Mareeg.com-11 November 2013-CAMBRIDGE – Ever since economists revealed how much universities contribute to
economic growth, politicians have paid close attention to higher education. In doing
so, however, they often misconceive universities’ role in ways that undermine their
For example, US President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed the need to increase
the percentage of young Americans earning a college degree. This is undoubtedly a
worthwhile aim that can contribute to national prosperity and help young people
realize the American Dream. Yet economists who have studied the relationship between
education and economic growth confirm what common sense suggests: the number of
college degrees is not nearly as important as how well students develop cognitive
skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving ability.
Failure to recognize this point can have significant consequences. As countries
embrace mass higher education, the cost of maintaining universities increases
dramatically relative to an elite system. Given that governments have many other
programs to support – and that people resist higher taxes – finding the money to pay
for such an effort becomes increasingly difficult. Universities must therefore try
to provide a quality education to more students while spending as little money as
Accomplishing all three objectives – quality, quantity, and cost efficiency –
simultaneously is difficult, and the likelihood of compromise is great. With
graduation rates and government spending easy to calculate, educational quality,
which is difficult to measure, is likely to be the objective that slips. No one need
know – and thus no one can be held accountable – when graduation rates rise but the
hoped-for economic benefits fail to materialize.
A second misconception by policymakers is that the only important benefit from a
college education is the opportunity that it gives graduates to find a middle-class
job and contribute to economic growth and prosperity. But, while this contribution
is important, it is not the only one that matters.
Apart from finding a first job, college graduates seem to adapt more easily than
those with only a high school degree as the economy evolves and labor-market needs
change. They also tend to vote at higher rates, engage in more civic activities,
commit fewer crimes, educate their children better, and get sick less frequently by
adopting healthier lifestyles.
Researchers estimate that these additional benefits are worth even more than the
added lifetime income from a college degree. If policymakers overlook them, they run
the risk of encouraging quicker, cheaper forms of education that will do far less to
serve either students or society.
These misconceptions are clearly evident in government leaders’ speeches over the
past two decades. As former President Bill Clinton remarked in his State of the
Union address in 1994: “[W]e measure every school by one high standard: Are our
children learning what they need to know to compete and win in the global economy?”
Since then, George W. Bush and Obama have echoed similar sentiments when speaking
about their educational-policy goals.
The same attitudes are manifest in other countries as well. A telling example is the
shift in jurisdiction over British universities since 1992 from the Department of
Education and Science to the Department for Education and Employment, and, in 2009,
to a new Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills.
This shrunken conception of the role of higher learning is unprecedented. It ignores
what were long regarded as the most essential aims of education: strengthening
students’ moral character and preparing them to be active, informed citizens. In
light of this tradition, the recent shift to material objectives comes as something
of a surprise. John Maynard Keynes prophesied in the 1920’s that as countries grew
wealthier, people’s preoccupation with money and possessions would diminish.
Instead, just the opposite has occurred.
Granted, democratic political leaders must be responsive to the people, and money
and jobs are clearly on people’s minds. According to a recent survey, among
first-year university students in the United States in 2012, 88% cited getting a
better job as an important reason for attending college, and 81% listed “being very
well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal.
But it is also true that 82.5% of these freshmen sought “to learn more about things
that interest me” as an important reason for attending college, and 73% wanted “to
gain a general education and appreciation of ideas.” Among the objectives they
considered “essential” or “very important,” 51% mentioned “improving my
understanding of other countries and cultures,” 45.6% cited “developing a meaningful
philosophy of life,” and substantial fractions listed such goals as “becoming a
community leader,” “helping to promote racial understanding,” and “becoming involved
in programs to clean up the environment.”
In the end, surveys suggest that what people want most is not wealth so much as
happiness and the satisfaction that comes from a full and meaningful life. Money
helps, but so do other things, such as close human relationships, acts of kindness,
absorbing interests, and the chance to live in a free, ethical, and well-governed
democratic society. A stagnant economy and lack of opportunity are undoubtedly
problems, but so are low voting rates, civic apathy, widespread disregard for
ethical standards, and indifference to art, music, literature, and ideas.
It is the responsibility of educators to help their students live satisfying,
responsible lives. However well or badly universities perform this task, their
efforts to succeed at it are worth fighting for and deserve their governments’
recognition and encouragement. After all, as Louis Brandeis observed: For good or
ill, “our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher.” If our leaders regard
education merely as a means to jobs and money, no one should be surprised if young
people eventually come to think of it that way, too.
Derek Bok is University Research Professor at Harvard University, where he was
President from 1971 to 1991, and from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of Higher
Education in America.
Project Syndicate, 2013.