Higher Education- A Necessity?

We live in a society that puts a great deal of stock in education. This is certainly not a bad thing, but sometimes I wonder if our emphasis on high education does some people a disservice. I read a very interesting article today about the state of higher education and the students attempting to get that higher education. Here are some excerpts from the article by Marty Nemko:

Weak in High School; Weaker in College

I have a hard time telling such people the killer statistic: According to the U.S. Department of Education, despite colleges having dumbed-down classes to accommodate to the weak students, among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won’t earn a diploma, even if given 8 1/2 years. Yet colleges admit and take the money from hundreds of thousands of such students each year!

Even worse, most of those college dropouts leave college having learned little of value (see below) a mountain of debt, and devastated self-esteem from all their unsuccessful struggles at college. Perhaps worst of all, those people too rarely end up with a college-requiring career. So, it’s not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you’re likely to meet workers who spent years and their family’s life savings on college only to end up with a job they could have done as a high school dropout.

Perhaps even more surprising, even high school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to eight years it takes to graduate–and only 40 percent of each year’s two million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all!

Colleges are quick to argue that a college education is more about enlightenment than employment. That may be the biggest deception of all. Often, there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the reality and what institutions of higher education, especially research-centric ones, tout in their viewbooks and websites. Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item while research is a profit center. So, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students and even by undergraduate students. At a typical university, only 30% of the typical student’s class hours will have been in a class with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor. That’s not to say that professor-taught classes are so worthwhile. The more prestigious the institution, the more likely that faculty is hired and promoted much more on how much research they do than how well they teach. Faculty that bring in big research dollars are almost always rewarded while even a fine teacher who doesn’t bring in the research bucks is often fired or relegated to the lowest rung: lecturer. The late Ernest Boyer, vice-president for Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said, only half-joking, “Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure.”

What should parents and guardians of prospective students do?

1. If your student’s high school grades and SAT or ACT are in the bottom half of his high school class, resist colleges’ attempts to woo him. Their marketing to your child does not indicate that the colleges believe he will succeed there. Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment. And if the student is of color, the college may derive special benefits. If a physician recommended a treatment that cost a fortune and required years of effort without disclosing the poor chances of it working, she’d be sued and lose in any court in the land. But colleges–one of America’s most sacred cows–somehow seem immune.

So, let the buyer beware. Consider non-degree options:

§ apprenticeship programs (a portal to apprenticeship websites: http://www.khake.com/page58.html)

§ short career-preparation programs at community colleges

§ the military

§ on-the-job training, especially at the elbow of a successful small business owner, non-profit director, etc.

I had the privilege of going to a small private university (Oklahoma Baptist University) where the largest classes were around 40-50 people and the average class size was less than 20. Every class was taught by a professor and any professor at OBU was there because they loved teaching and interacting with students. OBU was/is not a “publish or perish” school. On the contrary, it is a school small class sizes, challenging academics, and personable professors make learning both a challenge and a joy. As with anything, you will get out of an education what you put into it. However, being educated at a place like OBU, where the professors also devote a great deal of time and energy to the education of their students means you will have much better odds of coming away with a quality education.

That said, even though I had a great experience at a great university, I don’t think college is for everyone. There are many people in this country who are supremely talented in things that are better learned as an apprentice or through on the job training. While our society places a great deal of value on a college education, I think it is wrong to look down on those who do no possess such a degree. Does my having read Voltaire make me any better than the carpenter who creates magnificent cabinets for houses? I don’t think so.

You don’t necessarily need a college degree to succeed and sometimes the years it takes and money it requires will ultimately do you a disservice. If you have a skill that can be honed outside of the classroom and you can make a living with that skill, you will contribute just as much to society whether or not you have a framed piece of paper hanging in your office.

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