When the University of Hawaii announced an overall increase in enrollment at its 10 campuses for the Fall 2011 session, the state's public university system matched the growth trend in higher education nationwide. There was an anomaly in the data: The three largest community college campuses on Oahu registered lower enrollments.
The numbers may reflect the reason many individuals went to college in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn was to seek retraining after losing their jobs. With the Oahu visitor industry picking up in 2011, would-be students are finding jobs that displace the need for more schooling.
That equation aligns with arguments of educational critics over the purpose of higher education. President Barack Obama made it an issue for his administration, promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs for students to maintain American leadership in developing technologies and to build the U.S. economy.
Penn State English professor John Marsh cautions that increased emphasis on the value of higher education can be placing the effect before the cause ("Class Dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality," Monthly Review Press, July 2011).
"The U.S. economy, despite claims to the contrary, will continue to produce more jobs that do not require a college degree than jobs that do. A college degree will not make those jobs pay any more than the pittance they currently do," Marsh says. "What will make those bartending and other jobs outside the professions pay something closer to a living wage - if not a living wage itself - constitutes, to my mind, one of the major public-policy challenges of the 21st century . . .
"We need to cultivate a new modesty regarding education: to stop believing that it is a magic potion for the poor or anyone else. Only after we've cleared the deck of those mistaken beliefs can we embark on a serious effort to fix the problems" ("Why education is not an economic panacea," Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 28, 2011, www.chronicle.com).
Political scientist turned conservative education analyst James Piereson draws similar conclusions in reviewing three recent books on failings in higher education, arguing: "A college education is now deemed one of those prizes that, if good for a few, must therefore be good for everyone, even if no one in a position of academic authority can define what such an education is or should be" ("What's wrong with our universities," The New Criterion, September 2011; www.newcriterion.com).
In both cases, though, the perceived problem may come from viewing higher education as a monolith when there are thousands of institutions offering thousands of options.
Education at Harvard is not the same at Cal Tech or University of Hawaii at Hilo or UH-Maui College. But each has a goal of preparing students for career and professional opportunities. The problem is less what universities and colleges have to offer than whether students are prepared to take advantage of the choices and opportunities presented to them.
In critiquing a book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa ("Academically Adrift: Limited learning on college campuses," University of Chicago Press), Piereson makes a point of student preparedness: "The one conclusion that they do not reach is that too many students are attending college who are either not motivated or lack the skills to do college-level work."
But Piereson then extends a suggestion unsupported by evidence that colleges are lowering standards to accommodate weak students. In fact, an issue for many colleges is low graduation rates.
Many students are unprepared for college level work, but rather than the colleges that Piereson blames, the fault may be in the educational pipeline - the secondary schools that send those students to college. (To be continued next week.)
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.