Star-Telegram: College degrees as important as ever
July 5, 2011
Lawyers call it a "straw man" argument, an assertion that seems logical at first blush but is easily knocked down by fact and reason.
For those dedicated to increasing opportunities for students through a college education, the straw man has been unusually persistent this year.
Two years ago, state and national leaders were challenging America to dramatically increase the number of adults with a college degree. Texas lawmakers identified new funds to accelerate university research, rightfully viewing academic innovation as an economic engine that attracts businesses, creates jobs and keeps our nation secure.
The statewide slogan was a high call: college for all Texans.
What a difference a difficult budget season makes.
Narrowly focused groups this year have questioned the value of a college education. Their members assert that university research that can't predict its ultimate result should be discouraged.
The billionaire founder of PayPal has offered students with entrepreneurial ideas $100,000 to shun an undergraduate education.
Organizations waving the banners of "efficiency" and "productivity" have taken raw data about teaching loads, salaries and research grants and manipulated the numbers to devalue the important work that goes on within the best universities.
I'm reminded of the 1981 film Absence of Malice, in which the narrator sums up the plot: "Suppose you picked up this morning's newspaper and your life was a front-page headline. Everything they said was accurate, but none of it was true."
In recent weeks, many Texas business executives, philanthropists and civic leaders have stepped forward with a unified voice to say such attacks on our state's colleges and universities are ill-founded and threaten our state's future.
College remains one of the best investments any of us can make. Employment rates among college graduates far outpace those among people without an undergraduate degree. And the jobs college graduates get pay much more.
In a new report, "The Undereducated American," Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale sounds alarms that increasing numbers of U.S. adults without a college education are costing our country economic productivity, not to mention widening the income gap between the educated and the less-so.
UT Arlington students and their families appear to see these facts clearly. Applications for the 2011-12 academic year are at an all-time high. Enrollment has grown 33 percent since fall 2008, and retention and graduation rates are on the rise. Those students understand that the odds of future success improve with one or more college degrees. They embrace the opportunity to refine their critical thinking skills and to gain the power to shape our culture and our well-being as a nation.
At the same time, more UT Arlington faculty members are offering select courses and programs online -- an option that some professors and students find engaging and efficient. Such courses will not replace the classroom experience. Yet when quality faculty members control the content, online programs can be an important option for working professionals, students in rural areas and others whose schedules do not mesh with the traditional campus.
What about the value of university research? Innovative research and excellent teaching go hand-in-hand. Research inspires the best teachers and adds to the body of knowledge in their fields. The best researchers teach their students to hypothesize, test and prove assumptions -- essential tools for solving real-world problems.
Our faculty members this year have licensed technology to efficiently convert untapped natural gas resources for immediate use as jet and diesel fuel, developed an environmentally friendly method of removing lead from contaminated soil and built models for improving patient care through better doctor-nurse communication.
In each case, the innovations come from professors who teach popular courses -- from chemistry and environmental health to cooperative nursing.
Have you ever heard anyone regret having attended college? I haven't.