Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education

By Manfred Werner – Tsui (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Unemployment, student loan debt, and protest are colliding with rising education costs, endowment building, branding wars, and labor outsourcing. At this tumultuous moment in higher education, this course asks students to reflect on the fate of liberal arts education through a focused analysis of its past and present. Specifically, how do economic pressures and technological innovations impact the sustainability of liberal arts values such as social justice, serving the public good, and cultivating a “life of the mind”?  Students will debate and synthesize arguments about the value and sustainability of liberal arts education by viewing higher education from the perspective of private corporations, governments, college administrators, faculty, parents, and students. In so doing, students will learn to situate their personal experiences within broader institutional, historical, economic and political contexts. Through reflective essays that incorporate both primary and secondary sources, students will develop critical thinking skills, authorial voice, and a sense of ownership over their own education.

Future of Liberal Arts

Coming from Europe, almost no one knows what Liberal Arts College is. It is currently being trailed in Germany with mediocre success.  Liberal arts education really is an American invention that suites the model within America’s culture. Liberal Arts do not offer as much as a guarantee as some other vocational training universities offer and yet their tuition is often on par with each other. These liberal arts colleges such as Occidental “with small endowments try to catch up. They grind away, searching for six-figure donations and hoping for a seven-figure gift” (Ferrall, p. 25) Working in tele fund I understand how small the endowment Occidental College gets compared to its compared to its competitors, but in no way does this reflect on the satisfaction some of these students had in Occidental. Endowment is simply not part of the culture so many alumni are confused as to what to do when one of us calls them up. Ferrall said that liberal arts colleges must “adapt and survive” (Ferrall, p.68) and that is true, Liberal Arts education must try and accommodate more of the world affairs, remain diverse in terms of the subjects it offers and create a diverse environment for students to learn off each other.

Future of Higher Education

It is almost common knowledge that tuition would simply keep going up, certainly the author of College Unbound, Selingo believes that with the tuition cost continuingly rising, students would simply turn to the online platform as the future of higher education. I can understand that thought and yet I would not fully agree with what he said. While I understand that technology will no doubt play a huge part in the future, the draw of physical contact with professors and campus learning simply outweigh the prospect of learning online. Selingo argues that students in colleges “has their life in college managed for them” (165, Selingo) and that they do not recognise the real world and how it works. This could in turn drive students who are in search of real vocational training away. I understand where the author is coming from, but without a degree, employers will not have any indication of whether the student can think like the other people within his or her generation or that if they can deal with the rigour of adulthood. College is often a good time for students to explore adulthood. I fully believe that the future of higher education will remain in physical campuses but stresses a lot more on technology and vocational training.


The competition for Higher Education is getting bigger and bigger. Working in tele fund, I often hear how Occidental College is falling behind other small liberal arts colleges. The competition is certainly there, and in turn colleges are turning to more ways to differentiate themselves from the others. One such way is to spend more money on financial aid and investments that might outweigh the income the college’s intake. This as College Unbound argues is one of the disruptions of higher education. Other disruptions include “higher education is doing a poor job at providing value for the money spent” (71, Selingo); colleges receiving less money from the government and those colleges are beginning to rely heavily on the tuition as part of their running finance. In turn this creates a very dangerous situation. In Occidental College alone, 75% of the students are on Financial Aid, given how the financial packages in other schools are getting even more attractive, Occidental has to constantly come up with ways to improve their packages. This means that the tuition Occidental receives are getting smaller and smaller and yet the expectation of education remains unwavering. This means that colleges such as Occidental College will depend heavily on students who can pay the full tuition which in turn can create bias problems.

This is why in College Unbound, the author, Selingo discusses the possibility of colleges going completely online in the future. I however, don’t believe this would ever happen. The online platform lacks the physical aspect that colleges offer, while the size of colleges might decrease, I don’t believe the demand for colleges would go completely.

Critical Thinking

A lot of my time during high school and in fact during my time in Occidental, I feel as if I’m not actually learning, but in fact I am trying to remember the answers for a particular question. From Academically adrift the author states that ““These diverse concerns about the state of undergraduate education have served to draw attention to measuring whether students are actually developing the capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning at college” (9).” Education nowadays focuses a lot more on the student’s ability to relay answers and not really drawing on any critical thought.

This could be due to the fact that our society is looking for more ways to quantify results. Quoting from the Bush administration, they wish to create an educational system with more accountability, and that is created through the means of SATS or any standardised tests. Tests that divert students from critical thought but into the realm of standardised thinking. One could link this back to Freire in how he believed that we are all being oppressed under the system that sets us into thinking in a certain way.

What our educational system needs is more freedom for students to express their thought and a platform to demonstrate their critical thought. This could minimise the memorisation part of the tests and increase the ability for students to problem solve.

Higher Ed Value

Look at the people who dominated our generation – Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, F Scott Fitzgerald even Oprah they all dropped out of college. Looking back in time there were people like Abraham Lincoln who turned out just fine. So this raises the question of whether education is really as necessary as branded.

My parents raised me to believe that no, education itself is actually unnecessary. My parents always align their thought with Freire where education simply is a way society box in your thoughts. Nonetheless the recognise the importance of me and my sibling going to college. They often stress that the friendship and contacts you make in college is irreplaceable.  Both my parents did not enjoy their educational experience, believing that the education that they received never really benefited them in the real world. However, the friends and relationships they’ve created were very beneficial to them in their later lives. They were able to secure business deals or create long-lasting relationships because of college. They found a group of motivated individuals who had a similar drive to themselves.

What I look to get out of my college years is a piece of paper at the end of my four years to signal to my employers that I can deal with the rigour of deadlines and have a basic knowledge of how the rest of my generation works. What are more important for me though are the relationships that I would make during my time here. I hope to meet people with a similar drive to myself that I could possibly build a better world and help each other achieve our goals.

Contact microphone.

I spent most of my time at the contact microphone station. It seemed to have the most potential for bizarre and/or surprising sounds, especially when rubbed against the various moving parts of a bicycle. I can’t honestly say that I picked up on any sort of greater symbolic significance, but the microphone was fun to play around with. I’m not sure who set up the station, but they picked a nice assortment of objects to generate sound from. All in all, it was a skillfully assembled set.

The rest of the event was enjoyable enough; the theremin was cool to hear—usually. I didn’t play around with many of the other stations, so I can’t offer any real evaluation of them.

Constructed Chaos Reflection

I spent time at the iPad keyboard/speaker station and it was really cool. Basically, I would use the keyboard like I would use a piano and it would come out through the speakers but with a deeper, more resonating sound. What I liked about it was the freedom I had to experiment and it sounded better than a lot of the other stations because the sounds were more normalized and had rhythm and did not just screech. It reminded me of the Apple commercial where the fingers play on the keyboard but it was more of a miniature model. I thought the speakers were really good for their size and I had a lot of fun!

Constructed Chaos Interview

I interviewed an upperclassmen student in Professor Gilman’s class. She told me her project was based on protest and satire. She photoshopped her professor’s head onto a picture of Stalin and used backgrounds of Oxy as opposed to the world. It was meant to be a protest against global protests, according to her. She took the protests against Stalin in Russia and changed them to reflect protests at Oxy. I thought it was a really interesting, satirical idea that was convey excellently through the use of the media wall.

Contructed Chaos

Participating in the Constructed Chaos event was very interesting and very unlike anything I have ever done before. Sitting in that room with all those funny and. Ridiculous electic sounds was an experience in and of itself. One of my favorite stations was putting the microphone on the bicycle and listening to thamplified sounds the bike made. It was a simple station but none the less very fun. It reminded me of when I was lttle and liked making sounds and banging on pots and pans and desks and anything that made a cool noise as if I were playing the drums. This constructed chaos event was incredibly strange and fun and I know that I will remember it long after I am out of college.

What challenges and opportunities exist for the future of the liberal arts?

Liberal Arts institutions have been facing many problems in recent years. Perhaps the greatest issue is the widespread closure of liberal arts programs. The problem does not arise solely from the closure of liberal arts colleges, but more commonly from many liberal arts colleges changing their curricula in order to be viewed as less traditionally liberal arts and more vocational. The diminishment of liberal arts programs comes from a decrease in demand for a liberal arts education—and these types of institutions have been forced to transform in order to get more students and evolve with the market. The greatest challenge for the future of liberal arts is for these institutions to be able to sustain themselves without abandoning their liberal arts roots or having to shut down completely. According to Victor E. Ferrall in College Unbound, the cause of this is financial problems and competing with other institutions. It is also very important to remember that education is a consumer-driven business; The competition and financial problems are rooted out of students’ decreased desire to attend their school.

While researching for my finally paper, I found an example of a liberal arts institution that was not doing well. Nobody knew of the school, and nobody wanted to go. But a new president changed everything and completely turned around Dickinson College to become one of the best liberal arts schools in the country. This reflects an opportunity existing for liberal arts institutions: The opportunity to implement new policies and programs, and transform the schools to make them better, to make them more distinct, more known, more liberating for students, and for them to act as tools for change and equality rather than continue to admit and educate those in higher income brackets much more than those in lower income brackets. One such policy that the new president of Dickinson implemented was the removal of an SAT requirement, which has improved the school’s image among counselors and students and allowed for higher admission rates of individuals with lower scores and intriguing profiles (38). Only 7% of white applicants choose not to submit SAT scores, whereas 25% of students of color choose not to submit SAT scores, making recruiting minorities easier, which is vital to the college’s positioning statement, “reflecting America…” which had failed to be more than rhetoric before the option to not submit scores (38). (