BOHANON: This College Engages Students in Work Experience

May 7, 2012

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

I have just finished my 32nd year teaching economics at Ball State University. Thirty or even 20 years ago I enthusiastically advised bright undergraduate students to pursue teaching and research careers in higher education. Today I am much less enthusiastic. Part of this traces to issues in the economics profession: Economists are increasingly becoming the number-crunching math jocks that my Nobel Prize-winning professor described as dullards. Many newly minted Ph.D.s know the latest mathematical proofs, but can’t tell you in simple English why office buildings are taller in Chicago than in Columbus, Indiana.

Part also traces to issues in higher education. Tenure-track positions are being replaced with contract positions as the number of university administrators grow. The core curriculum at my university requires no common intellectual content; grade inflation seems pervasive and politically correct parroting too often substitutes for critical inquiry.  But this is inside baseball. The real threat facing brick-and-mortar residential undergraduate universities is why should anyone obtain instruction in a classroom when the same course content and subsequent certification can be had on-line at a lower cost and with more convenience? Will residential higher education become the buggy-whip factories of the new millennium?

That is a good question. Despite my grumblings I think the higher-ups at my university are encouraging us to address this issue, and at the risk of being a booster for Ball State, I think we might succeed. The general point is that institutions of higher education must differentiate themselves in the market. University X should not be a carbon copy of University Y. Full-time higher-education programs must offer something of value that prospective students can’t get on-line.

A couple of weeks ago a colleague and I took a dozen economics students to Chicago. We visited the Federal Reserve Bank and the Commodity Exchange and had arranged to talk with employees at both. We had breakfast with a young lady only a few years older than our students who works at a consulting firm that advises Fortune 100 companies. She described her work and indicated how her undergraduate economics degree informed her work.

Later in the morning we split into two groups and visited the workplace of two successful thirty-something alumni who worked in the Financial District. Each had graciously agreed to open their workplace and give of their time to meet with the students. In the afternoon we visited a public-policy think tank.

A generous economics alumnus in his late 20s, who is also a serial entrepreneur, had arranged for us to stay at the prestigious Union League Club. He met with us for dinner and had helped raise funds from other alumni to support the trip. By the way, the students adhered to the club’s dress code and were professional, courteous and engaged at every turn. We are proud of them.

I am almost 100 percent sure this experience is not available on-line. The students actually missed two days of class, but as Mark Twain said, “never let your schooling get in the way of your education.” The thing that is remarkable about this experience is that it is not remarkable at Ball State. Faculty across colleges and disciplines offer these kinds of intensive experiences to students. Despite the many rivalries and differences the faculty is coalescing around a vision of student engagement. Time will tell whether this will fill a market niche — but I hope it does, and I think it might.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at


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