by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
Does our society still value higher education? What about a liberal arts education? Paradoxically, even as a greater percentage of Americans attend college than ever before, it seems that college itself might be less valued in our society. Consider these trends:
* Faced with a shortfall in childcare assistance funding for college students, the North Dakota Department of Human Services opted to eliminate assistance for students in a four-year degree program, leaving assistance available only for those in vocational training programs.
* Two months, earlier, the Department eliminated assistance to graduate students.
* Federal welfare law places barriers, rather than incentives, to pursuing a college education.
* The North Dakota Board of Higher Education recently approved an 18% tuition increase for the state’s colleges and universities.
* The cost of higher education continues to rise significantly, far outpacing increases in financial aid.
* To complete their education, more students are taking out larger student loans, potentially creating a well-educated debtor class.
* The trend is especially true for graduate students, compelling new professionals to work in high salaried occupations in large metropolitan areas, rather than following a calling to social service, church, or government work.
* Sometimes school college preparatory and school-to-work programs direct students to look at college education as a means to a productive job, rather than a time for knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
* Universities increasingly rely on partnerships with corporations to fund research initiatives, shifting more of the university’s efforts to activities that benefit the corporate economy.
Taken alone, none of these developments necessarily points to a diminishing respect for higher education. Taken together, however, they give reason to ask whether higher education, especially liberal arts education, is valued by society.
In this populist state, we usually avoid the elitist attitude that persons with a college degree are somehow better than those without such a degree. We are not immune, however, from dismissing higher education, especially the Humanities, as “unproductive” or “over-rated.”
Some principles of Catholic social teaching seem applicable to this discussion. First, education is seen as something essential to the development of the human person. Since the human person, not the economy or government, should be the central focus of all policies, our educational policy should strive to provide educational opportunities, rather than just jobs or economic growth.
Second, the learning process, like all work, has a dignity in itself. It should be respected and promoted. Policies should not discourage some types of learning over others. Nor should it steer students to “productive” careers. Such an approach risks reducing persons to mere economic units and does not allow room for vocations that benefit society, develop the person, and please God in intangible ways.