comments_image Comments

The Users of the University

Pundits may claim it's time for higher education to become more "practical," but their own educational histories tell a very different story.

Photo Credit: J. Henning Buchholz |


Here’s a trick you can try at home. Next time you hear a pundit say that to preserve America’s competitiveness or dynamism, we must replace the liberal arts with something more “practical,” take a second to check what they studied. Thomas Friedman, who asserts that students should study engineering and science because “average is over”? Mediterranean Studies, Brandeis. Charles Murray, who advocates shifting huge numbers of students into vocational training? History, Harvard. Dori Jones Yang, an accomplished writer and journalist who nonetheless told parents to funnel their children into “practical” disciplines? European history, Princeton.

This fun exercise in ad hominem reveals something important. When you studied whatever you wanted to at a prestigious private university, it’s much easier to tell students to tighten their belts and think of “U.S. global leadership.” The latest example of this convenient self-exemption comes from Florida Chamber of Commerce spokesman Dale Brill, a self-described “liberal arts guy” who studied at Lenoir-Rhyne College, a private college in North Carolina. Sheepskin safely in hand, Brill now spearheads Florida’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform. Its latest recommendation for the state’s public university system: students in “strategic areas” (engineering, science, and pre-professional tracks) should have their tuition frozen while everyone else offsets the cost with higher tuition.

This effort to hew education to fit market imperatives should come as no surprise. The task force was appointed by Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party hero whose last job involved running a chain of for-profit hospitals that was found guilty of Medicare fraud. The message of Scott’s 2010 campaign, before which he had never run for or held public office, was that business prowess could more than substitute for political experience. (The $75 million he spent out of his personal fortune helped get the point across.) But even if the task force’s logic is familiar, it is depressing to see it carried to such an extreme. For decades, parents, politicians, and business titans have tried to convince us that the best majors and the most lucrative majors are one and the same. Scott’s innovation is to back their platitudes with the power of the state.

Loathsome though he is, though, the episode is about something bigger than Scott. His recent actions, after all, were anticipated by an unsuccessful 2008 proposal to weight public university scholarships in favor of STEM disciplines. The problems manifest in Scott’s task force are in fact endemic to Florida, a state whose history is regularly punctuated by bubbles and busts. Granted, the state has historically managed to keep tuition lower and graduation rates higher than the national average. But over the last five years, enrollment has boomed by almost 28 percent while funding has declined, effectively lowering spending per student by 26 percent.  Addressing this problem is especially difficult because Florida has no state income tax. Nearly all of its revenue comes from property and sales taxes, the effectiveness of which varies wildly with the business cycle. So Florida—with its 8.7 percent unemployment and foreclosure rates more than twice the national average—takes in revenues far below the standard set during boom years, and has no obvious way to fix this.

The problems with education funding go even deeper. The Bright Futures scholarship program, in place since 1997, is an ambitious attempt to provide a full ride scholarship to a public university for each Florida resident who meets certain academic criteria—on the surface, an admirable project. But Florida’s lack of stable revenue sources means that Bright Futures is funded through the state lottery. The apparently progressive goal of universal higher education for qualified students turns out to rest on the hope that Floridians’ high-school math teachers never taught them how small their odds of winning the lotto are.

See more stories tagged with: