Coclanis: Drifting, but still afloat

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 05:49 PM

As many readers  of The Herald-Sun  know by now, North Carolina’s newly elected Republican Governor Pat McCrory recently made some highly controversial  comments on higher education that continue to get  lots of attention, not only in the Tar Heel State, but also in newspapers such as the  Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier in the month, for example, Jane S. Shaw, president of the Raleigh-based John William Pope Foundation for Higher Education Policy, wrote a provocative piece in the Journal (Feb. 5) defending the  governor’s disparaging comments — made on Bill Bennett’s radio show Jan. 29 -- regarding  college majors that have little practical utility.

The governor’s comments were targeted, of course, at the liberal arts in general, and at certain areas within the liberal arts in particular.  According to the governor, students with impractical liberal arts majors — gender studies was singled out — come out of college with few marketable skills, and as a result, have  hard times getting jobs in today’s increasingly competitive labor markets.

To remedy this problem at public universities in the state, McCrory suggested that state educational subsidies be better aligned with labor-market outcomes.  How?  One way would be to employ funding formulas based not on the number of students in a given major, but on the proportion of graduating students in that major who actually get jobs.

Not surprisingly, many of my colleagues in the liberal arts are upset about the governor’s comments, and a number of them continue to express their displeasure in print, sometimes eloquently, sometimes not.  Although I think the Governor has every right to his opinion — UNC is a public university, after all, and not above criticism — I would like to point out to both Gov.  McCrory and Jane  Shaw that  liberal-arts majors may be the least of their problems when it comes to higher education. 

In her op-ed piece, Shaw makes much of one particular finding drawn from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s much-publicized   2011 book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” and their 2011 follow-up study for the Social Science Research Council (done in collaboration with Esther Cho). They cite the fact that “36 percent of college students made no discernible progress in the ability to think and analyze critically after four years in school.”

Shaw’s use of this fact is accurate, but lacks context.   Arum and Roksa rely  heavily on one particular assessment tool, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), for one thing, which measures only certain types of learning, but that that isn’t my point here.  I’m more interested in Arum and Roksa’s disaggregated findings, which show in their longitudinal study that both science/math students and humanities/social sciences students scored considerably higher on the CLA than students majoring in business, engineering, computer science and health-related fields.  This was so in almost every case even after scores were adjusted to account for differences in the social backgrounds and degrees of academic preparation of students in various majors. 

In other words, however bad today’s liberal arts students may be, they are a helluva lot better than their counterparts majoring in business, engineering, computer science, etc., at least as measured by the CLA.  To steal a line from ex-UNC system President Erskine Bowles (who used it another context), this may just mean, of course, that liberal arts majors are the healthiest horses in the glue factory.   Just the same, the governor and Shaw might wish to look a bit more closely at majors with purported “practical applications” as well.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.