Academic Priorities

On a recent trip to Minnesota’s North Shore I picked up a local paper in Duluth and was struck by the following headline: “UMD plans $2 M in academic program cuts.” Now, UMD is the large branch of the University of Minnesota in Duluth and the fact that it was facing financial hard times is not new. I taught in one of the universities in the same state and same athletic conference for years and all of the institutions in that group are increasingly facing financial struggles. It is a sign of our times when costs are skyrocketing and more and more students are “taking their degrees” online.

What was of greatest interest to me about that story (which I read hastily) was that the cuts will come in the academic programs. Not in the athletic program, of course. That never seems to be an option. Bear in mind that this university is considerably smaller than its fat cousin in the Twin Cities and except for ice hockey which is a NCAA Division I sport it is small potatoes as far as its athletics programs are concerned — NCAA Division II, the same as our small university in Marshall where I taught and coached tennis.  So, one would think, some cuts in the athletics programs when faced with a $2 million deficit would appear to be in order. Like so many other colleges Duluth (as we call it) has a plethora of athletics teams. Cuts in some of those programs would appear to make a certain amount of sense. But not so. The cuts will come by reducing faculty in the academic programs.

And guess which programs are to be cut? . . . . (wait for it). The liberal arts, the fine arts, and education. In each case it is because students are not enrolling in those programs as they did in the past. Education is on the block because there simply aren’t that many teaching jobs these days and public education is a political football. As is common around the country students are taking more practical courses of study where they think there is certainty of finding employment after graduation. The largest major program in our university, for example, is “Sports Science” which brags a successful placement strategy after graduation.

There are several problems with this scenario. To begin with, the successful placement of graduates in jobs after graduation is a bit of a farce. Many of the employment opportunities in Sports Science, for example, are minimum wage jobs handing out towels at the local athletic club: decidedly dead-end. Further, graduates of liberal arts programs with majors in such things as English, history, and philosophy are more successful in the long run than those who follow their practical instincts. That is to say, those graduates are able to change jobs more readily if they discover that they had been mislead as eighteen-tear-old Freshmen into thinking that the “sure thing” would make them rich and happy. Moreover, they make more money in their lifetimes than do those who major in the more practical fields. The figures don’t lie.

What is happening around the country is that parents have become convinced that their kids need to take the practical majors and avoid esoteric majors (as they see it) like art history or English literature, which they regard as a waste of time and money. And while it is true that those students will find it easier to find the initial job it is also true, as noted, that they often find themselves in dead-end jobs with no chance of making meaningful career changes later on. And, typically, they won’t make as much money in the long run. In a word, it is short-term thinking.

This type of thinking is typical in the business world where profit is placed highest in the list of priorities. Best Buy, for example, is making draconian cuts this month in order to convince share holders that they are serious about making huge profits. This reasoning is blind to the fact that those cuts will force remaining employees to work harder and less efficiently thereby providing their customers with poorer service and thus ultimately affecting the bottom line. But, more to the point, the fact that academic programs are being cut at UMD is simply more evidence that the business model is driving education as well as so many other human endeavors. And the business model has no business providing a paradigm in education where the focus ought to be on freeing young minds and putting young people in the best position to be successful and happy adults.

There are serious problems in our education system up and down the grades — just think about the thousands who follow Donnie the Trumpet! I write about those problems I know about first hand and as a result of the research I did in writing my book about education, Recalling Education.

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8 thoughts on “Academic Priorities

  1. I continue to enjoy your insightful blog Hugh. As a wildlife professor, I offer what might be interpreted as a sexist observation regarding future salaries and choices of major. For more than a decade, I have noted that the best qualified graduate student applications in wildlife and veterinary medicine throughout the country have been women. As I review and interview applicants, I have concluded that women seek out “biology” as the most satisfying science despite having the lowest salary rates of all sciences, while men gravitate towards majors that have higher salaries. This accounts for so many women entering the biology fields. I think they are making the right choices.

  2. I think the high cost of higher ed plays a role in choosing more “practical” majors. With students graduating and owing 50,000 or more in loans, it is deemed impractical to take non-vocational courses.

    Another problem, of course, is the failure of secondary schools to train critical thinkers or even readers. My daughter is taking an honors anthropology course that requires the reading of several books this semester. The professor asked them to read only 70 pages over 5 days and if that was too much, try for 50. My daughter wondered why fellow classmates needed so much time as she read the entire book in 2 days because she just loves to read.

    • The data show that the more practical majors lead to quick employment but tend to lead to lower incomes in the long term. Many of those people have to go back to school to be retrained in another skill. Those with a broader education find it harder to get the initial job but win out in the end with higher incomes and greater adaptability to change. Many students are combining practical majors with liberal arts courses. Not a bad plan.
      I would expect your children to be the exception. Her teacher should be pushing your daughter rather than backing off. As Mill once said, we don’t know what is possible until we ask the impossible.

  3. And we wonder why there are so many lemmings in the world who do not understand democracy, do not understand the simplest concepts of government, and who do not know how to process factual information. Sigh. Good post, Hugh!

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