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Senate Bill 5 Demeans University Education

Senator Russell Olson (R-8/Wentworth) declares his view that our public universities are mere vocational schools:

Section 2. The Legislature hereby finds, and declares to be the public policy of this state, that the purpose of public postsecondary education is to provide the following:

  1. A workforce that meets the current and prospective needs of the state's economy;
  2. Affordable postsecondary educational opportunities for all state citizens;
  3. Access to postsecondary education programs that serve to increase the educational attainment of the state's citizenry and thereby enable citizens to provide leadership in all sectors of life in the state; and
  4. A foundation upon which the state can grow the development and innovation capacities of the state's economy.

Section 3. The Legislature hereby recognizes that the current goals for public postsecondary education systems and institutions are as follows:

  1. To increase the number of graduates for the state's workforce; and
  2. To increase the growth capacity of the state's economy by increasing the innovation and development capacity of the state and by increasing the skills of the state's current workforce.

Such are the declarations at the top of Senate Bill 5, introduced by Sen. Olson and colleagues on behalf of the interim committee that met this summer to discuss the purpose and funding of higher education in South Dakota. In the eyes of this bill, the liberal arts, the humanities, the broadening of creativity and culture have no central role in university education. Senate Bill 5 says the point of public university education boils down to the economy, to churning out workers and GDP.

The bill creates a Council on Higher EducAtion Policy Goals, Performance, and Accountability (CHEAP-GPA?) to make sure our public campuses pursue the enumerated purposes and goals. The state will promote its narrow-minded vision of the purpose of higher education by offering the campuses performance funding. The amount of performance funding our public universities receive will hinge on two simple metrics: the number of science, technology, engineering, and math graduates; and the growth of spending on research.

Now the purpose statement includes the blanket language about promoting "leadership" in all sectors of life in South Dakota. The performance funding mentions other "critical areas" that the CHEAP-GPA may identify. But the liberal arts clearly are not "critical" enough to warrant the specific mention that STEM and the workforce get in Senate Bill 5. This legislation is just one more sign that our legislators don't understand the true nature of university education. They want to narrow the universe of knowledge and culture that should be at the core of every university's mission to a checklist of workforce metrics that serve no higher purpose than Gross Domestic Product.

But hey, if you want to streamline South Dakota's university system to focus on vocational training, go right ahead. Professors and students seeking something richer in their lives than a paycheck will simply seek their fuzzy-headed notions of philosophy, creativity, beauty, and the greater good elsewhere.


  1. Tom Emanuel 2012.12.19

    This is only logical. The more higher education adopts a business-centered model, the more likely we are to see its priorities determined by the marketplace, rather than the advancement of human knowledge and culture. It serves those in power all too well when we turn universities into mere vocational schools, teaching students how to slot into a world determined for them by the their employers, instead of teaching them how to think and to create a world for themselves. (Not to get too Freirian, but this sort of thing drives me up a wall.)

  2. WayneB 2012.12.19

    Good topic choice, Cory.

    I find it fascinating (and horrifying) how increasingly difficult it is to get a job without a bachelor's degree... and now businesses are saying that isn't enough - people aren't ready to do the job they're hired to do, so universities need to become more vocation-oriented.

    It seems an ironic error on the place of employers to require something which isn't necessary for the job, then wonder why the job pool doesn't have the skills.

    There's definitely a place for liberal arts education. There's definitely a place for vocational schooling. We shouldn't be pushing people into 4 year liberal arts degrees who aren't ready for them; that's saddling them with a lot of expense without much reward.

    If people need time to "find themselves", they should be volunteering for Americorp, Peacecorp, etc. rather than floundering at a university, accumulating debt.

    I've tought public administration courses in person, online, and via correspondence for quite a while now, and I can tell who's there because they're genuinely interested in the subject, and who's there because it's a required course. I imagine, Cory, your French classes are better because of their elective nature (am I mistaken?).

    If liberal arts universities could admit those who truly crave a liberal arts education, rather than anyone with a pulse, I believe the quality would be much improved. I don't want to come off as Woodrow Wilson and imply the liberal arts are only for a select few, but I think we do a poor job finding the right fit for individuals' educational needs & capabilities.

    We still need to figure out how to help our young adults succeed in the world marketplace, but perhaps it's time we acknowledge we need many paths by which to travel.

  3. Tom Emanuel 2012.12.19

    I agree that 4-year universities are not for everyone, Wayne. I found it incredibly frustrating that USD when I went there seemed bent on lowering the common denominator and attracting more and more students (read: more and more money) rather than improving the quality of education for those who were actually interested in a liberal arts education. I don't think gutting the liberal arts is the answer though - I think we would do well to expand our system of vocational schools and community colleges, not unlike the three-tiered German system. I'm not trying to be elitist. I don't think anybody is somehow a worse person for not getting a university degree - society needs plumbers and electricians, and we shouldn't be socially pressuring folks who aren't really interested in university to sink thousands of dollars into an education they don't want. I do think that in a state with the highest percentage of students graduating college with debt (75 percent of all graduates, with an average debt load of around $23,000), turning a bachelor's degree into the new high school diploma is a bad idea, especially since it seems to involve training people to become cogs in the corporate machine rather than independent thinkers. (Also, I think I took one of your online public administration courses summer of 2009).

  4. Donald Pay 2012.12.19

    The real issue is lack of training in businesses. They have been able to foist a lot of costs previously shouldered by them onto the taxpayer and the workers.

    Larger businesses have cut training departments, and are relying on taxpayers to do the training businesses used to do. Hospitals used to train there own technical staff. Now they require them to go to a two-year certificate program.

    There used to be a lot of mentoring in businesses, too, but many administrative tasks that used to be done by secretaries and clerks have been pushed onto people with higher order skills, partly because of computerization. So, the people who used to have time to mentor are now doing reports that clerks used to do.

    Also, unions used to do most of the training in the trades, but with the decline of unions, you see a rise in taxpayer subsidized vocational programs. People who had an ideological issue with unions ended up paying more taxes to train people.

  5. Jon Schaff 2012.12.19


    Thanks for posting on this. I have read the bill (thanks for the link!). I am ready to be convinced otherwise but this looks like a very bad bill. As you state, the definition of the purpose of higher ed is completely functionalist. In addition the bill creates a new governing board (JUST WHAT WE NEED!!) that has zero faculty membership. Yet another education bureaucracy staffed by bureaucrats. How very...unconservative. I am sorry to see that Susan Wismer appears to be a co-sponsor. She is generally more reliable on these matters. I am not a union member (sorry) but I have contacted our local COHE rep and I encourage all SDEA members to do the same and oppose this bill.

  6. Richard Schriever 2012.12.19

    In the rest of the world (Ex US) these are rigthtfully identified as "Technical Universities" and their degrees considered somewhat academically inferior to more traditional Universities.

  7. Jon Schaff 2012.12.19

    BTW, I just saw Donald's comment. He is 100% correct.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.19

    Glad to hear your thoughts, gentlemen! Wayne, I'm with you: when we have one very distinct post-secondary track dedicated to exactly the functionalist (thank you for the vocab boost, Dr. Schaff!) mission outlined by Senate Bill 5, there is no need to impose that mission on the university system. Rather, if the Legislature must take it upon itself to write purposes and goals for our universities, that legislation should very explicitly declare the unique elements of the universities' mission as creators and curators of the liberal arts.

    Tom, I don't hear elitism in your statement. To play with Wayne's words, we don't have reserve liberal arts for a select few, but it's o.k. if we reserve the liberal arts universities for the few who select that track. As you and Wayne have both seen (and as I indeed see in my French classes), the learning experience is degraded for everyone by the presence of individuals who don't really want to learn but are just taking the class as a requirement.

    We can fight this bill and the Pierre mindset, but we also need employers to get with the program. We need businesses to stop making the B.A. or M.S. a requirement for jobs that don't really need it. We need to recognize the vital role of vocational schools in providing quality training. We need to distinguish the missions of those two main branches of post-secondary ed and let those institutions pursue their missions separately and vigorously.

  9. WayneB 2012.12.19

    Blessed be a rational conversation again.

    I guess the next question - can South Dakota really sculpt a functional multi-track education system that is capable of offering globally competitive workers & thinkers?

    And perhaps more to the point, how can we convince South Dakota employers having skilled, educated, critical thinkers is worth paying for? I count myself one of the lucky few who actually is valued and compensated appropriate to my education and my skill... then again, I suppose I'd be making mid 6 figures if I was managing $160m worth of projects in the private sector... but at least I feel like what I do everyday helps make the world a better place.

    We need more employers who see their employees as individuals with inherent value. We need to quash the trend of my generation to jump careers every few years - why would any employer put time & resources in an employee just to have them jump ship?

    Our governor, I imagine, could make great strides in ensuring the proper workforce climate is promoted... good luck, though.

  10. Stan Gibilisco 2012.12.19

    "They want to narrow the universe of knowledge and culture that should be at the core of every university's mission to a checklist of workforce metrics that serve no higher purpose than Gross Domestic Product."

    Once in awhile, Cory, you come out with a true gem. That's one of them, right there.

    I'm afraid the problem runs a whole lot deeper than the minds of a few legislators in Pierre. It's evolved into a fundamental weakness of our entire civilization.

    Fortunately, none of us are required by any law, human or cosmic, to subscribe in our own minds and hearts to such rubbish.

  11. Justin 2012.12.19

    What a travesty.

    ALEC has already gotten the Texas GOP to pass a platform that says "we oppose... critical thinking skills".

    Now the biggest shill/whore of the SDGOP outside of Dennis Daugaard declares that we as a state are changing the definition of a college education and thinking it isn't going to make any difference beyond our state.

    The SDGOP's answer to the emigration of young South Dakotans is apparently to provide as little educational support as fiscally possible and discouraging all research (or anything else that doesn't come with at least a $20k donation to SDGOP interests).

    A message to SD students: Leave this state to go to school if you can afford it. Get into the very best school you can, it will make a difference in your career and your life. If you want to go to Mines, realize what it is, and it is a good school. If you want to go to any other public school, you better pay attention to what is going on in the bribery scheme known as the SDGOP and understand how it will affect your career.

  12. Justin 2012.12.19

    What I can't wait to find out is what corporation that gave money to Russ Olson's big money campaign is somehow going to profit off of this. I'm guessing Pearson, but we will eventually all know if it passes.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.20

    Dr. Schaff makes a good point about the lack of faculty input on the CHEAP-GPA. From SB5, Section 6:

    "The council shall consist of the following members:
    (1) The Governor or the Governor's designee;
    (2) The secretary of the Department of Labor and Regulation;
    (3) The commissioner of the Governor's Office of Economic Development;
    (4) The commissioner of the Bureau of Finance and Management;
    (5) Three members of the House of Representatives, appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives;
    (6) Three members of the Senate, appointed by the president pro tempore of the Senate;
    (7) The officers of the Board of Regents;
    (8) The executive director of the Board of Regents;
    (9) The secretary of the Department of Education;
    (10) The director of the Division of Curriculum, Career and Technical Education in the Department of Education;
    (11) A president of an institution of higher education under the control of the Board of Regents who shall serve for one year and be determined by a rotating order based on the year of the establishment of the institution; and
    (12) A president of a public postsecondary technical institute who shall serve for one year and be determined by a rotating order based on the year of the establishment of the postsecondary technical institute."

    Once again, our legislators show they don't think educators have a place at the table in setting education policy.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.20

    Wayne, just curious: what's behind that trend of more frequent career-changing? Has something changed in the mindset of today's workers? Or is the economy changing in ways that make sticking with one job for decades impossible?

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.20

    And thank you, Stan. on that link about income inequality: one of the main causes appears to be equal access to educational opportunities. The lower-income folks are priced out of higher education. SB 5 says it seeks to keep higher ed affordable. But I don't see how the funding formula proposed under SB 5 controls costs or gets the state to catch up and pick up more of the tab to relief the tuition burden. If helping lower-income students keep up with higher-income students is our goal, we should hoghouse SB 5 into a needs-based scholarship program.

  16. Curtis Price 2012.12.20

    This thing does sound an awful lot like it came from the ALEC rancid sausage machine.

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