New Focus At U.S. Colleges

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.

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 says, “our so-called economic competitors talk about it more and more.”

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 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,” 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.”

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.