Conference: Wake Forest to Examine Value of College Education

RALEIGH, N.C. – For Bill Zandi, the son of Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi, enrolling as a student at a prestigious private institution like Wake Forest University was less surprising than the student’s choice of major: philosophy.

“Originally I was going to follow in my dad’s footsteps, but I’ve always been more interested in philosophical ideals,” the younger Zandi said.

With the cost of higher education soaring, from Ivy League schools to community colleges, an increasingly loud chorus of voices is questioning whether the results justify the cost, and whether the traditional liberal arts education, with its ideal of shaping well-rounded lives, is outmoded in the contemporary world of high-tech work.

To answer those questions, Wake Forest is convening a gathering of faculty, administrators and thinkers from around the country to examine the value of higher education. The “Rethinking Success” conference is scheduled to start Wednesday with a keynote address from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and run through Friday.

One of the major tasks confronting higher education today is responding to skeptics who question the value of, say, a philosophy degree. Last fall, Florida Gov. Rick Scott made headlines when he told a radio talk show host that many humanities degrees were essentially luxuries and that, “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering (and) math degrees.”

The reason, Scott said, was simple: “So when they get out of school, they can get a job.’

Many students apparently agree: between 1990 and 2009, the number of liberal arts colleges in the United States dropped from 212 to 136, according to study by Michigan State University researcher Roger Baldwin. And while more than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees today are granted in business, about 8 percent are granted in humanities majors.

But the idea that employers are looking for graduates with only a narrow set of skills is not borne out by Wake Forest’s experience, according to Andy Chan, vice president of Personal and Career Development.

“At a very high level, we’re doing a lot of things to help students understand what the direction is they want to choose no matter what their major is,” he said.

Since Chan came to the school two years ago, his office has expanded from seven to 30 employees, and has raised roughly $8.5 million for a variety of career development efforts. Students now create profiles to track their interests and skills, attend career fairs even as freshmen and sophomores, and are urged to think about how to apply their talents after graduation. The response has been enthusiastic from undergraduates who are keenly aware of the difficult job market, Chan said.

“They feel a lot of the pressure,” he said. “They feel a lot of stress about, ‘What am I going to do after college?’”

Bill Zandi already had an idea of what he wanted to do when he enrolled at Wake. As a high school freshman in Pennsylvania, he wanted to find a way to help students like him after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

That eventually led to two tractor-trailers of school supplies and furnishings donated from local schools being shipped to New Orleans, and to the group Students Helping Students, which is now a nonprofit group that has expanded to include schools in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

For Zandi, who plans to continue running the group after he graduates, philosophy is perhaps the most practical discipline he could have studied in college.

“I wanted to gain certain skills from this major,” he said, including critical thinking, formulating arguments and counter-arguments, and improving his writing and communication skills. “I really do believe that it gives me a greater perspective on how we’re living life today and maybe how we should strive to be living.”

Mark Zandi, who spends his days training his perspective on everything from the inner workings of the Federal Reserve to the rising cost of gasoline, might have felt initial surprise at his son’s decision, but he said it makes good practical sense.

“I hire a lot of kids in my work, and the skills I look for are: Are they articulate, can they present a thought in a cogent way, do they write well, can they express a perspective and a point of view?” he said. “I think we need more scientists and engineers, but there’s always going to be a demand for people with a varied educational background.”

That’s something that’s been noted in rapidly growing Asian economies like China, Chan said, where universities are scrambling to launch liberal arts programs of their own.

“Ironically, at the same time that’s happening in Asia, in the United States we have people saying we should forget the liberal arts because they’re not preparing students for careers,” he said.