends on the constant flow of scholarly insights and research breakthroughs crucial to our continued well-being.