When the Supreme Court decided Biden v. Nebraska, which declared President Biden’s loan forgiveness program unconstitutional, I am sure it was to the frustration of many around the nation and especially here at Cornell that loans are expected to be repaid. While borrowers groan at their financial constraints, there are few who ask why they have these loans at all. Yes, an obvious answer may be that they cannot afford to pay $88,150 a year, the cost of a Cornell degree. But that only answers the surface level question; it does not address why one needs a Cornell degree, or any degree for that matter. The deeper question being proposed is what the purpose of a university is.
As with most debates, there are two major schools of thought, the first being that the university exists to inoculate students with a liberal arts education and the second being that the university exists to teach students vocational skills.
But that is not at issue, it is a false dichotomy. The first universities were seminaries, both centers of liberal arts and vocational schools. The purpose of the university was to inoculate their students with skills in thinking and reason — through teaching liberal arts — which could then be applied to a vocational field. The true problem with the university system today is not that it focuses too much on liberal arts or vocational skills at the expense of the other, but rather the fact that there are too many people attending college.
From 1960 to 2020, the number of Americans graduating from college increased by 30.2 percentage points, an astronomical increase seeing that only 7.7 percent of Americans graduated from college in 1960. An increase that large cannot help but cause massive changes in how a university fulfills its original purpose; the expansion in university attendance has been for the worse.
To accommodate the massive influx of students, the university has become more akin to American high schools than the universities of old. Instead of focusing on the quality of education for each student, universities themselves focus more on churning out high-earning students with the most accolades. Meanwhile, students choose the path of least resistance — and the least learning — by taking fluff classes so they can move on to the next credential. The areas most affected by the mass of people entering college are the liberal arts. For several years, there has been headline after headline of colleges curtailing studies in liberal arts, such as the case of West Virginia University this past August.
The liberal arts are intended for small classes so that instructors can ensure that each student is not just learning random facts, but learning how to think. Vocational skills are only prized if they are rare; the college wage premium — the amount of money someone with a college degree makes more than those with less education — has stagnated and is now decreasing as the number of people entering colleges increases.
The solution for the current shortfalls in the university system is a societal shift away from mass college attendance. Some may take offense to this solution — including several Cornelians I know — and argue that everyone should go to college in order to learn the methods of thinking exhibited in the liberal arts, going so far as to state that a liberal arts education is needed to live a fulfilled life. This is simply not true, as more humans have lived satisfied lives before philosophers such as Aristotle were ever born than will probably ever hear of Aristotle.
The liberal arts education provides different methods of thinking which are more abstract and theoretical in nature, which is why the liberal arts are so important. But the ideas produced from a more liberal arts minded way of thinking should be tempered with practicality and experience from those who have been in the field. University students have historically been known for their radicalism and progressivism which, like all things, are good in moderation. That is, these values are best exercised when most of society is not steeped in them too, allowing for vibrant discourse of ideas.
Another reason to end the system of mass college attendance is to allow those without the resources to plunge themselves into debt for four years to be able to get high paying professional jobs through avenues such as apprenticeships and workplace learning. Most jobs have to train their employees anyway because, while the university may teach thinking and how to apply different reasoning skills, they do not provide many of the specific skills needed for jobs.
As a society, we should discourage everyone from feeling that they must attend college by not demanding college degrees for jobs that do not absolutely require them and allowing those without massive resources to avoid crippling debt and still obtain the best jobs possible through apprenticeships and the like. The University should be for “Any person, any study,” but that does not mean every person should go.
Armand Chancellor is a third year student in the Brooks School of Public Policy. His fortnightly column The Rostrum focuses on the interaction of politics and culture at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected].
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