The way forward, then, is simple. Instead of seeing college as a private investment, we must consider it a public good. If we remember the generation that was educated after World War II, generous public support meant that they could afford — economically — to spend four years studying the subject that most interested or spoke to them, and then they took their education and did millions of things with it that helped us develop a richer society, not just in terms of wealth but in terms of knowledge, art, and citizenship. That generation could do so because they did not have to take on thousands of dollars in debt and to worry all the time about how to pay for it. They could do so because public support for their education — meaning low tuition for students thanks to tax support for America’s colleges — gave them the freedom — the leisure — to study.
The diversity of U.S. higher education is widely regarded as one of its strengths,” Baldwin said. “But American higher education will be diminished if the number of liberal arts colleges continues to decline.
Bill Zandi already had an idea of what he wanted to do when he enrolled at Wake. As a high school freshman in Pennsylvania, he wanted to find a way to help students like him after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. That eventually led to two tractor-trailers of school supplies and furnishings donated from local schools being shipped to New Orleans, and to the group Students Helping Students, which is now a nonprofit group that has expanded to include schools in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida. For Zandi, who plans to continue running the group after he graduates, philosophy is perhaps the most practical discipline he could have studied in college. “I wanted to gain certain skills from this major,” he said, including critical thinking, formulating arguments and counter-arguments, and improving his writing and communication skills. “I really do believe that it gives me a greater perspective on how we’re living life today and maybe how we should strive to be living.” Mark Zandi, who spends his days training his perspective on everything from the inner workings of the Federal Reserve to the rising cost of gasoline, might have felt initial surprise at his son’s decision, but he said it makes good practical sense. “I hire a lot of kids in my work, and the skills I look for are: Are they articulate, can they present a thought in a cogent way, do they write well, can they express a perspective and a point of view?” he said. “I think we need more scientists and engineers, but there’s always going to be a demand for people with a varied educational background.” That’s something that’s been noted in rapidly growing Asian economies like China, Chan said, where universities are scrambling to launch liberal arts programs of their own. “Ironically, at the same time that’s happening in Asia, in the United States we have people saying we should forget the liberal arts because they’re not preparing students for careers,” he said.