Increasing the Value of a Liberal Education

There is a difference between learning skills and being educated, a former Princeton University president explains.  

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The value of a liberal education, as traditionally understood, has never been as great as it is today. As we think about the rapidly changing world our students face, in which fewer and fewer people spend anything approaching a lifetime following one career trajectory, learning how to do mundane, repetitive tasks is not the way to go. What counts is being able to take a new problem, parse it out, and make headway in solving it -- all in the company of others.

Budgetary choices are always hard, especially when constraints are tight. But in choosing how to spend limited resources, it is important not to demean classic offerings that have stood the test of time. Here is an obverse proposition: Colleges should resist spending money on what many will regard as frills -- overly elaborate student centers and expensive playing fields, to cite just those two examples. Some thoughts as to where scarce dollars should (and should not) go:

  • A high priority should be placed on spending both money and time recruiting exceptional faculty leaders in key disciplines -- even if this means bruising the sensibilities of some current faculty by recruiting from outside at senior levels. Recruiting opportunities are more promising today than they have been in many years, given the fiscal and other problems facing the country and the public sector of higher education.

  • Many colleges are wisely investing in approaches designed to give their students a good sense of other cultures. This, too, makes excellent sense in the "globalized" world unfolding before us, especially if these programs emphasize real educational values and not just the pleasures of brief sojourns abroad.

  • Colleges should spend money helping students understand basic science and its ramifications -- but they should seek collaborations, with universities as well as other colleges, in order to avoid budget-breaking outlays on laboratories and equipment. Experimenting with "virtual" laboratories is wise.

  • In the digital world of today and tomorrow, students need to learn how to use technology, and how to learn online. But neither liberal arts colleges nor even most universities should invest in expensive interactive online platforms of their own. What's needed are centralized help, the expertise of research universities, and large up-front investments by foundations and/or government entities.

  • The money a college spends on financial aid is an investment and should be treated that way -- not merely as a discount used to win bidding wars. The case for enrolling a diverse student body is, if anything, more powerful than ever before, as we prepare students for a multi-faceted world in which most people don't look like them. At the same time, tempting as it may be to join the merit-aid wars, I think this tendency should be resisted, even if that means losing some excellent students. Finally, I remain steadfastly opposed to athletic scholarships, which I think are an embarrassment and an abomination, especially at a time when there are so many needy students.

  • I am skeptical of the decision by the wealthier institutions, such as Harvard and Princeton, to replacing all loans with grants for families above a modest-income threshold. Perhaps such grants should be offered to students who pursue vocations that pay little. But many other students in the higher-middle-income range will earn substantial returns on their educational investments, and there is no reason they should not repay some of the funds that were, in effect, "advanced" to them. A reasonable amount of educational debt is not a bad thing, and sustained efforts should be made to spread the costs of higher education across a wide population of direct beneficiaries.

  • Finally, in the face of much furor over allegedly high tuition charges and "affordability," I would not overreact. I believe that strong colleges and universities that emphasize the right kinds of learning and the right values will continue to attract sufficient numbers of outstanding students, regardless of modest variations in tuition. Many of these students will come from families that can pay, and that should pay -- even if that means, horror of horrors, sacrificing an occasional winter vacation in order to make a lifetime investment on behalf of their children.

Implicit in what I have just said are my views on what students attending good liberal arts colleges should learn. Woodie Flowers, a highly regarded teacher at MIT (not a liberal arts college, to be sure, but a very good teaching institution), has encouraged us to distinguish "education" from "training." Flowers suggests:

Learning a CAD program is training while learning to design requires education; learning spelling and grammar is training while learning to communicate requires education. In many cases, learning the parts is training while understanding and being creative about the whole requires education."

In considering what should be learned, I hope I may be allowed to offer an example from my own educational history (albeit at the graduate level). I took a beginning course in economic theory from William Baumol, a distinguished economist and one of my closest friends to this day. We used a text (Value and Capital) that is one of the most densely packed and worst-written books I have ever encountered. (I always suspected that Professor Baumol chose it in part for that reason.) We covered, if my memory serves me, about 35 pages in an entire semester. When we were studying a particularly inscrutable passage, Professor Baumol would say to the class, "Your assignment for next week is to take this passage and write me a three-page paper explaining, in clear English, what it means." I would go back to my room and struggle, and struggle, and struggle -- until I realized (if I were fortunate, and often in the middle of the night) "I've got it!" I remember vividly leaping out of bed and writing down the key insight, before I lost it. The course also included excruciating sessions at the blackboard in which students attempted to explain concepts to their classmates, under the relentless prodding of Professor Baumol, who insisted that we speak, as well as write, in clear sentences. (He would ask: "What is a demand curve? Please answer in a simple sentence that begins 'A demand curve is.....'"). Not everyone survived this regimen; sorting occurred.

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William G. Bowen is a president emeritus of Princeton University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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