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Is College for Earning Bigger Bucks or Learning Deeper Thinking. Can It Be Both?

Back to Skills

What’s the point of college?

At Arizona State University, it’s often about “the entrepreneurial mindset,” as Sethuraman Panchanathan put it, who helps lead the university’s research and economic development efforts.

That means not just preparing students for jobs, he said, but rather teaching them to think creatively and convert smart ideas into tools and services that benefit a wide range of communities. The approach has paid dividends for a school with 91,000 undergraduate and graduate students that has attracted $600 million of venture capital in the past decade, according to Panchanathan. This success is cementing ASU’s place as one the cornerstones of Phoenix’s economic revival.

But not all colleges view themselves as the foundries of tomorrow’s highly skilled workers, reporters learned at a conference last month hosted by the Education Writers Association.

At tiny Deep Springs College, the school urges its fewer than 30 (yes, 30), students to develop a “sense of intellectual honesty which is required to sustain them against falling prey to dogmatism of any kind and to … fend off the oversimplifications or the polemical contempt that’s offered to them by political discourse of all stripes,” said David Neidorf, president of the college. The school also aims to impart its students “a kind of sympathy for the necessity of hypocrisy in all serious enterprises.”

When Deep Springs students aren’t studying, they’re working on the college’s cattle ranch or collaborating with staff on which students to admit and which new faculty to hire. Many of the students stay at Deep Springs for two years before heading to an Ivy League college to earn a bachelor’s degree (which troubles Neidorf, who added that his students “don’t have enough imagination to realize” they’d thrive just as well at a state college).

These two schools could hardly be more different, yet each embodies important concepts of what a college should be for its students and the larger community.

Both ASU and Deep Springs have their critics. The gargantuan public university is viewed by some as pushing a model of education that places too much of a burden on its instructors by arguably embracing the “more with less” model. Others have faulted the campus for accepting money to support ideologically conservative research and teaching. Deep Springs, though providing free tuition, room and board to its students, still does not enroll women. Others question how much other campuses can learn from a college that’s so small and underwritten by a generous endowment.

But the two schools shine in other ways.

ASU is fast emerging as a leader in science and engineering. Research by one of its scholars helped create a treatment for Ebola. Its engineering program is massive, with 20,000 students. Of those, 2,500 are Hispanic, more than 4,000 qualify for federal education grants because their families are relatively poor, and 4,000 students are women, according to ASU. While some programs have higher percentages of women or minority groups in their programs, their enrollments are dwarfed by the scale of the number of engineering students at ASU.

Most colleges and departments “measure their worth based upon who they don’t admit, how exclusive they are,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “In fact, in engineering, if we’re going to change the profession, really change it, change the kind of people that we attract as engineers, change the kind of engineers that we produce, we cannot have that mindset.”

Even the program names at ASU are redolent of a start-up culture seasoned with all the flavorings of innovation. One program, the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, builds devices and technologies for assisting individuals with a variety of disabilities. One of the center’s success stories is David Hayden, a legally blind student who double-majored in math and computer science and went on to develop a device that snaps photos of a professor’s lecture board that are then synced with a student’s typed notes. The device and its later iterations won prestigious awards from Microsoft, bringing some acclaim to ASU. Hayden then started a company to sell the product during his graduate studies at MIT. More recently, a group of students repurposed a large cylindrical barrel that moves and filters water simultaneously, an invention designed to address clean-water shortages in rural or poor areas around the globe.

Deep Spring’s Neidorf noted that his students learn both practical skills and the kinds of soul-enriching academics that are synonymous with classical learning. If this message is paradoxical, that’s fine with him. “They’re not doing the work [on campus] for money, they’re doing the work for the sense of efficacy and intuition and initiative and problem solving and community on a practical level,” he said.

More schools are trying to entwine the emphases on tomorrow’s skills and deep thinking, treating education less as an avenue toward employment and more a life-long commitment to personal growth and inquiry. For example, thanks to a generous donation from music impresarios Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young (better known as Dr. Dre), one school at the University of Southern California is attempting to reshape higher education to offer students who’ve never known a world without internet a new standard of learning, almost as if someone cross-pollinated the best aspects of ASU and Deep Springs.

The USC program, called the Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation, was founded in 2014. Its enrollment is minuscule, with around 25 students admitted each year, said Erica Muhl, founding executive director of the Iovine and Young Academy and also dean of the Roski School of Art and Design.

The program does things differently. One project had the students design and build ships made of cardboard and duct tape that they were to row across a swimming pool at the university. “The only problem is they received almost hourly texts from the instructor changing the parameters of the build,” said Muhl, “so they were forced to respond both to real-word situations in terms of constantly changing parameters but also a client who is making unreasonable demands.” The project was inspired by a business case study of the Vasa, an expensive Swedish warship that sank minutes after its maiden voyage in the 17th century as a result of what experts believe was extraordinary meddling from the king, who changed the ship’s design elements multiple times.

The academy offers what Muhl muses is the longest degree name in the country: an undergraduate Bachelor of Science in Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. The four-year program merges the arts, business, design, computer engineering and the humanities, plus adds a guest instructor component that corrals an impressive carousel of artists, business leaders and philanthropic leaders – such as the founder of Snapchat, a skateboarding mogul, the VP of creative affairs at Fox 21 Television Studios and the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine.

And those guests are put to work. Two weeks before the guest instructors visit, students are assigned design or business problems related to the speakers’ fields. After the guests make their remarks, students present their solutions to the problems that are then critiqued by the guest instructors.

In other classes, students are taught how to brainstorm and visualize key ideas using software and three-dimensional models. “Rapid visualization — the art of the napkin sketch,” said Muhl. “It’s really a napkin sketch on steroids.”

Admission to the program is highly competitive, however. Muhl said the students who are picked for the academy are at the top of their high schools’ math and science rankings and have demonstrated a large degree of creativity before applying. “It is our belief that a early life spent in the creative arts actually creates a type of thinker … that is in fact that is very supportive of innovation,” she said, citing students with a background in traditional arts, visual arts, music, creative writing, choreography, and screenwriting. Some have criticized the program for possibly drawing resources from the fine  arts program at USC.

Deep Spring’s Neidorf is ambivalent about higher education’s shift toward touting its innovative bona fides. “I do worry that the kinds of innovations we’re hearing about today will neglect some of the kinds of undergraduate education which is traditional, which is not really very helped much by online education or by scalable strategies, but which is essential to developing a mature and responsible citizenry,” he said. An education that stresses to students “telling the difference between what sounds like it’ll be good for them and thinking about what’ll be good for the society as a whole.”