I was walking in our nation’s capital during the recent Great Recession when I saw a great banner hung on a pretentious building. It said JOBS, JOBS, JOBS. I thought that this must be the slogan of some left-leaning think tank, or maybe of the Democratic party trying to drum up support for new federal efforts at stimulating job creation.
Wrong! When I crossed the street to see whose building it was, I found the national headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce. The slogan was not advocating President Obama’s stimulus program—far from it! The Chamber had co-opted an Obama slogan and turned it into a weapon against what it regarded as stifling restrictions on free enterprise.
I misunderstood that slogan, however, in an additional respect. It applied not only to politics; it also helped shift thinking about higher education. In North Carolina, for example, the newly elected governor, Pat McCrory, announced that he wanted a funding formula for public higher education that was “not based on how many butts [were] in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” The shift to job preparation may also explain why the administration of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin deleted the sentence “Basic to every purpose of the [University of Wisconsin] system is the search for truth” and inserted language about meeting “the state’s workforce needs.”
Both governors have backed away from their phraseology, but the rhetoric has worked its way up the political food chain, with the result that we now have a recent presidential candidate proclaiming, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and [End Page 413] less [sic] philosophers.” Republicans have no monopoly on this rhetoric: similar, though more grammatical, language comes from the Department of Education and even the White House. Meanwhile, the budgets of public universities continue to be cut, as jobs talk has become the dominant discourse about higher education, public and private. That mode of talking and thinking about higher education has now added another layer, calculations of Return on Investment, tapping into a powerful concern for both students and their parents facing high tuition bills, worried about student loans, and scared by everything from the offshoring of jobs to the expanding role of robots. Although Paul Krugman pointed out in the New York Times on February 23, 2015 that there is little evidence to support the claim, the public is often swept along by talk of a “skills gap,” and hence by the calls for reallocation of resources to the S.T.E.M. disciplines or to narrowly vocational training. On top of all this come the fashionable demands for “disruptive innovation” made by followers of Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, even though claims about uncritical innovation were nicely dissected by Jill Lepore in “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong“ in the New Yorker of June 25, 2014.
Leaders of higher education have often responded to these pressures by adopting the discourse of their critics. The University of North Carolina, along with a consortium of private colleges in the state, for example, issued a new release on February 28, 2015, asserting that higher education had a positive impact of $63.5 billion on the state’s economy in 2012–2013. (That would be about one-seventh of the state’s GDP). This was, it went on to claim, the equivalent of adding 426,000 new jobs, yielding an 11.8 percent return on investment. The apparent hyperbole was met with skepticism, but even if the numbers are correct, such arguments reinforce the view that higher education is really about jobs, jobs, jobs, or (as the job market slowly recovers) about “return on investment.” The message is clear: resources should be reallocated to achieve such goals.
This mode of understanding the purpose of education has a long history, as Daniel Berrett showed in his essay, “The Day the Purpose of College Changed” in The Chronicle of Higher Education of January 26, 2015. But now the change in discourse, combined with the restructuring of the economy, the slow recovery from...