National Trends in Higher Education

Here are some of the contemporary issues that guided our research and interviews.  These discussions are not intended to be comprehensive, but instead seek to give our audience of the ideas that influenced our work.

Established in 1948, the State University of New York system sought to provide affordable, government subsidized education in the wake of World War II. Since then, the college has expanded and now consists of “29 state-operated campuses and 5 statutory colleges,” as well as 30 community colleges. Additionally, SUNY recently launched an online education initiative, “Open SUNY,” and between the physical and virtual classrooms, SUNY currently educates over 600,000 people, and grants nearly 100,000 degrees every year. Additionally, SUNY awards 920 million dollars in research funding each year, providing over 7,000 research grants. Here’s the SUNY mission statement from the SUNY website; I’ve italicized an important sentence: The mission of the state university system shall be to provide to the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary programs including such additional activities in pursuit of these objectives as are necessary or customary. These services and activities shall be offered through a geographically distributed comprehensive system of diverse campuses which shall have differentiated and designated missions designed to provide a comprehensive program of higher education, to meet the needs of both traditional and non-traditional students and to address local, regional and state needs and goals. In fulfilling this mission, the state university shall exercise care to develop and maintain a balance of its human and physical resources The mission statement continues, but for the purposes of our project, we’re interested in “campuses which shall have differentiated and designated missions.”

For starters, this mission statement paints SUNY as an incredible portal of accessibility, one that crosses boundaries of geography, class, and race. In the portal of access that SUNY provides, different campuses fulfill different roles. With our extensive general education and “liberal arts breadth” courses (of which the Humanities sequence is a part), we see Geneseo as the designated SUNY liberal arts college. Many people–even those attending such universities–don’t understand what it means to attend a liberal arts college. Generally speaking, the liberal arts will play out most evidently in the courses you take; more subtly, however, at a liberal arts college, the idea of liberal arts and fulfilling the liberal arts mission influences all important conversations on campus. In fact, in all of our interviews for this project, professors stated that the liberal arts was an integral part of their decision to teach at Geneseo. One professor even noted that liberal arts is the very reason we could have our conversation, but few people realize the benefits of receiving a liberal arts education. This professor’s statements highlight the exact necessity of our project: creating visibility for the importance of liberal arts. So what does it mean to attend a liberal arts college, and how is it different from attending any other public institution of higher education? If we look at Geneseo and the SUNY system, a few points stand out immediately that demonstrate the difference between the liberal arts and the non-liberal arts: the mission statement. While the SUNY mission statement is incredible in its sense of responsibility for educating everyone, the nuances of the statement are secondarily a form of economic involvement and commodity appreciation. Take for instance, the section, “[SUNY] encourages and facilitates basic and applied research for the purpose of the creation and dissemination of knowledge vital for continued human, scientific, technological and economic advancement.” The primary mission is advancement of human knowledge, but the specter of the market is ever present. This is not a criticism–after all, colleges are businesses–rather, a recognition of different modes of existence for college universities. On the other hand, we have Geneseo as a liberal arts insitution–an institution that seeks to provide students the skills to be informed citizens, as opposed to appreciating a commodity for the market. (For more on this, see our post “The Future of Higher Education,” which focuses on the bifurcated ideologies that support higher education). Geneseo’s mission statement reflects its liberal arts orientation: “the entire College community works together to advance knowledge and inspire students to be socially responsible and globally aware citizens who are prepared for an enriched life and success in the world.”

While this liberal arts orientation stands out to anyone who stumbles upon this part of Geneseo’s website, many students aren’t aware that understanding the mission statement can help students understand the nuances of Geneseo’s administrative conversations, and discussions surrounding academics, student affairs, and the community. The general education requirements. Following the revamping of general education that has dominated conversations regarding higher education in the past few years, in 2010 SUNY changed their gen ed requirements. Students in the SUNY system are required to take two “competency” courses, and then seven courses in a field of ten disciplines (this works out to about 28 credits). Beyond these requirements, individual institutions mandate what courses a student must take. Geneseo adopted and expanded these requirements: students must take at least one course in all ten disciplines, and two courses in four of the disciplines–fine arts, western civilization, natural sciences, and social sciences. While students can fulfill the requirements with a variety of courses, every single student has to take the humanities sequence. In our opinion, the humanities sequence is the primary means by which Geneseo achieves its liberal arts mission, as the learning outcomes of the sequence include the ability to “demonstrate knowledge of the contributions of significant Western thinkers to ongoing intellectual debate about moral, social, and political alternatives.”


In higher education, institutions often hire adjunct professors to teach introductory courses and high-demand courses, like a university’s freshmen writing requirement and other general education requirements. According to the Atlantic, however, these adjunct professors now make up two-thirds of faculty. While this statistic is not inherently problematic, adjunct professors often receive incredibly low pay, few (if any) benefits, and institutions frequently limit adjuncts’ teaching hours so that the institution is not required to provide health insurance for these “contingent” workers. Ordinarily, adjuncts normally receive about $2,000 for each course they teach—or, in terms of the amount of student tuition that goes towards paying adjuncts, about $65 per student per semester. Additionally, people who wish to make a living as an adjunct professor often need to teach at six different schools in order to put in enough teaching hours for a livable salary. Research on the effectiveness of adjunct professors as educators (in contrast to tenured professors) is inconclusive; several studies suggest that students learn better from adjuncts, several studies suggest otherwise. But some areas of research on adjunct professorship yield indisputable results: learning is improved when adjuncts are treated better. PhDs who are struggling to gain enough teaching hours to make a livable salary rarely have the time or resources to perform their own research. While this obviously means fewer scholarly contributions that could expand or subvert our understanding of the world, it more subtly implies that students are losing opportunities to perform their own research, or assist in their professor’s research. Additionally, because adjunct professors need to travel to other institutions so frequently, students lose access to the potential resources a professor would otherwise be able to give.


The so-called “canon war,” put simply, is an ongoing debate in the higher ed academy over which (primarily) literary texts should be taught.  Generally this “war” is waged between “traditionalists”—who emphasize the importance of “the great texts” (Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, The Odyssey, and other texts written largely by dead, white, European men)—and the multiculturalists, who believe in the value of studying texts from a variety of different cultural sensibilities and emphasize non-European texts by women and people of color. Both sides of the debate—the traditional approach and the multicultural approach—develop different skill sets and critical methodologies, and accordingly are both important in their own right.  Generally speaking, in the traditional canon, emphasis is placed on craftsmanship and the way a text informs us about the human condition.  The same is true for multiculturalists, but multicultural texts usually have greater emphasis on social justice and the social implications of a text.  But this is not to say a text from either side cannot be read through both lenses.


Liberal arts education has been—and currently is, more than ever—in a state of crisis.  Polarized conceptualizations of the function of higher education divide the population into two schools of thought:  those who believe “American colleges [are] supposed to prepare future citizens for civically engaged adulthood” in addition to the skill they obtain, and those who believe that the Universities’ “job [is] to provide student consumers a market driven good so they’re capable of becoming productive participants in the economy.”  Whichever philosophy your institution subscribes to will affect your everyday college experience:  liberal arts universities generally have smaller class sizes, more student engagement with professors, more seminars and fewer lectures, greater general education requirements, and broader areas of study compared to their non-liberal arts counterparts.  On the other hand, non-liberal arts colleges often offer more specialized courses of study including technical and vocational programs—and as a result these institutions do not require students to branch out from their field of study and explore other methodologies of thought. Opponents of liberal arts see higher education as a means of contributing to the economy; for instance, North Carolina governor Patrick McRory has said of liberal arts ideologies:  “if you want to take gender studies, that’s fine.  Go to a private school and take it.  But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.”  And Florida governor Rick Scott concurs, asking if it is “a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists;” his answer:  “I don’t think so.”Alternately, many college administrators, employers, and students, see the liberal arts as both necessary in order to create informed and prepared citizens, and to boost one’s commodity value.   Indeed, “nearly 90% of corporate executives want employees” who are “able to read things critically and then [be] able to articulate how you can change things going forward and assess things.”