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What is college for? Gov. Shapiro raises the question. Higher ed leaders are listening.

Pa.'s new governor Josh Shapiro's first move was to question the need of a college diploma as a job credential. U.S. universities, pay attention.

Yale students pass by Sterling Library on their way to and from classes. The Ivy League university's School of Management recently convened a summit of college presidents and other higher-ed leaders.
Yale students pass by Sterling Library on their way to and from classes. The Ivy League university's School of Management recently convened a summit of college presidents and other higher-ed leaders.Read moreStan Godlewski / The Washington Post

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — What is college actually for?

No one expected this to be the initial question raised by Pennsylvania’s new governor, Josh Shapiro, in his first full day on the job. While he may not have stated it explicitly, this was the essence of the Democrat’s very first executive order, which opened up some 92% of job listings in state government — about 65,000 in all — to applicants who don’t have a four-year college degree.

In branding degree requirements for many jobs as “arbitrary” and declaring “there are many different pathways to success,” the Keystone State’s new chief executive was tugging at the shaky Jenga block that has undergirded the appalling rise of a $1.75 trillion student debt bomb in the U.S. and led, arguably, to a college/non-college divide driving our nation’s bitter politics. The notion is this: You can’t make it in 21st-century America without that most expensive piece of sheepskin: the college diploma.

Experts call it “credentialism” — a trend that began around the 1970s and kept accelerating — for company job recruiters to require a bachelor’s degree even for jobs (from IT specialist to, yes, newspaper reporter) that may not really need one. Millions of young Americans may not know the term “credentialism,” but the concept is baked into their brain, from their teen SAT prep classes to get into the “right school,” to their monthly debt payments that can drag onto into middle age and well beyond.

Shapiro’s executive order this month sped up a reversal that is only gaining steam. Maryland’s then-governor, Larry Hogan (R), imposed a similar rule last year, and a growing number of big companies — including IBM, Google, and Apple — are on the cutting edge of a movement to yank degree requirements for most jobs while pumping up the role of shorter, much less expensive programs to instead gain certificates for key skills.

So the $64,000 question (OK, $80,000 ... for one year on some elite private campuses) is this: If you don’t need the credential, do you actually need college?

The women and men who run America’s 4,360 four- and two-year colleges and universities are acutely aware of the question. I can confirm this after spending an extraordinary day this week on the campus of Yale University, at a summit of roughly 50 of the nation’s top higher-ed leaders. From elite schools like Harvard (whose president Lawrence Bacow touched base via Zoom) and New York University to the heads of community colleges and smaller private liberal arts colleges, the attendees at the Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit put on by its School of Management understand that U.S colleges are facing an existential crisis.

» READ MORE: America’s real college debt: How we failed an entire generation

The free-flowing discussions led by feisty Yale management guru Jeffrey Sonnenfeld were on a background basis to ensure an open and candid exchange of ideas. But I can tell you there was a powerful sense of urgency among these campus leaders. There were multiple references to a political crisis epitomized by “the governor of Florida” — that would be Ron DeSantis, whose war on higher ed in the Sunshine State has tackled everything from tenure to “critical race theory.” But the growing debate over the role of college in America is also driven by the math. Enrollment has dropped by about 1 million students in the last two years, and is still falling. During that same period, public trust in U.S. colleges and universities plummeted by 14 percentage points.

“We need to do a better job explaining what we do here,” Robert Iuliano, president of Gettysburg College in central Pennsylvania, said during one of the sessions. He said colleges need to stress not only the economic benefit of an advanced education but also a “sense of commitment to the common good, the commonwealth.” He said his small liberal arts college seeks to instill that for freshmen with an event, the First Year Walk, that retraces Abraham Lincoln’s steps in 1863 to the cemetery where his stirring Gettysburg Address is read by a faculty member.

I was privileged to hear this discussion because Sonnenfeld invited me to talk about my 2022 book, After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix it. There was a keen sense of how U.S. universities have become a punching bag for GOP politicos (even if, as one attendee noted, they’ll still ask for help in getting a family member admitted behind closed doors).

And they understand how their institutions are perceived by many of the 63% of American adults who don’t have a bachelor’s degree. One attendee quoted the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel on the myth of meritocracy — that bias against the undereducated is the last acceptable prejudice in America.

But there were sharp differences in opinion over how much higher education needs to change to meet the rising chorus of criticism, and how much of the current crisis is instead largely a perception problem: That college leaders inside the fading ivory tower forgot to explain to the folks down below what they contribute to society. I also heard some pointed defense of meritocracy, as long as women, people of color, and others get an equal chance to compete.

NYU president Andrew Hamilton, in an interview at the end of the day, seemed to worry that leaders like Shapiro may go too far the other way in undervaluing what a college degree can do. He noted that the governor “will be seeking the future bridge builders of Pennsylvania — with the qualifications to ensure the future drivers of Pennsylvania are safe because of the quality of the design and the mathematics of making sure it stays standing.” Those math and design skills, presumably, would be learned at a school like NYU.

“For the vast majority of people, a degree is a stepping stone to a prosperous and productive life,” Hamilton said. “We lose a lot when we lose that.”

But there is a belated sense among political leaders that the dominance of Hamilton’s argument, and of college credentialism in the job market, has caused America to lose focus on job training that benefits the millions of Americans who lack the desire to sit in a college classroom — or take on five-figure debt. While President Biden has fended off criticism that his stalled-in-the-courts $500-billion student-debt cancellation plan is a sop to college-educated Democrats, the reality is that his economic programs are increasingly targeting those lacking diplomas. The Biden-backed CHIPS and Science Act has triggered the announcement of new semiconductor factories in New York, Ohio, and Indiana; the Brookings Institute says 60% of these jobs are for non-college grads.

Something is clearly gained by giving America’s young people more career options that won’t contribute to that $1.75 trillion college debt bomb. But are we talking enough about what could be lost in a new system that not only devalues the university but also seems to ratify a dubious idea — that higher education is almost solely about careerism, and not the wider knowledge and critical-thinking skills that come from liberal arts learning?

“The DeSantis argument ... we buy that colleges have economic value, that we need workers,” Edward Wingenbach, president of the progressive-minded Hampshire College in Massachusetts, told me. “But if it’s totally vocational — we don’t need to understand how structural inequality works, how racism works, we don’t need to create a liberatory society, that’s not what college is about,” he added. At Hampshire, “we don’t buy into that.”

Neither do I. It’s great that someone can now land an IT job with Google after a one-year certificate program, but are we sure this new workforce will also have the critical thinking skills to fend off today’s online tsunami of QAnon-baked conspiracy theories and misinformation, or to vote for leaders who see long-term issues like climate change and not just instant gratification at the gas pump? It took 24 hours for a governor like Shapiro to end the reign of credentialism, but can he do the hard work of convincing Republicans to fund civics education?

I can’t stop thinking about one anecdote I heard during the day on the Yale campus — on how the renowned German physicist Max Planck pleaded with Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s to stop firing or persecuting Jewish or left-wing university professors, prompting the dictator to respond: “So we’ll do without science for a few years.”

The historic irony was that science — specifically radar technology — is ultimately what defeated the Nazis and their allies. The current irony is that in a moment of collapsing Antarctic ice shelves and lethal misinformation about vaccines, science may be even more important now than it was in 1945.

It’s taken far too long to ask the right questions about college. We have precious little time to come up with the right answers.

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