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After the Great Recession, higher education paths diverge

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Students and migrant workers walk on steps of a stairway linking classroom buildings and dormitory buildings April 23 near a construction site at College of Mobile Telecommunications, Chongqing University of Posts and Telecom in Chongqing, China. In its once tightly planned economy, China's universities churned out graduates for specific lines of work, but now there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity.

CHONGQING, China — On the outskirts of this 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 Yuanjing Academy, a new experiment with a very different feel. 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.

"We are adults," said 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,"

The Great Recession began in late 2007 with the near-collapse of the global financial system, depressing economies and employment worldwide. It also drove millions more than ever before to seek higher education. Global enrollment is closing in on 200 million, after passing 100 million barely a decade ago. In the United States it surged by 3 million — 18 percent — during the last few years of economic turmoil.

Yuanjing shows how different countries are drawing different lessons from recent economic history about what to study and what kind of knowledge will drive future economic growth.

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.

Broad-based learning and the liberal arts and sciences are losing favor with students and politicians. 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.

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.

The trend is far from universal; many countries remain urgently focused on narrow skills and job-training.

But advocates in a broad range of places around the world hear employers demanding the "soft skills" — communication, critical thinking, and working with diverse groups — that broad-based learning more effectively instills. These advocates argue their countries need job-creators, not just job-fillers. They think the biggest innovations come from well-rounded graduates — from empathetic engineers, say, or tech-savvy anthropologists.

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 said, "our so-called economic competitors talk about it more and more."

Emphasis on jobs

Though the United States invented broad-based learning, getting a job has always driven Americans to college and affected what they study, says researcher Arthur Levine.

Now head of the New Jersey-based Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which supports leadership development in education, Levine has tracked students' attitudes toward college since the 1960s. He 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.

Still, something has definitely changed.

As recently as the 1970s, fewer than half of U.S. college students felt increasing earnings was the chief benefit of college, his research has found. 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," said 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."

And it has shown up at a place called the University of Farmers.

It's not actually a single place — there are two campuses, one in California, the other in a suburban office park beside the Grand Rapids airport in Michigan. And it's not officially a university, but rather Farmers Insurance's much-praised corporate training operation.

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," Hoffman said, 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."


Michael Hoffman, 21st Century Insurance senior sales representative, works May 21 at the University of Farmers Insurance Group offices in Caledonia, Mich. The University of Farmers is a corporate training operation; its students are insurance agents and adjusters who work for America's Farmers Insurance Group. It has campuses in California and at a suburban office park beside the Grand Rapids airport in Michigan. (Photo: Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)


With tuition up 27 percent above inflation over the last five years, and students' combined debt now exceeding $1 trillion, students are demanding specialized, job-focused offerings. 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.
  • 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 share of four-year degrees in the general arts and sciences has held fairly constant; some fields, like psychology, have even grown. But overall, humanities like literature and philosophy have suffered. Harvard reported this month that one-third fewer students enter planning to major in the humanities than did in 2006.

American politicians are encouraging the trend of practicality in higher education.

The governors of Florida and North Carolina have pushed to shift state funding away from liberal arts subjects to programs that lead more directly to jobs. A half-dozen states now publish employment and earnings outcomes, broken down by school and degree program, for new graduates.

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 on Education and the Workforce. But how majors affect careers over the long-term is harder to pin down.

Employers lament a technical skills gap that left millions of jobs unfilled even at the peak of unemployment in the Great Recession. But in surveys, they also complain 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 undergraduate majors.

Association of American Colleges and Universities President Carol Geary Schneider said even seemingly staid fields like insurance are evolving rapidly, and will require sharp and creative thinking. Students can get broad learning in focused degrees, but too often don't.

"Employers are saying to us, 'We don't want to hire people who have been locked into mental cubicles,' " Schneider said. "The best way to be locked into a mental cubicle is to study only one subject and look at it only from a particular point of view."

Another price, Levine said, is too many students studying subjects they aren't passionate about, and failing to grasp that — while majors matter — a strong liberal arts major complemented with a more practical minor or a foreign language remains desirable in the job market.

"Part of it is overreaction," Levine said of the trend. "Part of it is lack of knowledge about what it takes to get a job. And part of it is these are really scary times."

Frank Novakowski, an associate Davenport dean, says the school's curriculum injects broad-based learning throughout its curriculum. But he also calls Davenport pragmatic, noting Farmers is halfway through hiring 1,600 new workers here.

"People are getting really serious about 'what am I getting an education for, and what am I going to do after?' " he said. "And if the kids aren't asking, their parents are."

Shift to liberal arts

"University of Farmers" actually has a Chinese ring to it. In its once tightly planned economy, China's universities churned out graduates for specific lines of work. 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.

Yuanjing founder Peng Hongbin excelled in that system, studying at a prestigious university and, after a government job, later getting rich in the flooring business. But he doesn't credit his education for his success: Under the rote learning style he never learned to speak up.

"China does not teach you how to communicate," said Peng, who in 2007 bought the telecommunications college when it went private and, five years later, founded Yuanjing on the hill above it.

Now, he's a leader in an effort to bring broader-based, liberal-arts style learning to China's education system.

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.

"For a country to innovate, to be creative, it needs imagination, not a knowledge and know-how from a specific field of study," he said.


First-year students of Yuanjing Academy sing and play guitars April 23 in a music classroom at College of Mobile Telecommunications, Chongqing University of Posts and Telecom in Chongqing, China. In its once tightly planned economy, China's universities churned out graduates for specific lines of work, but now there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity. (Photo: Alexander F. Yuan/The Associated Press)


His advisers include a Dutch academic named Hans Adriaansens, who on a recent sunny afternoon sat in the checkered shadow of a traditional Buddhist "Bodhi" tree of wisdom on the Yuanjing's campus, talking to students about their ambitions, work and daily worries.

Adriaansens' journey is a kind of microcosm of the global movement. Decades ago he studied at American campuses including Harvard and Smith College, falling in love with liberal arts learning. 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 said.

But in recent years, he's helped leading Dutch universities install liberal arts colleges within their campuses. Now, Europe-wide changes he's encouraged have opened space during the first years of higher education for broader learning, delaying specialization. Singapore and Hong Kong have made similar moves.

Elite St. Petersburg State University in Russia recently opened its first liberal arts faculty, and there are similar projects in Poland, Slovakia and even Germany, which invented the rigid disciplinary model. Jonathan Becker, the vice president for international affairs at Bard College in New York who has worked in Europe for decades, says it's no accident that the St. Petersburg effort's been led by a former Russian finance minister.

"They realize," Becker said, that "narrow boundaries of disciplines are not the answer to modern world problems."

Not every country is embracing the trend. In much of the world, facing cripplingly high youth unemployment, broad-based or liberal-style learning is still viewed as an unaffordable luxury. India's development efforts are focused on vocational training for 500 million people by 2022. Turkey is rapidly expanding vocational training, while Rwanda is focused on information technology, agriculture and tourism.

Still, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Malaysia, experiments in broader-based learning are expanding. And China is the movement's promised land. Leaders may not have fully considered the potential political implications of liberal education, but they've endorsed the economic case. They want China to invent the next iPad, not build the last one.

Change is apparent not just at experiments like Yuanjing but 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.

"It's new to them but, to my surprise, it's going much faster than it went in my country," Adriaansens said.

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, 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 said, "which is different from the ability to criticize."

He is committed to the transition.

"When a person leaves the university," he says, "he or she should be a whole person."


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