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AP IMPACT: Post-recession, higher ed paths diverge

Tuesday - 6/25/2013, 4:54am  ET

ADVANCE FOR MONDAY JUNE 24, 2013 In this April 23, 2013 photo, first-year students of Yuanjing Academy clap while a classmate gives a lecture during a biweekly lecture competition held on the top floor of their dormitory building near a construction site at College of Mobile Telecommunications, Chongqing University of Posts and Telecom in Chongqing, China. In its once tightly planned economy, China's universities churned out graduates for specific lines of work, but now there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

DIDI TANG
Associated Press Writers

CHONGQING, China (AP) -- Determined to learn their way out of the Great Recession -- or eager to rise above the deprivation of developing lands -- unprecedented millions of people have enrolled in colleges and universities around the world in the past five years.

What they're finding is an educational landscape turning upside down.

In the United States -- where top schools have long championed a liberal style of learning and broad education before specialization -- higher education's focus is shifting to getting students that first job in a still-shaky economy. Tuition is so high and the lingering economic distress so great that an education not directly tied to an occupation is increasingly seen as a luxury.

Elsewhere in the world, there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity.

Advocates hear employers demanding the "soft skills" -- communication, critical thinking, and working with diverse groups -- that broad-based learning more effectively instills. They want to graduate job-creators, not just job-fillers. They think the biggest innovations come from graduates who are well-rounded -- from empathetic engineers, say, or tech-savvy anthropologists.

In Europe, where for centuries students have jumped straight into specialized fields and studied little else, recent changes have pushed back specialization, making more room for general education. In Africa and the Middle East, experiments are moving away from a relentlessly narrow education tradition. And on a much bigger scale, China is breaking down the rigid disciplinary walls that have long characterized its higher education system.

All of this is happening in the shadow of the Great Recession, which began in late 2007 with the near-collapse of the global financial system, depressing economies and employment worldwide. Today, some countries are recovering, but all are coming to grips with a world altered by hard times.

Higher education is widely seen -- both by nations and individuals -- as the way to prosperity.

Over roughly the last half-decade, according to UNESCO, enrollment in colleges and universities rose one-third in China and almost two-thirds in Saudi Arabia, nearly doubled in Pakistan, tripled in Uganda, and surged by 3 million -- 18 percent -- in the United States. In 2001, global enrollment first passed 100 million; a decade later, the estimated figure was 182 million.

But what kind of education will best drive economic growth?

When foreign delegations visit American campuses these days, they increasingly skip the usual research universities to scope out liberal arts colleges such as Amherst and Williams, says Patti McGill Peterson of the American Council on Education.

They're seeking the "magic" that helped launch companies like Apple and Google. China, in particular, is recruiting disheartened American academics and putting them to work.

There's "a weird symmetry" at work in the educational world, says Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, author of "College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be."

As people in the United States "talk less and less about the value of liberal education," he says, "our so-called economic competitors talk about it more and more."

____

On the outskirts of Chongqing, a sprawling megalopolis of 29 million in southwest China, stand a pair of college campuses -- one representing education's past in the world's most populous country, and the other, perhaps, its future.

In its mission and dreary name, the College of Mobile Telecommunications is typical of China's hundreds of Soviet-era universities: rote learning, hyper-specialization and a lock-step course of study for all.

On a hill above it, surrounding a secluded courtyard, stands a new experiment, something very different -- Yuanjing Academy. Here, college students take a broad array of subjects their first year, in small classes, learning to do things like argue about literature and play the guitar.

On a recent sunny afternoon, in the checkered shadow of a traditional Buddhist "Bodhi" tree of wisdom on campus, a visiting Dutch academic named Hans Adriaansens sat conversing with Yuanjing students about their ambitions, work and daily worries.

Adriaansens is an adviser to the school, and his journey here is a kind of microcosm of the global movement.

Early in his career, he studied at American campuses including Harvard and Smith College, falling in love with liberal arts learning. Later, he struggled for decades to bring the model to Europe, where students historically have been channeled into specialties as early as age 12.

"When I started, everybody was against it, even at my own university," he says.

That's changed. In recent years, he's helped leading Dutch universities install liberal arts colleges within their campuses. Across Europe, schools have opened space during the first years for broader learning, delaying specialization.

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