Just prior to last week’s Democratic National Convention, columnist Christine Emba of The Washington Post introduced a series of articles in the Post‘s In Theory section by posing the question: Do we need to remodel our university system?
It’s a question well worth asking, and of course Emba is not the first to raise it.
Her article serves as an introduction to other op-ed style thought pieces on the question. Emba homes in on the post-World War II model, in particular, the rise of U.S. research universities and the impact of the GI Bill, which offered free tuition to soldiers returning home from the war and “launched a wave of enrollment in ‘traditional’ four-year institutions that has yet to abate.”
“A vast array of films and books celebrating the ‘college experience’ and numerous presidential administrations that have exhorted students to commit to higher education have pushed many to see a four-year university education as the best option after high school,” Emba writes. “It’s a model that delivers both prestige and income potential not found in community colleges or other trade schools.”
But is it the right model?
Emba’s big questions are captured in this paragraph:
Are the expensive, research-focused academic institutions in the United States the best outlets to offer the job training needed in our rapidly shifting economy? Should “job training” even be the main goal of higher education? And what about alternative systems that are less costly and easier to access — whether community college, vocational training or apprenticeships? Should we be taking lessons from other countries as we attempt to reform our higher-education system?
The entire idea of “job training” itself is enough to cause division among many higher education leaders and public policy makers.
What’s missing from Emba’s article, however, and from any of the In Theory articles in response to Emba’s introduction, is any sort of in-depth discussion about the research enterprise of the “research-focused academic institutions.” What value do they bring to our nation’s and the world’s economies.
If research universities are vital to our future economic development and discovery and dissemination of knowledge, then their research mission deserves discussion as well.