The Herald Bulletin

December 6, 2012

Editorial: College is never a poor investment


— Ivy Tech Community College President Tom Snyder didn’t pull any punches in a recent blog on the Huffington Post website. He stated that pursuing a liberal arts degree at a four-year school is a poor investment.

“Today’s economy cannot support more art history or philosophy majors,” he wrote. “Today’s students and their parents must consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). That’s where the jobs are, and there is an inexpensive, quick way to qualify for these jobs: enrollment at a community college.”

OK, this is self-serving, but that’s expected. It’s also shortsighted and confuses education with mere training.

Snyder goes over the top in his assessment, but what he’s saying has been much debated recently. That is, the lack of jobs and the cost of education should render some majors irrelevant. There’s some truth to this. If a student is going to major in art history or comparative literature, he or she might have a difficult time putting their major to work. Whereas science majors can take their talents to research at private industries or academia.

But a four-year education is more than training for a specific job, which was never the raison d’etre for higher education.

A liberal arts degree in history or even philosophy prepares students for a lifetime of learning, and any employer should be glad to land someone who can think deeply about topics, extrapolate relevant data, make cogent arguments and critically assess problems. These majors also prepare students for graduate school.

There are core subjects that even math and engineering majors must take. For example, at Purdue, engineering majors must take English. This makes for a well-rounded student who will be able to better communicate their ideas with crisp writing and to bring context to their work.

There’s more than one CEO who would gladly hire a liberal arts major for their all-around knowledge and ability to communicate. Taking a chance on such graduates should be something the private sector does more often.

Also, no student is going to get an engineering degree at a community college so Snyder is pulling a sleight of hand. Ivy Tech can give some students the fundamentals to grasp the mathematical principles involved in engineering or science, but those degrees have to come from four-year institutions.

When higher education serves only as a training ground for careers, something is amiss. The historical purpose of universities was to prepare better, more knowledgeable citizens who could tackle problems and build a better society for everyone.

For students who didn’t want all of the liberal arts classes, there were community colleges and apprentice programs to go directly into a trade.

Nothing wrong with that. The fact is, both types of education have served their purpose and will continue to. But to say that a liberal arts degree is a poor investment risks shortchanging students who want to do more than learn a trade.