Letter: Purposes of Higher Education

To the Editor:

The New York Times recently reported that President Obama is recommending a rating system for higher education that would guide the amount of federal loans available to applicants. Among the criteria suggested is the earnings of the borrower after graduation. Although the ratings proposal raises disturbing questions about the extent of federal intrusion into higher education, the effectiveness of employing education to promote social mobility and whether such social mobility would promote more societal inequality, the proposal also carries an ominous message for higher education in general. The proposal is simply one more example of Obama’s focus only on the economic purposes of higher education — purposes that have already gained ascendancy, in part due to the present federal loan program.

Such proposals ignore the broader purposes of higher education as set forth by John Stuart Mill in his inaugural address to St. Andrews College more than a century ago and Derek Bok’s restatement of those purposes in Our Underachieving Colleges. Bok’s list of purposes, in addition to vocational preparation, includes learning to think, learning to communicate, building character, preparation for citizenship, living with diversity, preparing for a global society and acquiring broader interests. Although the pursuit of many of these purposes may enhance a graduate’s earning potential, such a pursuit serves many other important non-economic purposes, including civic participation and simply leading a good life. It is unfortunate if an otherwise commendable effort to promote equality would obscure these other important purposes of higher education.

Obama’s proposal is part of a larger problem that I fear he is deeply insensitive to: how to promote economic growth and mitigate inequalities in our society without unduly impeding or constraining the rich variety of values that our civic institutions possess. It is the task of us democratic liberals to remind him that this is the real problem.

Richard Oliver Brooks