A Higher Ed with Even Higher Disappointment

Photo Courtesy of Business Insider

Danny Zeng | August 2nd, 2013

Recently I have had very engaging conversations with a couple of close friends regarding the status of higher education today. The United States is famous for its world-class higher education system that continues to attract world’s top talents. It is reported in 2011 that about 746,000 international students, or 6% of college student population, studied in the United States. Our nation’s graduate programs are filled with students of other national origins. Many immigrant families aspire to send their kids through some of world’s most renowned universities. My friends and I discussed the purpose of modern higher education and in particular how does liberal education fits in present higher education model. As a student of both liberal and practical education, I often muse at the gaps within my own disciplines. As a government major, I don’t find my curriculum challenging enough. Too little emphasis – if any – is placed on political philosophy, international politics, statecraft, and geopolitics. More finance theory, grounded in economics, should be taught in business schools so the practical how-to can be traced to a solid theoretical foundation for problem solving. Indeed, there is very little curricular guidance from the University beyond mere degree completion – meet and consult over a checklist.  Wall Street Journal recently had a thought-provoking essay celebrating the demise of literature on college campuses. The author argues that alas students could enjoy and truly savor literature for their insight and brilliance without being constantly drowned in the intellectual cesspool of GPA gamesmanship:

“The destruction of the humanities by the humanities is, finally, coming to a halt. No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature. No longer will the reading of, say, “King Lear” or D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” result in the flattening of these transfiguring encounters into just two more elements in an undergraduate career—the onerous stuff of multiple-choice quizzes, exam essays and homework assignments.”

McKinsey & Company published a study in May that surveyed more than 4,900 college graduates and made the following observations:

  • Mismatch of Skills. Nearly half of graduates say that they are in jobs that don’t require a degree
  • Underprepared. About one-third of graduates did not feel college prepared them well for the workplace
  • Buyer’s Remorse. Half of graduates would have chosen a different major or school
  • Brand Shoppers. Half of graduates didn’t look at graduation rate; four in ten did not look at job-placement or salary records
  • Lack of Opportunities. Four in ten of Top 100 colleges couldn’t get jobs in their chosen field
  • Underutilization of Recruitment Resources. Less than 40% used career services; less than 30% tapped into alumni network

The dearth of liberal education on college campuses has been an ongoing phenomenon that faculty, students, and administrators seem to have complacently embraced as inevitable. While traditional liberal education has been sacrificed at the altar of knowledge for transient vocational training, skill workshops, and non-core educational benefits, institutions seemingly cannot even live up to its watered-down mission. If higher education fails to enrich our souls and inspire our appetite for knowledge, in addition to failing to train the right talents for today’s economy, then what is the purpose of higher education? Did not the evolution (or devolution) from liberal education to highly specialized, vocational trainings produce a modern, functional learning model? If higher ed cannot live up to the latter and arguably easier part of the bargain, then the entire system would be nothing more than an unfortunate, generational brain drain. Understanding this question is not only indispensable to satiate our own desire for knowledge and search for intellectual wholesomeness, but indeed it will be critical to the sustainability of an informed citizenry – a prerequisite for a functional democracy.

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About Danny Zeng

College student, political junkie, I like to read, and I like to learn

2 thoughts on “A Higher Ed with Even Higher Disappointment

  1. You make excellent points about higher education. I come from a family of educators and we debate on this subject quite frequently.
    I am graduating from a private university. I decided to go there thinking that they would provide me with a better education than I might get from a state college….WRONG!
    I have only taken a small handful of tests and have half-assed it on basically everything and am on the Dean’s list.
    While it great knowing I’m doing so great, I haven’t done anything! I would much prefer to walk out of school knowing that I have gained more knowledge than just a simple piece of paper.
    And ironically, I have already changed careers to one which doesn’t require a college degree : )
    Here’s to higher education!!

  2. Thank you for your comment Kristin. Unless we start discussing fundamental problems in higher ed centered on learning and quality, the talk about “access” is just a stale – if not exploitative – idea about bolstering the university’s core revenue sources

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