Education

MissionU and the University’s Mission

Image from MissionU’s Facebook page (MissionU/Facebook)
A focused one-year vocational program challenges the goal of ‘college for all.’

Discovering MissionU the other day made me both sad and glad. MissionU is a one-year vocational-training program that serves as an alternative to college. It’s just one example of a larger trend of job-focused programs in place of university degrees. It makes me sad because students who opt for vocational training are denied the benefits of a liberal education; glad because students who complete their higher education in a year dodge a big debt bullet while also training for a job; sad because the goal of higher education for all works better in theory than in practice; sad also because liberal education isn’t what it used to be.

More about all that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about MissionU, where the focus is on data analysis and business intelligence. That suits its location in San Francisco, gateway to Silicon Valley. Most of MissionU’s courses are online, but students are required to live in the Bay Area in order to take part in regular live-group experiences. And they pay no tuition until they land a job with a salary of $50,000 a year. Then a student pays 15 percent of before-tax income in monthly installments for three years, for a minimum total of $22,500. That’s not nothing, but it’s less than four years of tuition and fees at most institutions.

Neither MissionU nor other alternative-college programs can replace a quality college education. But they can serve a population that is ill-served by four-year college, while also offering a more job-focused experience than is found in most two-year colleges.

The Obama administration shepherded a law through Congress that vastly expanded federal student-loan programs. “College for all” is a noble goal, but does it work in practice? Many young Americans start college these days, but about 40 percent of those who enroll don’t graduate within six years. And a generous federal college-loan program might one day leave the national debt stuck with half a trillion dollars in default and loan forgiveness. It’s a big price to pay for pushing people toward bachelor’s degrees who didn’t really want them in the first place.

A liberal education is a wonderful thing, and nobody who really does want it should be denied the chance. But the reality of higher education in America today is very bottom-line. My knowledge, admittedly, is anecdotal, but it is widely shared among my fellow academics.

A liberal education is a wonderful thing, and nobody who really does want it should be denied the chance. But the reality of higher education in America today is very bottom-line.

It’s not a bad thing that the American people, through the U.S. government, invest in education. But what education? For what ends? And at what price? Those are questions that those of us in the higher-education business had better answer or we’ll soon find the public and the government answering them for us.

It depends on what “college” means. When universities were committed to liberal-arts education, a four-year degree made sense. After all, it takes time to turn raw young high-school grads into cultivated and learned generalists who can speak sensibly about the arts and sciences, act as good citizens at home and as knowledgeable and respectful visitors abroad, demonstrate familiarity with a foreign language and the culture it represents, hone the skill to read, write, communicate, and do research, and all while becoming an expert in a particular field of study. It takes time to make people learned, as a liberal-arts education does.

But that was then and this is now. The traditional liberal-arts curriculum is hard to find, and when one does find it, it is often met with the question, “So what are you going to do with that?” If the only acceptable answer is “find a job,” it is hard to justify a four-year degree program. Most majors can be completed in three years, two years, or even one year, or perhaps one year and a summer.

For many students, community college is the answer. These two-year institutions are an often unsung glory of the American educational system and deserve more support. For some, they are the pathway to a career; for others, they offer a second chance after a less-than-stellar high-school experience. I went to a community-college graduation ceremony once and found it more moving than any high-school or college graduation I had attended, perhaps because there were so many first-generation higher-education families there.

MissionU surely offers a more focused vocational experience than does community college. I have no idea whether MissionU will succeed, and I’m sure that it’s not the only answer to the problems of higher education today. But I think it’s on the right path, and I’m confident that there will be other programs like it. In fact, there already are.

As for those of us in traditional universities, it’s time to remember our original mission: to introduce intelligent young people to the world of learning. Sure, there is room for vocational training and internships and alumni networking in every university. But that’s not our prime purpose, because those of us whose job is liberal education are the original men and women with a mission.

In many places we’ve lost our mission. A loud chorus from every side — from left and right, from ideologues and anti-intellectuals, from cost-cutters and bureaucrats, from demagogues and sirens — will try to stop us, but we can find it again. Building self-esteem, widening our students’ horizons at home and abroad, and pointing the way to a career are admirable goals. They are not, however, our primary mission as purveyors of liberal education.

As our founder, Socrates, put it, our goal is to persuade young people that the unexamined life is not worth living. That still seems like the worthiest goal of all.

Barry Stuart Strauss is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies in the history department at Cornell University.

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