Will tomorrow's universities prepare students for meaningful work?

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If I had one wish for my child, it would be happiness. As an adult, much of his happiness (or unhappiness) will stem from his work life. I’ve been thinking hard about whether a university education will prepare him to find work that makes him happy.

In Iowa, and other states, universities are changing. State governments have drastically decreased budgetary support. As a result, universities are increasingly run on corporate models. Programs that do not generate high levels of tuition or external grants, often programs in the arts and humanities, close. Student enrollments — and thus class sizes — increase. Because they work for low wages and no benefits, adjunct workers are hired instead of professors. These changes reduce the courses available to students, the individualization of instruction, and the expertise of faculty who teach.

Historically, obtaining a university degree made finding a well-paying job more likely. This may continue to be the case in the corporate university and that is good. It is hard to imagine happiness in the absence of a job that ensures, at a minimum, food, shelter and health care. But once those basic needs are met, more income does not ensure more happiness.

What matters is meaningful work. According to a 2014 Gallop poll, less than one-third of Americans are enthusiastic about work. The youngest Americans are the least engaged and the poll indicates why. They are less likely than older workers to find opportunities that tap their talents and strengths. This is not about money. It is about work that is interesting and challenging enough to yield a sense of achievement, work that contributes to the well-being of the worker and the community. I cannot know what that work will be for my child. As a young adult, he might not know either. The university years are a time for exploration. I want my son to consider new ideas and unknown fields. I want him to have rich options, not just options that will make him rich.

Still, the first option he chooses is unlikely to be his last. In March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that baby boomers averaged 11.7 jobs between ages 18 and 48. Perhaps my child will pursue 11 jobs. Maybe the corporate university will prepare him for the first, but will it prepare him for the 11th? My child must become intellectually nimble. He will need to think critically, creatively and flexibly. These are ways of thinking that are honed by a liberal arts education, the type of education that is at risk under corporatization. This is the “something more” that public universities of yesterday had to offer. But my child will attend the public university of tomorrow where preparing students to earn is prioritized.

Before the next election, pay attention to the higher education policies of the candidates and vote with the future in mind. Do not let state government take from my child — or yours — a chance to work with passion, commitment, and happiness.

• Karla McGregor is a mother of a 13-year-old son and a professor at the University of Iowa. Comments: kkmcgregor@gmail.com

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