Last week, the Washington Post published a debate on access to higher education between the columnist Robert Samuelson and William E. Kirwan, the chancellor of the University of Maryland system.
Samuelson argued that universal higher education is a mirage and that resources should be diverted from traditional institutions to vocational training. Kirwan responded that “college for all” is a red herring. But “all kids who want to go to college and are capable of handling college-level work [should] have the opportunity to do so”–a group that, in Maryland, is thought to include more than half of the population.
Kirwan’s right that Samuelson exaggerates. No one believes that literally everyone should go to college. But Kirwan’s guilty of his own distortions. The most interesting–because it’s the most common–is the conflation of post-secondary education programs ranging from paraprofessional associate’s degrees at community college to bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts at research universities under the single rubric of “college”.
This conflation makes it easy to demand more funding for “college,” which is a big part of Kirwan’s job. But it makes it harder to think about which kinds of programs and degrees make sense for students, legislatures, and philanthropists to spend money on.
Kirwan claims, for example, that “60 percent of jobs in the state will require at least a two- or four-year degree.” Yet that “or” conceals a difference that may be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Do most of those jobs require only a two-year degree? Then it may not make sense to concentrate funding in more prestigious four-year programs.
Similarly, Kirwan suggests that the issue is “kids” entering postsecondary education immediately after they finish high school. For demographic reasons, however, the number of traditional students is going to decline over the next decade. So Kirwan avoids raising the real question: what is the likely result of sending more adults, many with significant gaps in their education, back to school?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I want to propose a distinction that may make it easier to figure them out. Let’s restrict the term “college” to four-year degrees in the arts and sciences, taught by faculty engaged in independent research and geared toward traditional, often residential students. Let’s call the constellation of part-time, vocational, non-residential programs geared toward non-traditional students “higher and continuing ed.”
Even though they’re sometimes housed in an umbrella organization called a university, these seem to me to be rather different businesses. When it comes to funding and their connection to the public interest, they should be evaluated differently. My suspicion is that the country really doesn’t need more students in college, which is largely a status marker. But it would benefit from better and cheaper higher and continuing ed.