"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 19, 2013

College Is Not For Everyone

The ills of higher public education are familiar to everyone. State four-year graduation rates are low, from a high of just over 50 percent to a low of 8 percent; and the top rate for two-year colleges barely 30 percent. Costs are high, fueled by generous government subsidies.  Universities, hoping to milk this federal cash cow for all it is worth, admit students who are unlikely to complete their education, leading to bloated academic coffers and discouraged and disappointed students. Rather than invest these financial windfalls in learning, they build mega sports stadiums, fancy dorms, state-of-the art showcase auditoriums.

In addition, many if not most students from first-time college families and those attending school because of affirmative action, matriculate with few of the skills necessary to succeed and require intensive remedial education.  Even under the best of conditions, these supplementary programs rarely have any impact given the execrable state of the high schools from which students come. Most of these students drop out, so any additional investment on the part of universities is wasted, costs rise even higher, and the vicious cycle continues.

Worst of all, those students who manage to graduate find no jobs on the outside and are in serious debt.  Their expensive education has not given them either the basic skills (thinking, reasoning, writing, solving) nor the technical skills required by employers.

In other words, it is hard to make a case that public higher learning is working for the majority of students.  While the most talented, motivated, and directed students can do quite well anywhere they study, the rest are left dispirited, unemployable, in hock, and exploited by the system.

Finally, it appears, families and young people are getting the picture. They are rejecting the notion, flogged by greedy universities and supported by so-called egalitarian ‘progressives’ that it is the birthright of every American to attend a four-year college.  Two-year and community colleges long considered second rate, looked at as stepping stones to the aerie of the four-year Gothic, are being reconsidered as viable, cost-effective alternatives.

Perhaps the most interesting and revolutionary development in education are online courses, many open-source, free and accredited.  Students can pick those courses which provide the skills the marketplace demands and waste little time on those irrelevant to their needs.  This is a first step in privatizing and individualizing higher education and a tool to break the stranglehold of the state.

In a recent public conversation Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, New America Foundation president (and Atlantic contributing editor) Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg, discussed the flaws in the traditional college model.

Steinberg, 35, was particularly negative about college as we know it today. He said that, when the time comes, he'll likely discourage his three- and four-year-old children from attending.“Recent college grads… come in with no skills that are usable to us, with the exception of programmers,” he said. Steinberg went onto say that it’s Buzzfeed’s fellowship programs that best prepare their new hires. He characterizes a college degree as representing “a lot of debt and not necessarily a skill set” and adds, “I don’t want my children to go to college unless they ... desperately [want to be] scholars… Otherwise, I’d much prefer them to do an internship.” (reported by Stacia Brown, The Atlantic, 9.19.13) 

While Brown, a teacher, disagreed, and felt that there is inestimable value in a face-to-face, interactive, and participatory education, Steinberg and his colleagues signaled the wave of the future. Critics howl at the dumbing down of education, the decline of the humanities, and schools that churn out automatons, able to work as technicians but never exposed to great ideas, let alone able to formulate them.  Yet these same critics wail at the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, income disparities, and America’s unequal society. You can’t have it both ways.

Families are finally getting the picture, rejecting old-line established values imposed from above, tossing aside received wisdom, and ignoring the tattered argument that college campuses are the crucibles of cultural diversity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to engage with the best minds in America, an opportunity to build lifelong friendships and professional acquaintances.  Nonsense, they say, understanding that races self-segregate, half-interested Teaching Assistants do the teaching, parties can be had anywhere, and the only post-graduate professional association they will ever have is standing in the same line at the unemployment office.

Despite the idealistic plea of ‘progressives’ to mold ‘the whole person’, middle class families are finally making up their own minds. Skills, prospects, and a better life.

Higher education administrators are not quite panicking as they watch students run the other way, but they are paying attention. More and more universities are offering online courses, reconfiguring their curriculum to meet practical needs, and fighting conservative efforts to reduce federal subsidies to a trickle. 

States are beginning to redirect funds to their two-year and community colleges; and to negotiate collaborative agreements with industry.  East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) is one of the leaders in this effort.  In order to attract Yokahama Tires to the Columbus area, it guaranteed them a tailor-made technical education for motivated students. Although the college also offers liberal arts courses, the department with the most potential and demand is that focusing on study-work linkages.

Other states like Texas, are attempting to reform the entire state education system, making it more responsive to the marketplace.  If the taxpayers of Texas are paying for higher education, officials say, then they have a right to an economic return – employable graduates. To that I would add responsible citizens, suggesting that an investment in public education should produce graduates who can at least understand the basics of economics, finance, and geopolitics.

If such reforms continue, if the cost of education to the consumer rises (i.e. reduce federal subsidies, raise interest rates on student loans to market values); and if affirmative action ends, then students will choose their education very carefully, and universities will be forced to configure their academic offerings accordingly.

With this increased focus on two-year, community, and vocational colleges; the rapid rise of online, free education; conservative pressures to reduce subsidies; and the structural reforms contemplated by the states, there may be some hope for higher education.

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