College for Every Student – A Silly, Misguided Notion
Somehow we missed Marty Nemko’s opinion piece on higher education back in May for The Chronicle. But if folks thought our assessments of higher education, “Higher Education, Dangerously Close to Irrelevant,” and “Charles Murray – for Most People, College Is a Waste of Time,” were a bit less than flattering, our thoughts were positively benign when held up against those of Nemko.
The Much-Hyped, Overrated Bachelor’s Degree
The author of “The All-in-One College Guide: A Consumer Activist’s Guide to Choosing a College” begins with a couple of anecdotes that can’t help but raise an eyebrow or two. First he notes his most distressing moments as a counselor, the tales of students who despite a lack of success in high school were determined to earn that all important college diploma. Nemko tells the tale thus:
“Among my saddest moments as a career counselor is when I hear a story like this: ‘I wasn’t a good student in high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I’d be the first one in my family to do it. But it’s been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go.’”
Nemko then offers up what he calls the ‘killer statistic.’ For those aspiring college students who finished in the bottom 40 percent of their high school classes, but went on to attempt to secure a four-year degree right out of high school, roughly two-thirds had studied for the better part of eight and a half years without obtaining a diploma.
The career counselor stipulates that the majority of students admitted to college “are grossly underprepared.” As but one relevant statistic, Nemko notes that “only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.”
The sum total is that Nemko sees many colleges and universities as having a lack of conscience. How else could four-year colleges admit and accept funds “from hundreds of thousands of such students each year,” many of whom are simply not qualified to attend higher education?
And, for those who manage to make it through the system, Nemko offers yet another caveat.
“Perhaps worst of all, even those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that require a college education. 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.”
Not Just an Issue of Accepting Unprepared Students
While there is little doubt that Nemko sees colleges as operating as a business first, meaning these institutions are more about making money than they are about graduating students, he also reiterates some of the points we have offered in the past.
“Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that’s terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they’d still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound — they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.”
He goes on to match some of Charles Murray’s points regarding earning a diploma:
“Also, the past advantage of college graduates in the job market is eroding. Ever more students attend college at the same time as ever more employers are automating and sending offshore ever more professional jobs, and hiring part-time workers. Many college graduates are forced to take some very nonprofessional positions, such as driving a truck or tending bar.”
“Often there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the reality and what higher-education institutions, especially research ones, tout in their viewbooks and on their Web sites. Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item, while research is a profit center. As a result, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with necessary small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students. At many colleges, only a small percentage of the typical student’s classroom hours will have been spent with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor.’
And then, for those who offer that their respective school in fact offers classes by full professors, Nemko notes one other long-standing issue with higher education.
“The more prestigious the institution, the more likely that faculty members are hired and promoted much more for their research than for their teaching. Professors who bring in big research dollars are almost always rewarded more highly than a fine teacher who doesn’t bring in the research bucks.”
As for learning, a 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors actually “scored below “proficient” levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers.’
Nemko is unwavering in his belief that colleges should be held accountable for the product they produce. In the most simple of terms, Nemko wants higher education to be “at least as accountable as tire companies are.”
Nemko adds: “When some Firestone tires were believed to be defective, government investigations, combined with news-media scrutiny, led to higher tire-safety standards. Yet year after year, colleges and universities turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Not only do colleges escape punishment, but they are rewarded with taxpayer-financed student grants and loans, which allow them to raise their tuitions even more.
I ask colleges to do no more than tire manufacturers are required to do. To be government-approved, all tires must have — prominently molded into the sidewall — some crucial information, including ratings of tread life, temperature resistance, and traction compared with national benchmarks.”
College for Everyone
While some states such as Maine continue to espouse a mantra of college for everyone, the recent writings of Murray and backed by Nemko demonstrate why such a philosophy is a foolish one. We cannot fathom spending $80,000 or investing eight plus years of one’s life without anything of note to show for all of that money and time.
We continue our strong support for a different view, one that acknowledges that not every student is capable of college-level academic rigor. And we match Nemko in noting that colleges that accept funds from students who cannot meet college-level expectations in essence lack a conscience.
At OpenEducation.net, we continue to espouse that learning a trade is a far more appropriate step for a student that has demonstrated that learning through reading and writing is simply not their cup of tea. It is time that educational leaders acknowledge this simple fact and begin reconfiguring the American school structures accordingly.
We couldn’t agree more with Nemko – America’s most overrated product is in fact the Bachelor’s degree.