Chancellor Block joins others for KPCC radio panel on future of higher education
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and a panel of distinguished leaders in higher education joined KPCC-FM "AirTalk" host Larry Mantle last night for a lively discussion about the unprecedented challenges facing colleges and universities in the United States.
Recorded before a public audience of about 150 at the public radio station's Pasadena studios, "AirTalk: Higher Education — What Is Its Future?", which is part of a series of critical-issues seminars produced in affiliation with the Crawford Family Forum, aired this morning, Jan. 12, and is available online as a podcast.
The wide range of topics included dwindling state support for public colleges and universities, escalating tuition costs, "creaking teaching methodologies" that look outdated in an age of digital communication, and the value of a liberal arts degree to job-hungry graduates. Also on the panel were C.L. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California; Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges; and Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College.
"Perhaps it's because I so hated high school," Mantle began, that in college "I felt like I was in the greatest new world of higher education, (which) far surpassed my expectations." Today's tough economy, however, finds colleges and universities raising tuition and taking on belt-tightening measures, and graduates hustling for jobs.
Addressing Block, Mantle said, "You are attempting to keep an elite-level education (while) seeing state funding cut further and further. Is it really possible for the UC system to stay at an elite level with the diminished public funding?"
Conceding that maintaining elite status is a difficult challenge, Block replied, "I'm fairly confident that we can remain competitive with reduced funding. Just like private universities, philanthropy is becoming increasingly important for us. I think the evidence shows that both UCLA and Berkeley are thriving even in these very challenging times."
Block added that being situated in a "very generous city" benefits UCLA. "Not only do (we) have alumni who are very loyal to the institution, (we) have people in Los Angeles who are passionate about us," he said. "They've been touched either through the arts, through athletics, through the medical center. So I'm quite confident that between our 400,000 student alumni and friends throughout Los Angeles and the world," UCLA will continue to thrive.
Budget-trimming measures at California's community colleges, Mantle said, include rethinking admissions policies that historically have welcomed "all comers." "Are you concerned," he asked Scott, "about shutting out first-generation (college) students and others who aren't sure what they want to major in?"
Scott replied that the community college system must "establish priorities in a time of limited resources" and that it is doing so by more narrowly focusing on academic programs that teach career and technical skills, rather than "life enhancement" courses, such as tennis. This sharper focus will not hinder access to education among low-income students, he said, but will in fact better prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions. Block noted that about 40 percent of UCLA's third- and fourth-year students are transfers.
Also adding to the pressures, said USC's Nikias, is the fact that top-tier "universities are in an arms race to recruit the very best faculty and students" to build and sustain their school's academic reputations.
While a great faculty is certainly important, Mantle said, "People are saying that kids have a different way of relating to the world. Are classroom teaching methods relevant?" The idea of online education, for example, has received a lot of attention lately, and moving into online education, the college leaders agreed, is very much a trend at their institutions.
At UCLA, Block said, "things are changing very rapidly" in the digital arena. "We see a lot of experimentation," coupled with legitimate concerns about creating online courses that meet the standards for high-quality education. Still, he added, online classes and distance learning can never replace the "residential aspects of education" — from study groups to participation in campus organizations — "that will continue to remain important for our students."
Mantle also opened the debate on the value of bachelor's degrees in subjects like history and English, asking, "Aren't liberal arts just mind-broadening" at a time when degrees linking more directly to employment might be a smarter approach?
A liberal arts education, the panelists argued, is actually the smarter choice. Given an expected life span of 90 years for today's college generation, Nikias said, "I tell students, 'You're going to change careers many times. Don't overspecialize. Discover your passions.' " Said Scott, "It's important to say that a liberal arts education is a broadening of one's cultural understanding."
Block said that UCLA students are increasingly pursuing double majors or adding a career-oriented minor to a major in the humanities. Yet the value of a broader education remains, he said. "Recruiters tell us that they want people who can speak and write effectively ... and engage in critical thinking."
Mantle also asked if the value of a bachelor's degree is being diluted, given that going to college is becoming increasingly common.
Quite to the contrary, Scott said. "A college degree is more important than ever," he asserted, citing a study projecting that in the coming years, 63 percent of jobs in California will require a bachelor's degree or at least some college. He added that the differential in earnings between a person who has gone to college and a person with no college experience can add up to as much as $1 million over the course of a lifetime, making a college degree "economically more important than ever."
Listen to KPCC's podcast of the discussion here.