What Should Be the Role of America’s Public Colleges and Universities?

by Reihan Salam

My views on higher education are very similar to my views on medical care: we suffer from excessive cost growth driven by credentialism, third-party payment, a lack of transparency, and overreliance on inefficient public institutions. Vance Fried of Oklahoma State University has offered the definitive critique of how federal higher education policy shapes this landscape.

Razib Khan raises another interesting question: should public colleges and universities strive to offer the same complement of courses of instruction as elite private research universities, or should they, drawing on the land grant model, focus on STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) that are widely acknowledged as the best avenues for upward mobility for students from working and middle class backgrounds? At the heart of Razib’s argument is the view that public institutions should primarily devote themselves to facilitating upward mobility, and this in turn suggests an emphasis on STEM:

Even a field as non-scientific as law can be acknowledged to have necessary utility in an advanced society. In contrast, though anthropology is edifying and sharpens our perceptions of the state of human affairs it is a new discipline which is not necessary for a modern society. In a straightened fiscal environment I think it’s reasonable to suppose that public education should be focused on fields which have a practical import. Honestly I think that an elaborated land-grant attitude should suffuse more public universities. I emphasize public, because private universities can continue to cherish the idea of a liberal education. And the reality is that the wealthy and upper middle class who tend to attend these private colleges (only 25% of American college students are at private universities, many at relatively non-selective religious institutions) can afford a liberal education because their connections will guarantee them a good job after graduation. In contrast, working class students are unlikely to be approached by any investment banks after getting a degree in history at a public university. The American elite is highly stratified, and the chances are going to be that the top echelons will come from private universities. No surprise that Harvard, Stanford, and Yale are the top three feeder universities for Congress. There shouldn’t be a worry that the American elite is not sufficiently liberally educated, that elite is drawn from a set of top-tier universities where the student body is elite in class and intellectual aptitudes. Social capital and prestige of their institution are such that a degree in English or or history can still go a long way.

Michael Crow disagrees. You won’t be shocked to learn that he is the president of a large public university that is keen on expanding its resource base:

The notion that we must strip away academic programs not seemingly relevant to workforce development reflects a simplistic and retrograde view of the role of higher education in the American economy. …


The imperative to advance STEM education cannot be overstated. Given the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation to our national competitiveness, we should focus on increasing the quantitative, scientific, and technological literacy of all of our students. But resolving the complex challenges that confront our nation and the world requires more than expertise in science and technology. We must also educate individuals capable of meaningful civic participation, creative expression, and communicating insights across borders. The potential for graduates in any field to achieve professional success and to contribute significantly to our economy depends on an education that entails more than calculus.

Curricula expressly tailored in response to the demands of the workforce must be balanced with opportunities for students to develop their capacity for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, creativity, and leadership—all of which we learn from the full spectrum of disciplines associated with a liberal arts education. Taken together with the rigorous training provided in the STEM fields, the opportunities for exploration and learning that Gov. Scott is intent on marginalizing are those that have defined our national approach to higher education.

The significance of a liberal arts curriculum for engineering students, for example, has been underscored by recommendations from within the National Academy of Engineering. James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan and an international figure in engineering education, has argued that professional demands in the various fields of engineering have become sufficiently complex to warrant greater emphasis on broadly based undergraduate preparation in anticipation of subsequent specialization at the graduate level, consistent with professional education in law and medicine.

It is essential that we develop in our students the ability to understand the complexity and interrelatedness of our cultural, economic, natural, political, social, and technological systems. The point here is that we need all of the skill sets from anthropology to zoology as well as transdisciplinary perspectives to reinvigorate programs in civil engineering. [Emphasis added]

Nothing in Crow’s remarks suggests that we shouldn’t invest somewhat less in non-STEM fields. Rather, it merely establishes that we shouldn’t “strip them away.” One could easily imagine that public colleges and the universities of the future will devise evidence-based curricula designed to most effectively teach the critical thinking skills Crow rightly prizes. But would this program be identical to the present panoply of liberal arts offerings? That seems somewhat unlikely, as the existing structure of academic departments owes more to the legacy of Cold War era funding for modern public research universities as an instrument of geopolitical competition — e.g., the rise of areas studies programs — than it does to a well-designed, concerted effort to identify the skills that students need to flourishing in a post-industrial economy. It is certainly possible that the academic empire-builders who built the modern public research university accidentally stumbled on precisely the right approach for meeting the needs of a majority-minority student body in the Internet era. But I’d suggest that it’s a pretty darn remote possibility. 

I’d also argue that a straightforward class analysis would tell you that incumbent providers would use scare tactics to suggest that a 21st century “land-grant attitude,” as Razib calls it, is a terrifying, inhumane development that must be stopped. 

In a similar vein, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has recently called for shifting remedial education away from the state’s four-year public universities to its community colleges, part of a wider rationalization of public institutions that, in my view, has been a long time coming. 

Thanks to Arpit Gupta for the links.