State and Federal Policymakers Look to Support STEM Students at the Expense of the Liberal Arts!

Dear Commons Community,

STEM is increasingly being seen by policymakers as critical to employment needs both for the present and the future.  Many state and federal policymakers are quick to support education and training initiatives in STEM areas.  This is not a major problem except when these same policymakers decide that to pay for these initiatives, funding should be reduced or eliminated in other liberal arts areas.  The New York Times reviews this issue in a featured article this morning.   Here is an excerpt:

“Frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and universities for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.

When it comes to dividing the pot of money devoted to higher education, at least 15 states offer some type of bonus or premium for certain high-demand degrees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will,” Matt Bevin (Rep. Governor of Kentucky), said after announcing his state’s spending plan. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.”

What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory of North Carolina belittled gender studies.

Democrats have, for the most part, avoided denouncing the humanities, but they have argued that education and training should be better aligned with the job market.

The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation. Dozens of states have already moved to performance-based goals that more closely tie a portion of their higher education funding to particular outcomes like degrees earned or courses completed.

But the particular focus on jobs and earnings — originally limited to vocational programs and community colleges — is gaining momentum.

“There’s a deeper question of what public money should be used for,” said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce.”

The issue grows more vehement as funding for public higher education grows tighter.  As the article indicates the issue is not simply to provide incentives for STEM but the fact that some  states are looking to do so at the expense of the liberal arts.  American higher education remains the envy of most other countries in part because of the diversity of its institutions and academic programs.  In addition, career training can leave many graduates with a very narrow focus and little opportunity to appreciate, question, and contribute to the human condition.  Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote to illustrate the point.

Frances Brone, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Oregon, who grew up intensely poor in Montreal, in a recent interview commented:  “There was no way I could go to school and not have an immediate return,” she says. “My parents already thought that my going to school was an opportunity lost.” She went to McGill University and majored in architecture and engineering—technical fields she knew would pay.   Now one of her great regrets in life is not having gotten a broader liberal-arts education. “We talk about people being entrepreneurial, but it’s really about being creative, thoughtful, and critical”.   When she taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, her department surveyed engineering alumni, asking about their education. Graduates who were a year out of college wished they had gotten more technical skills. Those who were five years out wanted more management skills. But alumni who were 10 to 20 years into their careers wanted more cultural literacy, “because they were traveling all over the world, working with cultures they never experienced before,” she says.

Indeed, as lives and livelihoods extend beyond localness, it is the broadly-educated among us who have the tools to understand, adapt, and succeed to new environs, peoples, and cultures.



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