In 2012, Gov. Mitch Daniels summed up the goals of his work with the Indiana Commission on Higher Education by saying: The commissions strategic plan outlines a clear path to what has always been our No. 1 goal: increasing the personal income of Hoosiers.
Fifty years before, Milton Friedman wrote: Subsidizing the training of veterinarians, beauticians, dentists, and a host of other specialists, as is widely done in the United States in governmental supported educational institutions, cannot be justified on the same grounds as subsidizing elementary schools or, at a higher level, liberal arts colleges.
While we cannot deny the appeal of telling voters of a plan to increase their personal income, we share concerns with Friedman about setting the goal of taxpayer-funded higher education as an attempt to increase the incomes of individual citizens.
Our concerns are not merely academic: The vision of Daniels and the commission speaks to the purposes of higher education, the appropriate funding levels for higher education, and the right attitude toward student debt. Moreover, the governor is soon to be president of Purdue University.
The root of our concerns is the lost distinction between college courses that improve technical skills and courses that serve to advance a liberal arts education.
According to Friedman, courses in the liberal arts, often categorized as general education courses in Indiana, are beneficial for every member of a democracy, and so should receive government funding. For Friedman, government support for liberal arts education is justified by the neighborhood effects: a democracy of informed and educated citizens is preferable to democracy of the uneducated.
Vocational training is very different. As Friedman put it, Vocational and professional schooling has no neighborhood effect of the kind attributed to general education. It is not the role of government to control or even directly subsidize technical education. The economics of vocational training should be left to the market.
Friedmans distinction is important for Hoosiers because it sheds light on the goals of taxpayer funding for higher education. In Indiana (and elsewhere), it seems weve lost our way.
The demand by the Indiana Commission on Higher Education for more degrees of any kind fails to draw this important distinction between general education and technical skill and invites the state to intervene further in vocational and technical training. But this has the state take the role of parent and guidance counselor, rather than simply providing the means for an informed citizenry.
The responsibility for personal income needs to remain with the individual student. Organizing and administering undergraduate education in terms of students future personal income blurs the line between two distinct justifications for taxpayer-funded education: paternalism and an educated citizenry.
In the years that followed World War II, the benefits of a liberal arts education were obvious. The move to develop general education centered on the response to threats posed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
John A. Hannah, president of Michigan State College (later Michigan State University), perhaps said it best in 1944. We train technicians and professional men but not citizens. We prepare our students in small educational or vocational compartments, but the vast majority of them have the vaguest notions of the nature of American democracy and therefore no deep emotional ties to its welfare. We stimulate and cultivate the career purposes of our students, but we largely ignore the social and political purposes that must be aroused if democracy is to be sustained. Catastrophe lies ahead unless we return to the fundamental purpose of educating our students first as citizens and second as vocational specialists.
Today, as we discuss the role of general education, the need for technical training, the earning potential of students and the number of degrees that are awarded, the need for an educated and informed citizenry must not be forgotten. Perhaps more than ever, citizens need a solid basis in critical thinking that allows for enlightened citizenship.
As tempting as it is to focus only on earning potential, this obscures the primary role of the university. As Hannah said almost 70 years ago: Vocational purposes are vital, but they are not primary to the welfare of society. They must obviously be cultivated vigorously, but they must take second place to the purpose of educating an enlightened, social-minded citizenry.