Updated 4:03 p.m., 2/8/11
“Let ‘em do some ‘E!’” President Morton Schapiro said as he closed a discussion Monday night at the Buffett Center entitled “RESOLVED, a liberal arts education is still worth it,” sponsored by the Northwestern Political Union.
By “E”, Schapiro referred to experiential learning — education through internships, community service and other activities outside the classroom. He said that Northwestern wastes its quarter system by not including such programs. Schapiro has been talking about adding them to the curriculum since at least September, and, in a December interview with North by Northwestern, said that experiential learning programs may be included in the university’s soon-to-be-announced strategic plan.
Schapiro kept his speech short, leaving most of the 90-minute talk for questions from students. The crux of his speech revolved around the central question: Is a liberal arts education worth the price?
Schapiro answered, “I’m pretty sure.” He said that from an economic perspective, the value of a liberal arts education continues to rise. He traced the history of the degree from the mid-20th century, saying that the value of college degrees hit a low in the early ’70s when a recession reduced the number of American jobs requiring them. Since then, Schapiro said, demand for employees with college degrees has risen, as blue collar jobs moved overseas. Now, he said, the standard of living for Americans without degrees “has just plummeted,” meaning that college degrees are more valuable than ever.
“When people ask me, and they say, ‘College is expensive,’ I say, not as expensive as not going to college,” he said. “Because if you don’t go to college, you’re dead in the water.”
Schapiro also addressed the non-monetary value of a degree. He said it was “unfortunate” that many people today fail to talk about the importance of a degree in shaping responsible citizens. Although he said finding an economic value to moral formation is “statistically hard to untangle,” Schapiro said he believed college educations help form better citizens who are more open to diversity.
“Those are the skills that will keep you employed,” he said. “And not only employed, but as a better citizen.”
The Northwestern Political Union was established in 2008 and received support from a grant by the office of former President Henry Bienen, but the group has had little contact with Schapiro until now. “We wanted to develop a relationship with President Schapiro, and we were happy to have him speak on a topic of his choice,” Weinberg senior Ben Armstrong said. Armstrong is Political Union co-president who has contributed to North by Northwestern in the past.
Some of the more provocative parts of the discussion came over topics not on the agenda. In response to a question about the Living Wage Campaign, he said, “I really do fundamentally believe [raising wages of University workers] would be a disaster for employment.”
Still, he said he had respect for the students involved in the campaign, mentioning that he once encountered protesters standing outside his office despite a snowstorm. But he then added with sarcasm, “I was so happy when I saw people out there yelling that I should die.”
While Schapiro defended many of the university’s decisions, he expressed regret over the admissions choices of Northwestern and other top-ranked American universities.
Citing statistics off the top of his head, he said that a majority of students in America’s top 31 private universities — or COFHE schools — are from the top fifth income bracket. A little more than ten percent of students, he said, come from the bottom two fifths.
“We have a great moral obligation at COFHE schools to really diversity, socioeconomically or otherwise,” Schapiro said. For most of Northwestern’s and other COFHE schools’ histories, he said, “We were educating anybody who went to a prep school.”
If anything, Schapiro made clear Monday night that he imagines there is change in Northwestern’s future. In only his second academic year at Northwestern, he joked during his speech that he still has unpacking to do in his home, an image that may stand for more than just his material possessions. Schapiro has big ideas for the biggest university he has ever run.
Correction: The article as originally published said that Political Union was established with a grant from President Henry Bienen. But Political Union was established prior to the receipt of any grant, and only received support from his office a number of months later.
President Schapiro was erroneously quoted as saying, “I fundamentally believe that [the economics of] the Living Wage Campaign would be disastrous.” The wording of that quote has been fixed. Additional information has been added to clarify Schapiro’s quote about COFHE school diversity.