I am researching the subject of vocations for my next book. Part of choosing one’s vocation is deciding upon your education. This is more than choosing a field of study. One must also select the type of education: vocational training, apprenticing, local community college, large state university, smaller liberal arts college, etc. One also needs to decide whether to study near your current location and live at home or move away. These choices all depend on your finances, personal preferences, and field of study.
My daughter decided to study at a small liberal arts university in Texas where she could drive home on weekends. My son decided to study in the Northeast at a larger urban university. I studied at a small out-of-state public university located in the mountains. My wife studied at a major state university near her home. Each person makes educational choices based on many factors. We are blessed in the United States to have educational options that allow students to seek their desired vocations.
This morning, I read an article in the London Financial Times (FT) titled Coronavirus bursts the US college education bubble: Soaring fees, worthless degrees and dicey investments have hurt the economy (Rana Foroohar, April 26, 2020). “Many colleges are considering running online classes into the autumn and beyond. But that requires additional resources that most are ill equipped to afford. Even before coronavirus, 30 per cent of colleges tracked by rating agency Moody’s were running deficits, while 15 per cent of public universities had less than 90 days of cash on hand.”
I am a member of a small liberal arts university’s Board of Trustees and we recently held our spring meeting – a sobering virtual meeting. Normally, we would have a good projection of incoming students since enrollment deposits are due May 1st. Our campus is closed, and students are finishing the spring semester virtually, something the university had never done before. Our fall enrollment period was extended, and the university performed budgeting scenarios, from optimistic to pessimistic projections. Income from dorms is down since students are not on campus and this revenue is unrecoverable. Summer classes and campus events are canceled. While some expenses will be reduced due to lower usage, our normally balanced budget is projected to go negative. Difficult choices will need to be made.
“Now with colleges shuttered, revenues reduced, endowment investments plunging, and the added struggle of shifting from physical to virtual education, Moody’s has downgraded the entire sector to negative from stable. The American Council on Education believes revenues in higher education will decline by $23bn over the next academic year. In one survey this week, 57 per cent of university presidents said they planned to lay off staff. Half said they would merge or eliminate some programs, while 64 per cent said that long-term financial viability was their most pressing issue. It’s very likely we are about to see the hollowing out of American’s university system.”
I decided to serve this liberal arts university because I believe in the liberal arts. I know that this sounds strange coming from an engineering major, but liberal arts majors are needed just as much as STEM majors. Texas has fewer liberal arts colleges than the Northeast and Midwest because the state came into the union later and was a frontier. Religious institutions established the first Texas universities, primarily to educate ministers and other professions needed in the expanding Texas population. Values, rhetoric, and complex problem-solving skills were taught in small group settings. Professors served as mentors and established personal relationships that lasted long after the college years. Students bonded and were allowed to experiment within a small compassionate community. Competitive sports were open to all.
At the university were I serve on the Board, a beautiful chapel sits on to the campus quad and all faiths worship there. When I walk around this small liberal arts campus, I feel uplifted and inspired, a feeling I did not have during my engineering studies. There is more to an education that simply listening to virtual lectures, doing assignments, and taking tests. The same is true for vocation. Although our current culture defines vocation as an occupation (usually paid), the original meaning encompasses all of life: family, faith, work, and citizenship.
This FT article states: “We might also look closely at the effects of our pandemic-induced, real-time experiment with online learning.” I agree. There is higher-level learning while chatting within the dorms, conducting lab experiments with a mentoring professor, and comparing Greek philosophy to our post-modern world while eating cafeteria food. If our educational choices are simply utilitarian, then I wonder if we have truly embraced the full meaning of vocation which is so vital in serving the common good?