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College Isn’t For Everyone, But the Liberal Arts Are

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Aleteia Experts on the future of higher education

Is there a higher education bubble on its way? Should we be promoting STEM – or the liberal arts? Can a liberal arts degree justify the cost of a college degree? Why is college so expensive? Is college for everyone?

The future of higher education has filled the news in recent years. We asked Aleteia's special panel of experts from a wide range of disciplines on what they thought about the future of higher education.

"[M]illions of Americans are enrolling in college who don't need to be there," John Zmirak, editor of the biannual guide to American education Choosing the Right College, told Aleteia. "Many of them are enrolling, spending 2-3 years and amassing mountains of debt, and dropping out without degrees."

Anthony Esolen, a literature professor at Providence College, agrees college isn't for everyone, and proposes bringing back technical programs in high schools: "The loss of technical schools has been disastrous to working class boys." 

Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College, agrees technical schools may be a better track for some people, "It's true that the liberal arts aren't for everyone. Neither are STEM degrees," he told Aleteia. "Sadly, most college degrees these days–in, say, marketing or management or tourism or public relations or tourism–are neither. I perfectly agree that those who would pursue such techno-lite degrees are better off in no-frills technical programs that are aimed in giving them real skills."

But Esolen isn't optimistic about technical programs coming back in a significant way anytime soon: "We will not have them, though, so long as we hold perversely to the notion that a girl is just as likely to want to be a plumber or a construction worker or a carpenter as a boy."

Part of the problem, says, Esolen, is that a college degree is considered mandatory for many jobs that don't actually need a college degree, "It is absurd to demand a college degree for entry into careers that have nothing to do with that degree; and it's only done so as to find candidates who will show up on time and not frighten customers away." Zmirak agrees, "We need to rethink the use of a B.A. as a 'green card' permitting work at almost any level in any industry–except for manual labor. We need to redirect many students toward professional education."

Several of our experts agreed that the liberal arts could benefit anyone. Andrew Seeley, a professor at Thomas Aquinas College, thinks that the "desire to sell STEM and vocational training…seems to miss the irreplaceable role of education in awakening and fostering the desires that are central to human beings." But don't think you'll find this at just any liberal arts program, he warns, " Unfortunately, most liberal arts education is neither freeing, nor enabling, nor enlightening. Humanities students find their natural longings for the true, good and beautiful suffocated by the 'dictatorship of relativism.'"

Lawler does point out, however, that the cost of a college education makes more sense for a STEM degree, "[There] always be a market for talented and well trained scientists and engineers, and that kind of training is still readily available. With a STEM degree, obviously, it's much more likely that college has been worth the money."

Esolen agrees that a liberal arts education can be good for everyone, but points to the failure of K-12 education: "[T]hat is what grammar schools and high schools used to be for!" he told Aleteia. "It is an absolute scandal, actually a swindle, that boys and girls can graduate from high school without any deep knowledge of English and American history, or of English literature, or of the history of the world, or of geography; and as for grammar, that's not taught in any coherent or full-bodied way at all."

But why is college so expensive in the first place? Esolen blames an over-abundance of federal student loans. "[T]he federal pumphouse helps the colleges float their costs ever upward," he said. "It is time to shut off the spigot."

This article had contributions from the following Aleteia Experts:

Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass.

Peter Lawler is the Dana Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

Andrew T. Seely is a professor at Thomas Aquinas College and the Executive Director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He co-authored 'Declaration Statesmanship: A Course in American Government'.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. He blogs at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall.

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