Missouri students spending more money to earn degrees want to know they’re making a sound investment in their future. That’s why college administrators have started steering them toward in-demand professions like education and nursing, where they’re all but guaranteed jobs.
It’s a pathway to get students to and through college with less debt when they graduate. But some students and professors say Missouri’s colleges and universities still have an obligation to provide a well-rounded liberal arts education, and are tired of having to defend their majors every time state lawmakers propose another round of cuts.
Michael Mason’s parents didn’t want him to study history.
“That was about all I got was pushback,” said Mason, now a graduate student at the University of Central Missouri. “The first question that my parents asked me was, ‘What are you going to do?’”
Mason’s mentor, UCM history professor Jon Taylor, contends there are lots of options. But he says university administrators are sometimes too shortsighted to see them.
“You have to take a degree that we know that there’s a job,” Taylor said. “There’s a disconnect between that and what employers continually and constantly tell us, that there is a huge need for the skill sets that the liberal arts bring.”
More than jobs
Mason grew up in Lee’s Summit and always wanted to go to UCM, his mom’s alma mater. But when he got to Warrensburg, none of the majors he tried seemed to fit — not criminal justice and not business management.
A prerequisite accounting class led to an epiphany.
“I was sitting in that class, and I realized that this was terrible,” Mason said. “If I was going to do anything involving this, I was not going to be happy, and I needed to major in history.”
Mason told his parents he wanted more from his degree than a job. He wanted personal fulfillment. History had been his favorite class in high school, and he liked Taylor and the other professors he’d had at UCM.
“We have nine faculty members that we can take students around the world,” said Taylor, adding that it’s always been a point of pride for him that UCM students could get an affordable liberal arts degree. “We are still able to do that, even though given some of the changes and reorganization we went through.”
That reorganization happened in 2018, when then. Gov. Eric Greitens threatened to cut $68 million from the state’s higher education budget. State lawmakers negotiated a compromise — they’d hold funding steady if college administrators agreed to cap tuition increases at 1%.
But at UCM, the damage was already done. Administrators had proposed dissolving Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences into the other three colleges. Liberal arts professors felt disrespected, even after UCM leaders walked back on the dramatic restructuring and instead did away with department chairs.
The moves UCM made to save money in 2018 have paid off, according to President Roger Best.
“We’re in a great spot right now,” thanks to an additional $1 million in state appropriations in fiscal year 2019, Best said. “We started the year with a balanced budget, and we finished net positive on cash.”
Best wasn’t in charge back when the dramatic restructuring was proposed, but he thinks some of those conversations have been mischaracterized.
“As part of that reorganization, the university was proposing no elimination of any program on campus,” Best said. “All programs were being subjected to operating budget reductions, but no program was actually eliminated during that time frame.”
Students and professors took what happened to heart. Mason was a senior at the time, and even though he wanted to stay at UCM, he seriously considered going elsewhere.
“There were a lot of students who were very frustrated with the lack of transparency,” Mason said. “It was obvious that the university was not valuing the arts, humanities and social sciences college ... and I felt it was a choice between possibly a better education for myself and cost.”
And cost mattered a lot to Mason because he wanted to avoid taking out student loans. He had a college fund his parents set up when he was a kid, and they’d made him deposit into it the wages from his high school job. He was able to stretch that money by working in a residence hall for two years in exchange for room and board, but there wasn’t enough to pay for an expensive masters degree.
Mason ran the numbers. He would save $750 a semester going to UCM instead of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, $3,000 in total. And even though history had been lumped in with communication and interdisciplinary studies in the UCM realignment, Mason decided to stay.
Meanwhile, Taylor started telling anyone who would listen — students, parents, colleagues in other departments, advisors — that his students have all the skills employers want.
“The analysis of the data, thinking critically about it, asking important questions — that’s what you do with a history degree,” Taylor said. “You practice with the history.”
One person he doesn’t have to convince is Best.
“At the heart of all of our degrees, and I would say this is true for higher education, but certainly at UCM, is the notion you learn to develop those critical thinking skills, communication skills, and you learn to apply those in various contexts,” Best said.
Still, Best conceded there are other factors at play, college affordability and student debt chief among them.
“Families think about affordability as it relates to getting a job. They want (their child) to go to college to make sure they get a good job,” Best said. “That may drive them toward one of the professions-based majors.”
Other career pathways
Kyle Anderson instructs aspiring teachers at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods in North Kansas City, but he’s been a high school history teacher, a learning coach, a social studies coordinator and North Kansas City Schools’ director of post-secondary readiness..
Anderson credits his history degrees from UCM (bachelors and masters) for a lot of his professional success, especially his ability to research and analyze.
But his career looks very different than what he imagined as a student in Warrensburg.
“I was a very intense individual wanting to raise a lot of little historians in my classroom,” Anderson said. So he did things like fry up thick slices of Spam to serve while his students read “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s novel about working in a meatpacking plant during the Industrial Revolution.
But a few years later, Anderson found he liked working with Kansas City Construction Career Academy students just as much. Watching them frame windows and wire electrical boxes, he started to see pathways to good jobs didn’t always go through college.
“The last 20 or 30 years, where we have compelled students to go to a four-year school and earn a traditional degree, oftentimes without a pathway for a next step, has put us in a position where we have some significant gaps in the job market right now,” Anderson said.
One of those gaps is in education: Missouri’s colleges and universities aren’t turning out enough teachers. Across the state, school districts have trouble hiring math and science teachers. There’s also a shortage of educators with the credentials needed to teach English learners and work with students with special needs.
In the program Anderson teaches in now, future teachers can knock out two years at a community college before transferring to one of the four-year schools Maple Woods has partnered with. Students incur less debt because all of their credits are guaranteed to transfer, and they can do their student teaching in Kansas City, where many of their families live.
“I think that we really have a responsibility to make it as cost-effective as possible to our young people,” Anderson said.
This semester, Mason decided to move back into his parents’ house in Lee’s Summit to save money while he writes his thesis on 19th-century U.S. business practices. Two days a week, he drives to Warrensburg, where he is a teaching assistant in an undergraduate history class.
Several years ago, Mason’s position came with a full tuition waiver and an $800 monthly stipend. Now, university policy requires departments justify the use of graduate student labor, and Mason only gets half as much — a partial tuition waiver and $400 a month.
Still, Mason will graduate next spring with his masters degree and no student debt. He doesn’t think that’s possible for most UCM students these days.
“After the budget crisis, I would say I am even more of an exception. Scholarships are not as easy to earn as people like to think,” Mason said. “There are also fewer positions in the housing department for students to earn free housing and meals, not to mention a reduction in the number of GA positions on campus.”
Mason goes to a lot of career fairs on campus as graduating looms, but he always leaves frustrated. He says UCM rarely invites employers who are looking for liberal arts majors.
“Sometimes I wish I knew where I’m heading as far as job opportunities,” Mason said. “But at the same time, it makes me want to double down and advocate for the liberal arts because I’m so confident in the skills it can provide.”
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.