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Study asks purpose of college education

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In developing higher education curricula and policy, official goals often clash with the expectations and values of the public, particularly over the underlying purpose of a college education, a new national study has found.

While policymakers concern themselves with such 21st-century concepts as online delivery models, institutional accountability, and college and career readiness, public participants in the study said the goal of education should be to develop well-rounded individuals with a broad range of skills and the ability to think critically.

The study, released today by the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute, is called “Divided We Fail: Why It’s Time for a Broader, More Inclusive Conversation on the Future of Higher Education.” It is based on 115 public forums held on college campuses and in public meeting halls across the country.

Almost half – 45 percent – of the public participants were students. A fifth were college instructors. The remaining third were parents, employers, retirees and others.

“In their efforts to address rising costs and encourage more Americans to get degrees, policymakers are overlooking what the public values,” said David Mathews, president and chief executive officer of the Kettering Foundation.

A large majority of participants were concerned that higher education policymakers may be too narrowly focused on launching students’ careers or promoting STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, math. At the same time, however, they recognized the value of STEM subjects to the nation’s prosperity.

Of the 1,300 participants who completed questionnaires, nearly nine in 10 said they believe college students should develop critical thinking abilities by studying a wide array of subjects, including philosophy, art, literature, history, government and economics. They also said a college education should include hands-on learning experiences, such as internships and community service.

“Citizens in the forums are concerned that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of education for career preparation at the expense of a broader education at a time when only the wealthy have the luxury to be able to ‘find themselves,'” said William Muse, president of the National Issues Forums Institute. “Students have debt, want to prepare for a career and have a vague sense that college could be a richer experience, but are being led by parents, employers and their own practical sense to think about economics and jobs.”

Greg Heileman, associate provost for curriculum at the University of New Mexico, said he believes the report’s title is misleading in that it doesn’t capture the gist of the study. “Those are precisely the kinds of discussions we’re having on campus every day,” he said. “I think it’s a good report – on target. But I don’t think there’s a divide.”

As recently as Wednesday, Heileman said, he and Provost Chaouki Abdallah were discussing the type of employee CEOs are looking for. “They tell us, ‘We want a student with a broad education who can think and solve problems,'” he said. But recruiters from those same companies tend to focus more on particular skills, such as the ability to read a certain programming language.

The biggest “divide” between policymakers and the public would likely be over costs, he said. “What it costs for us to deliver hasn’t changed much. What’s changed is who pays. The state contributes less and tuition goes up.”

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