Location: Bowdoin / President / Columns / 2012 / In Defense of Higher Education

Office of the President

In Defense of Higher Education

February 29, 2012

Over the past few years, we as a nation have lost confidence in many of our most important institutions, including our colleges and universities. A common criticism goes something like this: “Higher education in America is too expensive, too ‘politically correct,’ and not focused enough on outcomes and on training students for the right jobs.”

In this highly charged political season, I think it’s wise to take a step back and evaluate the reality of higher education in America. Rather than throwing our colleges and universities under the partisan bus, we should take pride in all that is being accomplished, and focus on improvements where improvements can be made.

Highest on the list of concerns, quite appropriately, is the cost of higher education and the need to bend the cost curve. Our colleges and universities are criticized for limiting accessibility and catering to the so-called “1%” by raising tuition and fees while reducing financial aid. Meanwhile, students and families are concerned that the value of a college degree no longer justifies the debt they will incur to earn one.

Our colleges and universities are also under attack because of unemployed or underemployed graduates, majors and academic concentrations that don’t train graduates for specific jobs, and even the career choices students make for themselves once they earn their degrees.

And higher education will soon face renewed critical scrutiny for its admissions practices. Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will once again consider the divisive issue of affirmative action. Many critics of affirmative action see it as unfair social engineering or political correctness run amok, or at best, a well-intentioned practice that is no longer necessary in our society. Regardless of where one comes down on the issue, this looming debate will surely focus even more national angst on our colleges and universities.

So what do we make of all this? Eleven years ago, when I became a college president, I joined a sector that was justly considered the best in the entire world. Even today, most of the world sees American higher education as an enduring model of excellence that provides our country with a significant competitive advantage. At the same time, many Americans—including many of our important political leaders—are condemning our colleges and universities, questioning their value, and diminishing their effectiveness.

Each of the issues I mention is complicated on a macro basis. It is a fact that the cost of higher education continues to go up in America (although at a much slower rate than in previous years), and it is also true that colleges and universities are increasingly challenged to mitigate the impact of these increases through financial aid. While the reasons for increased costs are clear to those of us who look at them every day, the explanations are difficult to convey quickly or in simple sound bites. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to tackle these rising costs and their impact on educational opportunity—we clearly must, and many colleges and universities are working hard to do so. But we must also focus on our national priorities as part of the solution. Numerous state governments are cutting funding for higher education in very significant ways. This is happening in far-off places like California and closer to home in New Hampshire and Maine. These states are faced with impossible choices as they seek to balance their budgets in these difficult financial times and in some cases feel compelled—given existing commitments that apparently give them little choice—to reduce their support for education.

In my view, there is no doubt that we must continue to provide quality education to our young people in order to prepare them for the future. For some, a four-year college experience will be rewarding in the broadest sense. For others, our community college systems and trade schools will provide great opportunities. All are important and deserve our support and respect. At the same time, we must continue to explore how we educate our young people in a way that is economical and effective, without burdening students and their families with crushing debt. How we bend the cost curve on a macro basis will require imagination and a willingness to be innovative in an environment where innovation and change are slow and not always welcome.

With regard to jobs and outcomes, my advice is that we all try to be more humble and restrained as we seek to draw distinctions between worthy and not-so-worthy life choices that people make for themselves. Recent reports in The New York Times and other media have highlighted criticism of Ivy League graduates for career choices that take them to Wall Street or into consulting. Meanwhile, our own Bowdoin Orient last week studied this issue for our Class of 2010 and commented favorably on the career decisions these students have made. We have become a very judgmental society that is too eager to diminish with a broad brush individual choice and one’s commitment to the common good based upon the actions of a few. Let’s take a step back and acknowledge that there is not and never has been a one-size-fits-all approach to education or careers.

As for affirmative action, my own view is that this is a necessary practice that has opened the doors of educational opportunity to many who never dreamed of being able to attend college—folks representing part of “the 99%” in America who are looking to better their lives and the lives of their families. I will be writing more over the coming months on the importance of considering race and economic means in the admissions process.

Bringing all of this back to Bowdoin, it is important to be clear that what we do, we do exceptionally well. There may be opportunities to reduce the rate of cost increases into the future, but it is essential to consider the quality of the education and the experience we provide to our very qualified students. Over the near term, we have provided a significant amount of financial aid that supports and allows nearly all of our students to graduate without a heavy debt burden. We will continue to work hard to provide this support.

One day a few weeks ago, we asked fans of Bowdoin on Facebook to tell us “what makes Bowdoin Bowdoin?” The responses painted a picture of an institution of learning that is unique and prized by our students, alumni, parents, and friends. As I have often written, we could quickly reduce the cost of a Bowdoin education. It would mean larger class sizes, fewer faculty, fewer research opportunities, reduced athletic competition and dramatic changes to our coaching staffs, fewer clubs and fewer extracurricular experiences for our students. Simply, we would not be the Bowdoin that our students enjoy, our alumni love, and the world admires.

We should avoid the trap to conflate a Bowdoin education with education as a commodity. As a group of Bowdoin leaders and supporters today, we are the stewards of a remarkable institution that has long educated students in the liberal arts tradition and with a commitment to the common good. It is our responsibility to provide that opportunity well into the future for young men and women who have earned the right—through their hard work, ability, promise, and character—to join the ranks of the Polar Bears. We have a continuing responsibility to educate “leaders in all walks of life” and to stand strong in support of what we do here, even in the face of a growing conventional wisdom that attacks the college experience and questions the value of our form of education.

Our college will continue to innovate, as it has since the doors of Massachusetts Hall opened more than two centuries ago. And we will continue to consider what it means to be educated in the liberal arts tradition in a rapidly changing technological and computational world. As others deride American higher education, it is our responsibility to stand up and support Bowdoin with confidence as an institution and a form of education that will continue to stand the test of time.