A PREMISE OF HIGHER EDUCATION is that if you study hard and do well in your courses, you will be rewarded at the next stage of life. Not only is knowledge an asset that helps a new graduate succeed in the world, but people in authority who respect the graduate's achievements will make decisions that can influence the lives of other young adults for the better. The challenge for each student is to prioritize goals, then decide which major to pursue and eventually which career and civic responsibilities to assume. The prudent answer to the fundamental question, "What do I want to do professionally and with my life?" always balances preferences against perceived opportunities.
This predictable pattern was often manifested a generation ago as the most talented college seniors chose medical school or PhD programs in scholarly fields. A decade later, college seniors with superb records more often chose law school over other options.
Most recently, lured by reports of astronomical bonuses and lives of luxury, many star undergraduates have chosen majors in economics and finance. Their calculation has been that the combination of a rigorous course of study and their innate intelligence will lead to careers that influence major institutions, support comfortable lives, and provide a worldview for understanding an otherwise unpredictable universe.
SHIFT IN CAREER CHOICES
The collapse of financial markets, the contraction of the housing market, and the loss of Wall Street fortunes and Main Street savings will most likely lead to changes again in the choices students make among professions. Perhaps the public outrage over the greed and immorality of some leaders of financial institutions will also lead to renewed emphasis on civic responsibility.
Whatever the new career choices by students, it's likely that their mass disenchantment with the exaggerated claims supporting a decision to major in economics, business, or finance will also influence their preferences among majors. Why, today, would anyone choose to major in a field that leads to careers in discredited institutions and has been so wrong in providing a framework for understanding the world?
This shift in career choices could be most significant for colleges that insist on general education in the liberal arts as underpinning for preprofessional studies, and it could be exacerbated by some of the steps that colleges are taking now to cope with the economic downturn. Hardly passive as the economy has deteriorated, many colleges have made dramatic innovations in cutting costs and devising new models of undergraduate education. Private colleges have been especially quick to launch imaginative and entrepreneurial approaches to their own revitalization. The cost cutting by colleges has been done in ways that are notably selfless and have benefited students.
The contrast couldn't be greater with financial institutions that, also faced with budgetary problems, gave large bonuses to senior management and imposed new fees on consumers. Look, for example, at many colleges' recent reductions in faculty compensation and increases in teaching loads, delays in construction of needed facilities, and cancellation of planned tuition increases.
For students, institutional belt-tightening has led to important educational opportunities: A four-year degree in three years is now possible in a small but growing number of institutions; so-called "frills" in co-curricular activities have been eliminated in return for a lower tuition charge; more courses are being offered with the convenience of online, asynchronous delivery; and study abroad programs are being shifted to lower-cost, less-visited parts of the world where immersion in a foreign culture has even more educational value.
Colleges need to be deliberate about whether these changes should be touted as short-term or long-term fixes. …