UW-Stevens Points recently released its revised proposal regarding program elimination, which still calls for several liberal arts programs to be terminated. While the university highlights the significance of its relationship with the region, the document claims that any program’s impact on the community is “far more qualitative” than simply looking at its number of majors. Thus the university takes the easy way out by not looking at how graduates might fit into the economy of the region or the state.
When a university judges programs in terms of how popular they are, it is directly contributing to a model of higher education that is primarily about making numbers. War has been declared on us, yet our response has been to become a better sales force, as if creating more marketable majors will solve all our problems. We’re like the salesmen in "GlenGarry Glen Ross," under constant pressure to chase leads. A.B.C: Always Be Closing.
Within this model, gone is any explicit discussion of what education should be about, or, critically, the nature of the real, not the imaginary, economy. Running for our lives, we simply legitimize the talking points of trade groups and other education critics, like the nonexistent skills gap, or the fictional shortage of STEM workers relative to those of other fields.
While obtaining reliable data on graduates is difficult, national research is illustrative of what we know anecdotally. A significant percentage of college graduates — between roughly one-quarter and over 40 percent — are working in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree. This is because 25 percent of jobs typically require a bachelor’s or higher degree for entry, while 34 percent of Americans over 25 possess a bachelor’s degree or higher. Many others work in jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees, but are not paid anything close to middle-class wages. These are the unpleasant realities of our economy that both higher education and society’s elite would prefer not to discuss. Rather, the public discussion is deliberately steered away from the economy and back to the educational system, time and again.
When leaders from the UW are seeking to connect with their respective communities, I suggest they should ask some obvious, yet uncomfortable, questions of those most responsible for our economy — business and governmental leaders.
Particularly in light of last year’s massive corporate tax cut, some questions strike me as particularly appropriate for business leaders. Are employers sharing the benefits of this economy with their employees? What are entry-level wages for those positions requiring college degrees? What about the wages for those with less than a bachelor’s? The conversation has been one-sided for too long, as we obsess over what we can do for the business community. It is time to ask our business leaders what they can do for our graduates and our communities.
When meeting with Republicans, UW leaders should first remind them President Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, the Defense Department played a significant role in developing the internet, and President Nixon created the EPA, for starters. But the biggest question would be: What exactly has the Republican Party’s 40-year opposition to government gotten us as a society? This relentless attack on government and deification of markets has corresponded exactly with the explosion in wage and wealth inequality. And how does the Republicans’ free market/anti-government dogma magically disappear when corporations like Foxconn come around, looking for billions of dollars of public subsidies? The current Republican attempt to essentially nullify the election confirms what was painfully apparent during the election itself — that when it comes to the most pressing issues of the day (the economy, health care), the party of Trump is pretty much out of ideas anyway.
When university leaders are socializing with Democrats, please ask them why they shy away from talking about market failures. Every day, markets fail to give people decent health insurance, affordable housing, and wages providing economic security. Remind Democrats that defending government and being willing to criticize markets is the first step in addressing inequality. There was much less income inequality when the government played a far more active role in the economy.
The UW System has spent much of the last eight years under a seemingly endless legislative and rhetorical assault. Yet in response, too many of us (including myself) retreat from public view, making the Republican argument that tenure amounts to a “job for life” that much more politically effective. Where are we as a result? A minority of Republicans believe that higher education has a positive impact on the country. Belief in a nonexistent free speech crisis on campus is widespread. And many voters are apparently convinced that the liberal arts are the reason for the lack of economic opportunity for college graduates. But hostility toward higher education in general, and toward the liberal arts in particular, is easy to gin up when large numbers of citizens correctly do not see a college degree as the path to economic security, let alone mobility.
What I’ve been arguing for is ultimately a political strategy; it’s also rooted in reality. It’s time to start asking some basic questions of our elites, today’s economic winners, rather than accepting the terms of the debate that have been established largely by them and serve the interests of the status quo.
Higher education is asking students to pay tens of thousands of dollars to come to our campuses and enroll in our programs. Along with promoting our programs, let’s talk about economic reality with our students. And let’s get our leaders to begin to talk about, and ultimately change, economic reality as well. Unless the discussion about all of our campuses becomes a discussion about the economy, public higher education will end up digging our own grave as we become the best closers around.
Neil Kraus is professor and chair of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls political science department. He is the author of two books and several articles, including, most recently, "Majoritarian Cities: Policy Making and Inequality in Urban Politics."
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