On KCUR, MCC Vice Chancellor Carlos Penaloza discusses higher education trends

What’s the purpose of higher education these days, and what should we expect from a college degree?

MCC’s Carlos Peñaloza with “Central Standard” host Gina Kaufmann (far left) and UMKC’s Michelle Maher

That was the topic of KCUR’s “Central Standard” program June 29, a discussion that included MCC’s Dr. Carlos Peñaloza, vice chancellor for academic affairs, as well as Dr. Michelle Maher, a professor in UMKC’s School of Education, and Doug Lederman, co-founder and editor of the website Inside Higher Ed.

[ Listen to the program here ]

When it comes to reasons to go to college, have we gotten away from such “quaint” notions as understanding the human condition, learning for its own sake and becoming part of an informed citizenry? That was a question posed by host Gina Kaufmann early on.

One big change over the years has been the cost of college. Maher said that when she was a student in the late 1980s, tuition was low and she never considered whether college was the best use of her money and time.

But because of rising costs and rising student debt, “we’re now expecting higher education to prove its value,” Lederman said.

In the last few years, he said, the collective student debt hit a trillion dollars, and in the wake of the recession many college grads couldn’t find jobs and had to move back in with parents. Such trends have contributed to the perception that higher education is not delivering what it should, he said.

In most states, there’s been a “major pullback” in the proportion of public college budgets being supported by the state, Lederman said.

Has there been a cultural shift in what the purpose of college is? Kaufmann asked. Lederman said there’s been a political shift: “We’re increasingly seeing politicians and governments . . . view it through an economic prism.” That, he added, could signal “real danger” and, for instance, push students away from studying the humanities and liberal arts.

Peñaloza, asked what the goal of higher education should be in a perfect world, said it’s to create critical thinkers who can take anything and make something of it.

Are the concepts of learning for learning’s sake and preparing for a job at odds with one another? Not really, Peñaloza said. “You’re always learning; you always have to apply new concepts.”

Still, state legislatures may be more interested in funding career readiness programs than general education programs. Peñaloza noted that some MCC students are focused on earning a credential and getting a job; some are taking gen-ed classes in preparation for transferring to a four-year school; and some are hybrids of the two.

Peñaloza noted that he is a biologist by training (and a community college grad), but the general education courses he took made him “nimble” as he’s progressed in his career.

Another trend: “We’ve seen credential inflation in certain fields,” Lederman said, such as postal carriers needing bachelor’s degrees.

Four-year degrees have probably been over-emphasized, Lederman said, and associate degrees and certificates “underappreciated.” Maher noted that educators tend to think only in terms of semesters and 120 credits for a degree.

Lederman said there’s increasing talk about competency-based education, the idea that students can move on when they demonstrate mastery of a concept.

The nature of how learning is delivered is also changing, he said. Now, about one-third of students take at least one class online. Lederman also thinks we’ll see more emphasis on “smaller units of knowledge,” aka micro-credentials. The idea there, Peñaloza said, is that people can return to college as they need new skills.

As “post-secondary education and training” (as Lederman likes to call it) evolves, we’re seeing lots of experimentation, he says.

“There is a lot of creativity currently happening,” Peñaloza agreed, citing as an example a blending of high school programs with the college experience.