April 2012
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College at Risk

Andrew Delbanco, The Chronicle Review, February 26, 2012

In an era where political gridlock is the norm, there’s one thing that both sides of the aisle agree on: American higher education needs to focus on creating a productive workforce. But this limited view ignores what is most distinctive about American higher education and jeopardizes the future of that educational system, says Andrew Delbanco, professor of humanities at Columbia University and recipient of a 2011 National Humanities Medal. Whereas most educational systems around the world require students to choose a specialization before they even arrive at the university, American colleges and universities have been known for slowing down the process, giving students time to change their minds and learn broadly—a “transformative ideal” of college as an education of the whole person.

The US worked throughout the twentieth century to expand access to this type of liberal education, building on “the premise that human capital is distributed widely among social classes and does not correlate with conditions of birth or social status,” Delbanco says. But this historical precedent of liberal education as an investment in all of society is at odds with the contemporary view that such learning is an expensive luxury for the wealthy. And it’s not merely budget-conscious administrators and lawmakers who are sounding this call, but often the students themselves, who increasingly flock to pre-professional majors that will equip them with “marketable skills.”

Concerns about cost and payoff are not without merit—but the solutions to these concerns must not diminish the quality of education that is offered. In fact, AAC&U’s surveys of business leaders show that most employers want colleges to put more emphasis on liberal education outcomes, not less. The world may look different now from when the “transformative ideal” of US higher education developed, and that ideal itself may look different, but it is no less important for that. “To succeed in sustaining college as a place where liberal learning still takes place will be very costly,” Delbanco says. “But in the long run, it will be much more costly if we fail.”

Read the full essay at The Chronicle Review.


The articles featured in AAC&U News Perspectives do not necessarily represent the views of AAC&U staff, its board of directors, or its membership.