Education is the cornerstone of society. This is because knowledge is the only thing that lets one be an informed and productive member of society. Of course, education is not limited to just traditional schooling (i.e. a classroom), but includes knowledge gleaned from friends, family, mentors, personal experiences, and on and on.
That said, in our society, traditional schooling is a major part of how we educate the coming generations.
Today, we spend our most formative years in school, learning about the world and how to function in it. In the modern world, which is continually becoming more globalized, it is more important than ever to be able to think critically and analytically about all aspects of our world—from politics, to economics, to the arts, to (of course) science and technology.
A well-rounded liberal arts education can provide this to its students. According to Willard Dix, a college admissions expert and contributor to Forbes, “a liberal arts education provides a multi-faceted view of the world. It enables students to see beyond one perspective, encouraging them to understand others’ even if they don’t agree. It instructs us to base our opinions on reason, not emotion.”
And at a time of increasing polarization, dialogue and understanding are invaluable qualities.
Even disciplines that are thought to be exclusively “fact-based,” such as the STEM fields, can greatly benefit from a liberal arts focus, as critical thinking skills are what allow individuals to analyze and make meaning from new information and move fluidly through society and careers. Case in point, the current president of Miami University, Gregory Crawford, went to school to study physics and now, as an education administrator, he advocates for an educational system that is multifaceted:
There are extraordinary skill sets to learn from the liberal arts, like communication, analytical skills, writing, global awareness. Can you tell a story in a world of data and analytics? When students are exposed to the liberal arts they become more self-aware, more self-disciplined and develop other virtues like empathy and courage.
A liberal arts focus not only can prepare students for the job market, but also life after college in general.
Speaking of the job market, education, in general, is about to become even more of a requirement, thanks to the steady rise of automation. Experts predict that developed countries may lose a staggering 30 percent of jobs in the next 15 years. Much of this job loss, if not all of it, will impact blue collar workers—a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research says that each robot that makes its way into the workforce replaces six humans.
Thus, as the years progress, industries that used to be home to extremely well paying blue collar positions will increasingly become a thing of the past.
However, individuals that have an understanding of a broad spectrum of fields will largely be able to protect themselves from the impact of automation, as they will be able to seamlessly (or more seamlessly) move between industries. This adaptability is precisely what a liberal arts education, at its best, provides. But there is a problem for those pursuing such an education in the United States: Money.
One of the most significant obstacles to an education for young adults today is debt, and a significant portion of that comes from education. Student debt in the United States has hit an unbelievable $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A trillion of those dollars belong to federal student loans. While other nations face affordability issues of their own, the situation in the United States is extreme.
The United States is the fourth most expensive country in which to get a college education, with the average cost being greater than $29,300 each year, according to a list compiled by FairFX. Increases in cost are not showing any signs of slowing, and with figures like that, higher education is no longer just out of reach to the poorest Americans. Now, many mid-level American families also can’t make the cut.
What can be done to ensure everyone will be equipped to thrive in the workforce of the very near future?
In Germany, they answered that question by eliminating tuition costs altogether. The country abolished tuition all the way back in 1971. They were briefly brought back from 2006 – 2014, but they were removed again due to widespread problems, even though the costs only averaged €500 ($630 USD).
In fact, more than 40 countries around the world offer free higher education. Obviously, when people use the word “free” what they really mean is that nations use tax dollars to pay for education in the same way that they use tax dollars to pay for subsidies for corn and fossil fuels and to pay for war efforts (do keep in mind, the United States has a defense budget larger than many developed nations combined).
But now, thanks to a recent development, it looks like the United States is going to start reallocating funds to test the free tuition waters.
Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo made New York the first state in the country to offer a tuition-free four-year education for residents. Dubbed the Excelsior Scholarship program, it will provide four years of college tuition for families who make less than $100,000 per year. The program will begin this fall, with the income cap raising by $10,000 in 2018 and an additional $15,000 the following year.
The governor said, “Today, college is what high school was—it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.”
NBC News tells us that this plan will benefit a remarkable 80 percent of the state’s families with college-age kids. The plan also requires that students complete at least 30 credits per year and stay within their program’s minimum GPA requirements. There are also requirements regarding living and working in the state for a certain period after graduation, which will ensure that students give back to the state that is paying for their education. Governor Cuomo explained the importance of this move in his statement:
The Excelsior Scholarship will make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students and shows the difference that government can make. There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, ‘I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because my parents can’t afford it.’ With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides.
While many families may be overjoyed with the opportunities this will provide their children, other entities were not so keen when the idea was proposed. Some private colleges, including the Governor’s own alma-mater, even went so far as to ask their students to oppose this historic move.
For example, the president of Keuka College, a small liberal arts school in central New York, Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera, sent an email to his students urging them to oppose the program.
While it is understandable that private colleges may fear the future, efforts such as the ones outlined here come off as tone-deaf, at best, or selfish, at worst. Keuka is a school that is well out of the price range of most individuals, costing a staggering 40K a year. And while there are some programs that assist low-income students, the cost is beyond the affordability of most.
Ultimately, such call to action does not seem to fully weigh the (very justifiable) panic of students, which has become endemic in today’s higher education climate. And of course, the letter makes no mention of the “940,000 middle-class families” who will be able to send their children to school as a result of this legislation, many of which may not have had the luxury before its passing.
Since the passing earlier this month, Keuka has released another statement.
It’s too early for any of us in New York’s private colleges and universities to know what this will mean for recruitment and retention at our institutions. But what we do know is that competition is the bedrock of our economic system. To stay competitive, Keuka College must continue to adapt and change.
They may not be celebrating the news, but they have gotten to the heart of the matter: Just as the workforce is going to have to adapt and change with the proliferation of automation, our educational institutions are going to have to change to accommodate that workforce and lead them to be fully capable of thriving in the economy and society of tomorrow.
To remain a global leader, we will need to rethink how we educate and seriously consider the barriers that exist that limit who can benefit. Those conversations need to start now.