CHONGQING, China – Determined to learn their way out of the Great Recession – or eager to rise above the deprivation of developing lands – unprecedented millions of people have enrolled in colleges and universities around the world in the past five years.
What they’re finding is an educational landscape turning upside down.
In the United States – where top schools have long championed a liberal style of learning and broad education before specialization – higher education’s focus is shifting to getting students that first job in a still-shaky economy. Tuition is so high and the lingering economic distress so great that an education not directly tied to an occupation is increasingly seen as a luxury.
Elsewhere in the world, there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity.
Advocates hear employers demanding the “soft skills” – communication, critical thinking, and working with diverse groups – that broad-based learning more effectively instills. They want to graduate job-creators, not just job-fillers. They think the biggest innovations come from graduates who are well-rounded – from empathetic engineers, say, or tech-savvy anthropologists.
In Europe, where for centuries students have jumped straight into specialized fields and studied little else, recent changes have pushed back specialization, making more room for general education. In Africa and the Middle East, experiments are moving away from a relentlessly narrow education tradition. And on a much bigger scale, China is breaking down the rigid disciplinary walls that have long characterized its higher education system.
All of this is happening in the shadow of the Great Recession, which began in late 2007 with the near-collapse of the global financial system, depressing economies and employment worldwide. Today, some countries are recovering, but all are coming to grips with a world altered by hard times.
Higher education is widely seen – both by nations and individuals – as the way to prosperity.
Over roughly the last half-decade, according to UNESCO, enrollment in colleges and universities rose one-third in China and almost two-thirds in Saudi Arabia, nearly doubled in Pakistan, tripled in Uganda, and surged by 3 million – 18 percent – in the United States. In 2001, global enrollment first passed 100 million; a decade later, the estimated figure was 182 million.
But what kind of education will best drive economic growth?
When foreign delegations visit American campuses these days, they increasingly skip the usual research universities to scope out liberal arts colleges such as Amherst and Williams, says Patti McGill Peterson of the American Council on Education.
They’re seeking the “magic” that helped launch companies like Apple and Google. China, in particular, is recruiting disheartened American academics and putting them to work.
There’s “a weird symmetry” at work in the educational world, says Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, author of “College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be.”
As people in the United States “talk less and less about the value of liberal education,” he says, “our so-called economic competitors talk about it more and more.”
Broadening the base of learning
On the outskirts of Chongqing, a sprawling megalopolis of 29 million in southwest China, stand a pair of college campuses – one representing education’s past in the world’s most populous country, and the other, perhaps, its future.
In its mission and dreary name, the College of Mobile Telecommunications is typical of China’s hundreds of Soviet-era universities: rote learning, hyper-specialization and a lock-step course of study for all.
On a hill above it, surrounding a secluded courtyard, stands a new experiment, something very different – Yuanjing Academy. Here, college students take a broad array of subjects their first year, in small classes, learning to do things like argue about literature and play the guitar.
On a recent sunny afternoon, in the checkered shadow of a traditional Buddhist “Bodhi” tree of wisdom on campus, a visiting Dutch academic named Hans Adriaansens sat conversing with Yuanjing students about their ambitions, work and daily worries.
Adriaansens is an adviser to the school, and his journey here is a kind of microcosm of the global movement.
Early in his career, he studied at American campuses including Harvard and Smith College, falling in love with liberal arts learning. Later, he struggled for decades to bring the model to Europe, where students historically have been channeled into specialties as early as age 12.
“When I started, everybody was against it, even at my own university,” he says.
That’s changed. In recent years, he’s helped leading Dutch universities install liberal arts colleges within their campuses. Across Europe, schools have opened space during the first years for broader learning, delaying specialization.
“The Europeans won’t say this, but it’s kind of Americanizing their system,” says Philip Altbach, a Boston College expert on international higher education.
Singapore and Hong Kong have made similar changes.
The prophet of this movement, quoted often by Adriaansens and others, is Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple. Jobs called the marriage of liberal arts, humanities and technology the secret to Apple products “that make our hearts sing.” Far from burying interest in broader learning, advocates say, Europe’s economic malaise has increased interest in nurturing innovative thinkers.
While the old Soviet system was a byword for rigid specialization, elite St. Petersburg State University in Russia recently opened its first liberal arts faculty. Jonathan Becker, an administrator at Bard College in New York who has worked in Europe for decades, says it’s no accident that effort has been led by a former Russian finance minister.
“They realize,” Becker says, that “narrow boundaries of disciplines are not the answer to modern world problems.”
There are similar projects in Poland, Slovakia and even Germany, which invented the rigid disciplinary model. The reasoning is both economic and political, especially in Eastern Europe.
“There’s memory of the problems of following a rigorous ideology, and a belief that following a rigorous interdisciplinary program is a way of overcoming that legacy,” Becker says.
Now, Adriaansens has moved to the movement’s biggest stage yet: China.
“It’s new to them but, to my surprise, it’s going much faster than it went in my country,” he says.
In its once tightly planned economy, China’s universities churned out graduates for specific lines of work. Students declared their academic intentions as early as 10th grade. Universities often were overseen by a national ministry or trade agency. Their names say it all: Chongqing Nanfang Translators College, Nanjing Audit University, North China Electric Power University.
Peng Hongbin excelled in that system, studying at a prestigious university and later getting rich in the flooring business. But he doesn’t credit his education: Under the rote learning style he never learned to speak up, and he overcame his shyness only later, in the business world.
“China does not teach you how to communicate,” says Peng, who in 2007 bought the telecommunications college when it went private and, five years later, founded Yuanjing on the hill above it.
“For a country to innovate, to be creative, it needs imagination, not a knowledge and know-how from a specific field of study,” he says.
His academy picks 150 students from the freshman class of 5,000 at the telecommunications college, which also is undergoing changes, adding clubs, sports, community service and art appreciation.
Peng is not alone in his quest; China’s leaders have taken steps in the same direction. They want China to invent the next iPad, not build the last one.
The government moved toward a broader curriculum in 1995, offering electives. Recently, the movement has accelerated and spread across China’s big public universities. Hangzhou’s Zhejiang University in eastern China, for example, has reduced the number of majors from more than 200 to seven general directions.
There is no suggestion that the Chinese system yet resembles the traditional American one, or will soon.
“The 12 years of education has not given our students the habit of thinking,” says Bai Fengshan, who is leading a new liberal arts curriculum at prestigious Tsinghua University, a public school traditionally known for technology and engineering. “They simply take whatever is given. They can tell when what’s given is bad, but they don’t know why.”
Students “lack the ability to be critical,” he says, “which is different from the ability to criticize.”
Despite the obstacles, Bai is committed to the transition.
“When a person leaves the university, he or she should be a whole person,” he says.
Yuanjing students make much the same point.
“We are adults,” says Zhang Panyu, an 18-year-old student whose reading of “Jane Eyre” helped him navigate his own first romance. “We need to know something about everything,”
‘All I have time for’
The University of Farmers is not like Yale or Yuanjing. In fact, it’s not officially a university at all.
U of F is a corporate training operation of America’s Farmers Insurance Group, and its students are agents and adjusters. It has campuses in California and at a suburban office park beside the Grand Rapids airport in Michigan.
The University of Farmers is not a place where the works of the great philosophers are discussed; it is a place where people learn things that will help them do their jobs and jobs they hope to have some day. And in that, it reflects a major shift the Great Recession accelerated in American higher education.
Michael Hoffman, 29, started working at Farmers two years ago but hit a ceiling without a degree. He’s one of thousands of employees Farmers is helping pursue their diplomas. In Michigan, many shuttle between the Farmers training program and nearby Davenport University, which awards the degrees.
Farmers will support degrees in a range of fields and emphasizes that specialized business degrees aren’t required to work there. But virtually all choose business. Some, including Hoffman, are in a new management program that focuses them even more narrowly: They are essentially majoring in insurance.
“I want what’s going to be specifically oriented to my career and my career goals,” says Hoffman, explaining a curriculum focused on things like underwriting regulation, ethics and licensing. And with an infant at home, “Really, that’s all I have time for.”
Davenport’s curriculum injects broad-based skill building in every course, says a dean at the school, Frank Novakowski. But he also calls Davenport pragmatic, noting Farmers is halfway through hiring 1,600 new workers here.
“We don’t have degrees that are just there for the fun of it or because Professor Wonderful started it 30 years ago,” he says. “People are getting really serious about ‘what am I getting an education for, and what am I going to do after?’ And if the kids aren’t asking, their parents are.”
Getting a job has always driven Americans to college and affected what they study, says Arthur Levine, a researcher who now leads the New Jersey-based Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which supports leadership development in education and teaching. Levine has tracked students’ attitudes toward college since the 1960s and takes an even longer view than that. Even the medieval theologians reading Latin at the first universities wanted secure work in the church, he notes.
Recently, though, he has identified a substantial shift. In the 1970s, fewer than half of U.S. college students felt increasing earnings was the chief benefit of college. Now, about two-thirds do.
A national survey of U.S. college freshmen shows a jump in such attitudes starting in 2007, when the economy turned. About three-quarters of freshmen want colleges to provide more specialized career training.
“There’s just been a lot more emphasis in the kitchen-table conversations about choosing a college and choosing a major that is a clear path to a good-paying job,” says Richard Ekman, president of America’s Council of Independent Colleges. “That has shown up in the pattern of majors and in the choice of institutions.”
Tuition list prices at American four-year colleges rose 27 percent above inflation over the past five years. Students’ combined debt now exceeds $1 trillion by some estimates. They want specialized, job-focused offerings. And colleges have obliged:
•Over the last decade, the number of academic subjects tracked by the U.S. government has expanded about one-fifth, with 354 new and increasingly specialized subjects identified since 2000. Drexel University in Philadelphia has added 20 majors in the last decade, including game and art production, culinary science and property management.
•The fastest-growing majors in the United States are mostly tied narrowly to professions, areas like homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting (up 76 percent over the last decade); health professions (up 60 percent) and parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies (up 90 percent). The largest undergraduate major by far is business, accounting for nearly one-quarter of U.S. degrees. The field is fracturing further into subfields like hospitality management and insurance.
The share of four-year degrees in the general arts and sciences has held fairly constant – some fields, like psychology, have even grown. But overall, literature, philosophy and other humanities have suffered. Harvard reported this month that one-third fewer students enter planning to major in the humanities than in 2006.
And most higher education growth is happening outside traditional four-year colleges. From 2006 to 2010, enrollment at for-profit colleges – which typically focus on vocational education – grew five times faster than college enrollment overall.
Higher education’s fastest-growing segment is even more narrowly focused: certificates. These bite-size educational credentials in narrow occupational fields – offered by community colleges, industry groups and companies – are available for everything from diesel mechanics to specific IT skills. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C., certificates have more than tripled in roughly 15 years in the U.S., with more than 1 million awarded in 2010.
American politicians are encouraging the trend of practicality in higher education. The governors of Florida and North Carolina, for example, have pushed to shift state funding away from liberal arts subjects to programs that lead more directly to jobs.
On average, people with career-focused degrees do have higher earnings and lower unemployment – at least out of the gate, according to research by the Georgetown center. Certificates also boost earnings.
It’s been harder to pin down how majors affect careers over the long-term.
Employers who complained that millions of jobs were unfilled during the Great Recession because too few graduates had the necessary technical skills also lament that students aren’t well-rounded enough – lacking an ability to communicate and continue to learn. A recent employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found 93 percent reported that capacities to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems were more important than an undergraduate major.
University of Michigan education professor Janet Lawrence says employers can’t resist hiring graduates with focused training whom they can put straight to work. Then their new hires don’t always work well in teams or grow into a job.
“They’re getting technically skilled accountants,” she says, “but they don’t know what they don’t know.”
Strategy varies in developing countries
Four thousand miles east of Michigan, high in a verdant stretch of Morocco’s remote Middle Atlas mountains, Driss Ouaouicha is trying to persuade his skeptical country that broader learning isn’t a luxury. It’s an economic necessity.
Ouaouicha is president of the private Al-Akhawayn (Two Brothers) University, started two decades ago with support from the kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Morocco’s public universities follow the traditional French model of early and strict separation of subjects. Al-Akhawayn follows the model Ouaouicha first encountered as a student at tiny St. John’s College in New Mexico, which offers a “great books” curriculum based on the foundations of Western literature.
Outside the hard sciences and some elite specialty programs, higher education in Morocco clearly isn’t working. Here, and across the Middle East, unemployment is higher for those with college degrees than for those without. Graduates blame the government for sending too many into narrow programs not suited for the job market and not offering enough spots in science.
While Al-Akhawayn is a success (virtually all the university’s recent graduates are working or in graduate school), it is not necessarily a template for Moroccan education. Its roughly $11,000 annual cost puts the school out of reach for almost everyone in a developing country where public universities are free.
“We don’t have the financial means” to replicate Al-Akhawayn, says Lahcen Daoudi, Morocco’s minister of higher education, who sits on Al-Akhawayn’s board.
Still, Ouaouicha is trying to persuade cash-strapped educators around the Middle East that they can emulate some of what works here and turn a culture of government dependency into an entrepreneurial one.
His graduates “learn the experience of teamwork and learning,” Ouaouicha says. “They learn there are different ways … to do things.”
He sees some progress. The Moroccan system has implemented a small “common core” of general education classes, he says. And he is encouraged by similar college experiments in places like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
In many of the world’s worst-off countries, a tug-of-war goes on over what kind of educational system they should build. Educators who say a broad education might be the best path in the long run must contend with others who say technical skills are needed to bring their economies closer to First-World levels, especially in view of decades of underinvestment in practical training.
India’s National Skills Development Mission, a public-private partnership that is one of the country’s principal development efforts, wants to use for-profit vocational institutions to give 500 million people tangible job skills by 2022.
Yet while employers in India say they’re desperate for skilled workers, they’re not looking for one-task robots.
“We’re not asking you to train plumbers,” Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease, a giant temporary staffing company, told education leaders at a conference in Delhi last November. “We’re asking you for curious, confident risk-takers.”
Rwanda is focused on agriculture, tourism and information technology. With its history of genocide, it needs leaders who’ve wrestled with subjects like history, politics and justice. But its 12 million people, crammed into a mountainous country roughly the size of Maryland, also desperately need jobs.
“There’s a price to be paid if you let education become too focused and pragmatic,” says Bruce Krogh, an electrical engineer at Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University who currently is working in Rwanda. But, he adds, “It’s a different game when you’re trying to bootstrap an economy.”
Says Francisco Marmolejo, a Mexican educator and now the World Bank’s point person for higher education: “This is the dilemma all higher education institutions face around the world. Many times, the discourse is about getting a job, rather than creating a job.”
In fact, he and others say, countries will need both broad thinking across subjects and specialized expertise. And so will individuals.
“There is an argument for getting specific training in the active field you want,” says Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit organization that looks at the implications of changes in the international economy for American education. “But if your thinking stops there, you are going to be outcompeted in another five or six or 10 years by somebody who did that and also got a liberal education.”
Adriaansens believes the broad-based approach will eventually win the global argument.
“Who can tell what kind of job will exist four years from now for these students?” he asks.
A narrow degree may misfire, he says, but a broader degree gives graduates the tools to reinvent themselves.
“You can build a high mountain on a very broad base,” he says.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter