The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why do Americans go to college? First and foremost, they want better jobs.

Scott Walker’s attacks on Wisconsin’s public colleges have ranged from budget cuts to a proposal to change the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin system. The proposed change, which Walker’s office has since backed down from, would have eliminated language about pursuing “the search for truth” and “improv[ing] the human condition” (and various other noble, abstract goals that are known as the “Wisconsin Idea”), and instead emphasized the “state’s workforce needs.”

Academics and commentators across the country have strongly objected to this proposal to eschew a university’s nobler, more metaphysical goals and replace them with more practical, vocational ones. And I agree, there is great value to a liberal arts education; when executed well, at least, it teaches people “how to think,” and how to be cultured, civic-minded, generally well-rounded human beings.  But Walker’s not wrong in suggesting schools should also be doing more to give students the hard skills and tools they need to get jobs, or at least to make informed decisions about what areas of study will help them find decent work.

Right now there is very little accountability on either of these dimensions. That’s problematic, not just for the broader economy that depends on our educational system’s ability to produce high-skilled workers, but for our educational system’s customers themselves: the students, who have become increasingly likely to cite career goals as a reason why they enrolled in college in the first place.

For over 40 years, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program has been regularly surveying incoming college freshmen about why they decided to attend college. Of all the options given in the 2014 survey (released earlier this month), “to be able to get a better job” had the highest share of respondents calling it a “very important” reason for why they went to college (86.1 percent). “To make me a more cultured person” had the smallest share (46.6 percent).

In fact, among these choices, “to make me a more cultured person” has always had the lowest share of respondents. Here’s a chart showing the shares of freshmen who called each objective “very important” every time the question has been asked since 1971:

As you can see, surveyed students are more likely to rate every objective as “very important” today than they were in 1971. Entitled millennials just expect colleges to do everything for them!

But the biggest jumps, in percentage-point terms, were for the share saying they went to college to “make more money” (44.5 percent in 1971, versus 72.8 percent in 2014; an increase of 28.3 percentage points that was mostly gained in the earlier years of the survey); followed by the share citing preparation for graduate or professional school (34.8 percent to 59.7 percent, or a 24.9 percentage point increase).

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Within these longer-term patterns you can also see some influences from the business cycle. The emphasis on getting a better job waned from 1993 through 2006 (when the economy was strong, save a brief, mild recession in the middle there). The emphasis on intellectual pursuits (“to learn more about things that interest me”) rose during the same period.

Then the Great Recession seems to have refocused freshmen’s educational objectives, or perhaps drawn a different kind of student into higher education. Between 2006 (the latest pre-recession year for which data are available) and 2014, the sharing calling “to be able to get a better job” a “very important” reason for enrolling jumped 15.7 percentage points.

Given students’ stated objectives for going to college, persistently high youth unemployment rates, and employer complaints about grads’ lack of preparation for the workforce, it seems reasonable to ask colleges to think harder about the practical skills and career guidance they’re giving their students. A liberal arts education and marketable job skills need not be mutually exclusive. That said, of course, Walker’s other higher education proposals — e.g., steep budget cuts — seem very unlikely to produce more employable graduates.