The Ramifications of the Media Focus on the Immediate

Our media has conditioned us to focus on the moment, on the immediate situation. It is very seldom that the media encourages us to take a longer perspective. And in those few instances in which a longer view is attempted, very often the immediate situation is simply projected outward–multiplied as if the current conditions will not change, when in fact the premise should be that they will almost certainly change and most likely will do so quite dramatically.

So when we are in a period of rapid economic growth, the media can be counted on to ignore the sometimes obvious evidence that another “bubble” is swelling toward the point at which it will inevitably burst. In that type of cycle, the media is afraid to be characterized as alarmist. And yet, over the past thirty years, the most predictable feature of our economy has, ironically, been the series of “bubbles” that have burst with almost astonishing regularity: the rapid defense build-up at the tail end of the Cold War, the savings and loan deregulation, the junk bonds, the stocks, the Enrons and World Coms, the mortgage-backed derivatives. And then, when we experience a sudden economic downturn after a “bubble” does burst, the media typically frames things as if the country may never climb out of the downturn.

These patterns apply to foreign nations as well. In the late 1980s, the media consistently emphasized the manifold evidence that the United States was being economically overwhelmed by Japan and the Pacific Rim nations. There was almost no attention to the factors that would shortly lead to Japan’s “lost decade,” an extended period of economic stagnation so deep that deflation became the norm.

Similarly, for the last decade China’s growth has been projected outward as if double-digit annual GDP growth can continue uninterrupted, even though the current growth has created all sorts of complex environmental, social, political, and economic issues that have gone largely unaddressed and even though the increasing size of the Chinese GDP means that sustaining growth as a percentage of GDP will require an increasingly impossible degree of raw growth. Indeed, now that the Chinese economy has showed some signs of strain in some prominent sectors, alarmists are beginning to suggest that China’s decade of spectacular growth may have been simply a chimera—which is as unlikely as its being endlessly replicable.

There are, of course, ready parallels to these patterns in higher education. The Great Recession created a perfect storm in terms of access, affordability and completion rates. Declining state subsidies were further reduced, often dramatically, placing more pressure on students to rely much more heavily on loans and making financial considerations another major factor in reduced degree-completion rates. Worse, as students have graduated, they have entered a terrible job market. Although the unemployment rate for college graduates has been 40% to 50% lower than the overall rate, many recent graduates have been under-employed over extended periods and have been struggling to make payments on their student loans.

So, very predictably, much of the media has been questioning the value of a college degree.

But a recent study conducted by the career site TheLadders shows that, allowing for variations among the employment available to graduates in various disciplines, a college degree has never been more valuable—over the long term: “Ten years after graduation, people with at least a four-year degree see compensation rise about $3,778 a year, versus $369 for non-graduates. The gap is even more massive after 20 years. Graduates earn $25,000 more per year than those without a four-year diploma.” So, those with degrees may start in positions not very distinguishable from those held by people without degrees, but advancement in a career has become increasingly dependent on holding at least a baccalaureate degree.

A parallel variation in career or long-term earnings exists between those holding baccalaureate degrees and those holding graduate degrees.

Given this reality, colleges and universities—and the federal and state governments that provide funding to them—need to stop being very reactive to immediate, often volatile, and very often relatively short-term circumstances and to take a more level-headed, broader, and longer perspective.

In terms of higher education, we should be focused on what employers have actually indicated, in study after study, that they want from those whom they are hiring: graduates who have sophisticated communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills—and, generally, not graduates who are trained to do very specific specialized jobs. Long gone are the days  in which most people expected to work for a single company for their entire careers and to follow a designated career path within that company—as long gone as the days in which most faculty members expected to be on a tenure track. Lifelong learning has gone from being an axiom to a necessity, but employers, more than policy makers, have recognized that the basis for that learning, the initial college education, needs to be broader, rather than narrower.

Likewise, we should be focused on cost-effectively delivering what study after study has indicated actually most enhances student learning: more interaction between faculty members and students and more emphasis on application of knowledge and group exercises. Certainly technology can be used to great effect to enhance these strategies, but the proponents of great economies of scale in digital instruction are proposing “solutions” to problems of access and affordability that run counter to just about everything that we have learned about pedagogy. The very serious problem with completion rates among those enrolled in MOOCs is not a problem that can be solved technically; rather, it reflects the most fundamental problem with this ongoing attempt to transform a delivery method with limited, effective applications into a broader strategy for delivering college courses.

Trends continue only until they become troubling or unsustainable. Then what had been a trend suddenly becomes a dead end. An institutional planner who mistakes a self-fulfilling prophecy for an inevitable or unavoidable circumstance is not an effective strategist but the administrative equivalent of a pedant. In politics and government, a corollary distinction exists between those who advance their own narrow ideologies and those with the vision of true statesmen, who remain focused on what best combines past practice and innovation and on what is in the common good.

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