The future of higher education: it’s a major issue for policy makers at the state and federal level – and universities are planning for their own futures too, at a time of great uncertainty and significant transition.

What should tomorrow’s colleges and universities look like? How should we be devoting our resources? What should our priorities be? What should be changed, and what should remain the same?

WCHL’s Will Arrington is looking into the future of higher education this year, with perspectives from all sides of the political spectrum. In Part 6 of a series, he sits down with a graduate student who says the university should refocus its efforts on teaching.

Listen to the report.


One issue that isn’t discussed much in higher education reform is ensuring that future professors are prepared to do their job.

John-Paul Petrash is a political theory Ph.D. candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill. He says he’s noticed some issues with both the culture of higher education and the priorities of universities.

When it comes to research, Petrash says one of the challenges he faces is that “eventually you [can] feel like you’re just dialoguing with fellow academics” – which sometimes produces work that is not relevant to larger society. He says one of his own priorities as a PhD candidate was to pick a topic that was “germane to political theory, but that [also related to] real issues that people care about.”

Petrash also says some universities don’t put enough emphasis on teaching, which should be a top priority for professors. He’s not in favor of extensive tenure reform – which has been floated as a cost-saving measure – simply because he thinks most who get tenure deserve it. Instead, he says he prefers simple fixes, like keeping classes organized and having students analyzing issues rather than regurgitating information on tests.

Petrash says he favors an interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate education, which is already growing in popularity in schools across the country. He says he believes that approach will force students to tackle problems and build skills that are needed in the modern world.

“The fact is, as humans we’re not compartmentalized like academic departments,” he says. “The world doesn’t fit into these neat compartments.”

Despite his enthusiasm for higher education, Petrash says it shouldn’t be viewed as the only ticket to success in America. (He says that’s an unhealthy “elitist attitude.”) He also says not everyone is cut out for the work involved in post-graduate education.

That being said, Petrash says the college experience is well worth the cost for those who are able (and willing) to pursue it. He says there’s no better place to be exposed to so many different viewpoints, and that the experience of college is often just as valuable as the knowledge you get while there.