- Conservative skepticism around funding for liberal arts education is on the rise, as critics of higher education point out institutions for being "elitist" and "politically correct" centers of student protests that fail to provide skills actually needed for the job market, reports The Washington Post.
- With studies showing a majority of Republicans and right-leaning citizens believe colleges and universities have a negative impact on the nation and lawmakers having already cut spending for higher education by 54% since 2008, stakeholders in the industry are now concerned the current congress could lead to further tightening of public funding.
- Growing conservative skepticism on whether institutions are sufficiently addressing student ROI comes at the same times congress is considering potential reauthorization of Higher Education Act, which Republicans have already said ought to put the onus of responsibility on institutions to prove they are making college more affordable and worthwhile.
Much of the conservative criticism around higher education centers around the idea that the college campus, particularly liberal arts institutions, are teaching students to sit around and pontificate in abstract without teaching them skills which will actually transfer to the workplace — captured in the persistent debate about whether academia is to prepare thinkers or skilled workers. In the words of Donald Trump, Jr. in a speech earlier this year, “We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange, we’ll train your children to hate our country. . . . We’ll make them unemployable by teaching them courses in zombie studies, underwater basket weaving and, my personal favorite, tree climbing.”
The quiet undertones of this conservative assault on higher education, and liberal arts, in particular, really boil down to an issue with liberalism in general. Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Higher Ed, said on a panel during Center for Economic Development's Nov. 15 policy conference that the term term “liberal arts” is problematic. Despite sound pedagogy, he said, the term “liberal” is too political, and “arts” suggests you won’t get a job. Or, more plainly, there is a worry that if everyone goes to college and becomes a liberal, there will be no one left to vote Republican.
As Republican skepticism grows, higher education officials seeking to prove the value of their businesses — and the societal necessity of their product — will have to show why their service is worthwhile and necessary to building out the workforce — rather than a current impression that a liberal arts education only breeds political correctness, hate speech and protests.
One way to achieve this is by establishing partnerships between the community, workforce and K-12 and higher ed systems to ensure smooth transitions and to make sure each level is preparing students for the next. It seems like common sense, but in too many places, students are graduating from high school without being prepared for college and graduating from college in debt and with no employable skills, as Trump Jr. pointed out.
However, as esteemed higher ed leader and current West Virginia University president Gordon Gee recently said at the same conference, “Most universities are like elephants: They’re big, they’re slow, they’re bureaucratic, and they don’t want to change.”
But with the Higher Education Act reauthorization back on the table, it is critical higher education advocates work with policymakers to define the trajectory of the legislation before it's potentially passed, as Republicans have already made it clear that the legislation would be aimed at making institutions use their own resources to make college more affordable.