I came across a pair of essays
that take the opportunity to discuss the experience students are currently having in college and whether it reveals
, essentially, a scam being perpetrated upon them about the value of it.
This jarred me into thinking about something I hadn't remembered in some time, which was the general, and damaging, comment I received frequently before and during my first year of college. "This will be the best time of your life."
It was not – not by a long shot. And I encountered a number of other people who were also struggling, to some degree because they had heard the same thing, (one of whom said bluntly, "If this is the best time of my life, I should kill myself now.") My final two years at college were considerably better than the first two. This was due to several factors, such as handling being alone, learning how to deal with the new environment, enjoying more of my classes, seeing the end in sight, and making more social connections. But perhaps the most important was getting some useful therapy at the end of my sophomore year – the only useful therapy I've received, in fact.
This is probably why I did not react well to some of the arguments being made by Usher in her Medium piece. Her emphasis on "fun," on meeting a future spouse, on long-lasting friendships, feel like gaslighting. I mean, yes, I did have fun at times. I did have my first serious relationship (which did not go well). I do have one lifelong friend from those years (though it has also been rocky at times). But why wouldn't I also have had those if I didn't go to college? Or if I simply went to a community college? Or, if it's so great, why doesn't everyone go to graduate school to get more of that great experience?
(For me, my time in graduate school came much closer to being the "best time of my life" and was, in fact, a happy time. It was also shorter.)
Rather the "connections, skills, networks" really are the selling point of a 4 year school, not to mention the label. The college selection process isn't much different than people wanting luxury brands rather than everyday brands or generics when it comes to their schooling. And just as luxury products are made in the same sweatshops as store brands, the college experience is not necessarily better for being at a luxury brand school.
No, it is the opportunity to mix with people who have connections, to get particular references, to get particular internships and placements, and to use the luxury brand to get into the next educational stepping stone, which is where the value is. But this is usually a process that has begun well before the college moment. I think, for example, of a friend who has moved some six times during her daughter's life in order to get her into the right schools starting with kindergarten. So far it has paid off, and she's been accepted into the college of her choice, already networked in with various people who it will probably be useful to know in coming years. Her daughter is bright and talented, but not any more so, I'd say, than the people I knew in high school, back when the rat race started then and not in grade school.
The whole issue of "reinventing" yourself strikes me as particularly calculated. The phrase about "most unburdened by the difficulties of their homes and backgrounds" strikes me as laughably naïve. First of all, we carry those things with us our whole lives, and most certainly at college. This is particularly true of students who are struggling to stay in it. As someone who benefitted from being far from her family during most of those years, I do get how the separation can be of value. But again, college isn't the only path to that.
Perhaps the phrase lots of practice screwing up with minimal consequences when those with more power ask you to deliver
best highlights the privilege with which these viewpoints are uttered. My first thought on reading that was of all the unreported and unprosecuted rape on campuses. But it's also because college has, in fact, derailed from being an educational institution to being one that is focused entirely on money. I'm not saying that individual employees necessarily see their roles that way. But the institutions themselves? Absolutely. It's not even just the selling of college to unprepared students (wealthy or not). But certainly employees have more uncertainty and less pay than ever before. What goes into the tenure process has become ridiculous, in large part because there is a glut of PhDs and relatively few places to employ them, particularly outside of certain industry-specific professions. But do colleges narrow their selection of PhD candidates in response? They do not.
Even though relatively few doctoral candidates pay for their entire schooling, they serve plenty of other useful purposes. Despite unionization, graduate students have become a cheap source of labor that keep things running in colleges. Because they are, by definition, temporary workers, it also allows schools to keep dictating the terms of their employment. Tenured spots are fewer, meaning that many recent PhD grads work as adjuncts for wages low enough that many could qualify for government assistance. And in many cases it is these low wage workers who are actually teaching students and meeting with them.
The main concern for the institution, which then spreads down through all levels of employees, is to keep students coming in, paying tuition, and then getting out so as to improve their retention statistics. Students have to fail quite badly today in order to not make it out of school.
I've told this story so often that I was sure I'd told it here, but I wasn't able to turn it up in a search. When I was an undergrad I didn't do well in the few writing classes I had to take. I was rather surprised in my first one that my papers got Cs and in the end I got a C+ in the class. I was pretty disappointed – it remained the lowest grade I ever got in higher ed, and in an area I thought I was relatively good at.
I was contacted by other students in the class who were going to protest their grades to the Dean. I discovered that I actually got the top grade in the class. Another student got a C-. The rest had failed. They were angry not only by the failure, since it was a required course they'd have to repeat, but by how the grades would affect their overall GPA. Many were in the sciences, where writing ability was not a prized skill.
I did not bother to join their protest but I later found out through a message from the Dean to all the class students what had happened. The grades stood. The Dean pointed out that they were not in school to maintain a GPA but to learn, and having reviewed assignments from the class, he felt the grades were justified. Our instructor, I should point out, was a graduate student.
These days if they had been an adjunct they would have been fired. In fact, protests of the grading would have begun much sooner. And even a tenured professor would have been forced to adjust their grades. No one would have suggested that perhaps all the students were simply not good writers and would hopefully now be encouraged to work on this and take it more seriously. (This was also, I might add, before the days of spellcheck and autocorrect).
By the time I was teaching graduate students we didn't even bother correcting the writing, which was often no better than what my fellow undergraduates had turned out decades earlier. It was hard enough to get them to think critically about what they were reading, or to at least pretend they'd done the readings at all. The main concern from many a student, some of whom were taking an absurd number of concurrent classes because they weren't barred from doing so (more credit hour payments after all, who cares if they fail and have to repeat them?), was simply getting through the program as quickly as possible.
We graded based on an expected percentage of passing students – so a curve with 70-80% As, so many Bs, and a handful below that, generally whose work was either so incomplete or so below par that it defied belief that they had even been admitted to an undergraduate, much less graduate program. My school, I should mention, was considered the top one in our field in the country. To be fair, our discipline did not generally have absolute right ways of doing things, unlike say, mathematics where an answer is either right or it isn't. And when grading essays one could devise a rubric for higher or lower scores what would be a perfect paper or exam could be debated. Even so, we generally shared, anonymously, the top answers we got for things to give students an idea of what we were going for. It also helped head off complaints.
This kowtowing to student expectations and having no absolute hurdles to clear most certainly does not
teach people good citizenship. One suspects that individuals such as Trump or his son-in-law, who had the admissions paid for and their graduations undoubtedly greased by the same money or position, have reached the natural conclusion that competency does not in fact matter in terms of promotion or success, and that everything is more about appearance than substance. Because if their education didn't, in the end, mean anything, then graduation rates really weren't helping society as a whole by turning out better trained and prepared people for their eventual professions.
I rather agree with the New Yorker piece that talks about college as an escape valve and an expected guarantee of higher lifetime earnings, though many a debt ridden student will find that to be the real myth. Even 2 year degree programs are starting to shift to 4 year programs, not because it's necessary but because it's a way of reducing the pipeline of students into professions and, presumably, increasing the academic level of students in that program. That keeps wages higher and increases retention in the profession. But for the students, the debt level is entirely different and makes those lower level certificate programs less appealing to take on.
This is the opposite direction that Education should be taking. We should be reducing many degrees to 2 year programs or at least guaranteeing 4 year placements after the AA degree, funneling many more students to local low-cost community colleges, and preparing them for lifelong learning. Very few people will be in the same industry for life, certainly not for the same job, and even entire industries will come and go or require very different skills in 20 years. Loading people with debt early on with the idea that they won't need to keep taking on debt for retraining every decade or so is nonsensical.
Given that many people rely on these institutions for work it's a harsh thing to say that I hope many go under. But my opinion doesn't really matter. Demographically there are not enough students to keep them all afloat right now, and the economy will undoubtedly take down many of them sooner rather than later.
What I do hope is that the same increased scrutiny that many practices are getting, is applied to the education system as well which has become a racket. We need fewer 4 years, more 2 years, and fewer PhD programs. And more 4 year programs need to be 6 year programs with a master's degree at the end because those are the terminal degrees for more and more professions, meaning that financial aid packages have to adjusted for that reality.
Hopefully these changes get people thinking about what an education needs to be and stop worrying about brands and traditions.