Post-Recession, Higher Ed Paths Diverge


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.”

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