Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Hoax and Myth of a College Education

Kevin Carey notes a forthcoming article in The Atlantic by an anonymous Professor X, who is an adjunct teaching in the Northeast.
One thing's for certain: this piece will be catnip for those who like to adopt the contrarian too-many-people-are-going-to-college-these-days position. This is an especially attractive stance for elitists and/or people who spend a lot of time searching for opportunities to loudly begin sentences with some variation of the phrase "I know it's not politically correct to say this, but..." as if this denotes intellectual bravery of some kind. The article's sad story of one Ms. L, who says she was "so proud of myself for having written a college paper," only to be crushed by a grade of "F," will be used as evidence that we are not doing people any favors by letting them into college. Charles Murray has apparently written a whole book about this--adorned with blurbs from Jonah Goldberg, Bill Bennett, P.J. O'Rourke, and Tom Wolfe no less--to be published later this year.

Needless to say, I disagree. Not with Professor X's contention that his classes reveal disturbing truths about higher education. He's right about that.
Carey disagrees with the notion that the suggested course of action proposed by Professor X is the right one:
No, my disagreement is with the prescription. The promise of higher education neither a "hoax" nor a "myth" (in fairness to Professors X, these words don't do justice to the more thoughtful tone of his piece). After all, without college, what are Ms. L and her struggling classmates supposed to do? Live out the rest of their lives hardly able to read and write? Find some menial job quietly providing service to the likes of Murray, Bennett, and Wolfe, who enjoy three PhDs and a J.D. between them? Everyone in this story is getting screwed, including Professor X. (Who apparently isn't comforted by being the world's greatest telepath. When failing students, that probably makes things worse.)

This is a common problem in education, both K-12 and higher, wherein we take the students with the greatest educational needs, give them the fewest resources and the worst education, and then call their failure inevitable.(emphasis in original)
Carey then suggests shedding a little more light on the problem, i.e. confronting the public and the institutions with the poor preparation, poor educational model and poor course content that is expected of students today.

Carey notes the financial windfall that befalls community colleges and universities that offer continuing education. Most of these "second shift" students are taught by underpaid adjunct faculty, are less properly prepared for the rigors of a college education and yet pay full tuition rates. Carey asks that we not use adult education as simply a profit center but to actually fulfill the school's mission, i.e. the education of their students. But there are greater points.

As far as the poor preparation, I am not sure how much more we as a public need to be enlightened on this subject. But on the financially cynical side, colleges and universities simply don't care enough. Sure they pay lip service to the inadequate preparation arguments, but they really don't have the incentives to change or demand change in the K-12 schools because they get paid full tuition dollars for the remedial classes necessary for these students, but don't grant credit for the classes in most cases. In short, remedial classes are another profit center--just like adult education. (keep in mind that most remedial classes are likely to be taught by graduate student teaching assistants or adjuncts, not by full professors).

The situation is even worse from the financially cynical point of view. Although I have no data to back up this assertion, my gut tells me that it is true. The vast majority of students who drop out of college are those whose academic career begin in one or more remedial classrooms. So the university is churning through these lower level students at a very high rate (compared to their graduation rate) and thus earning money on a quicker basis.

While I don't subscribe to the view that everyone should go to college and I never have, there is nothing Carey can say to make me change my mind, I do believe that it is incumbent upon K-12 education to provide students with the basic skills necessary to go to college if they choose. On the other hand, colleges have to take a little responsibility for admitting students whose academic preparation is not clearly demonstrated. Just because a student applies doesn't mean they should get in and if admitted, the college must take pains (including financial loss if necessary) to do whatever it takes to get that student the opportunity to succeed. The duty must extend beyond simply offering services (some of which are not particularly publicized), but to actively informing the student of services and even requiring attendence for those it places on academic probation. In short, treat all college students, particularly those admitted on less than ideal academic circumstances like college athletes.

So the problem is not just publicizing the problem of lack of preparation among incoming college freshmen, it extends beyond that. I think most Americans who care already know about the problem. I think the solution is to hold a mirror up to the institutions themselves. We need to remove the incentives inherent in taking tuition money from students who are required to attend remedial classes, pay for services they don't know about and can't access (note, some academic resources like writing centers or math labs are generally unavailable to students in evening courses, being open during "business hours" when most evening students are working to support themselves or their family), and being taught by less than fully qualified instructors.

If K-12 institutions are taking a beating for not preparing students for college, colleges and universities, including community colleges, need to be beaten severly about the head and shoulders for their cynical treatment of these less than fully prepared students as little more than profit makers. Incentivize the colleges to push K-12 schools to do better. One such way would be, at least for public colleges and universities, prohibit those institutions from charging full tuition for remedial classes (and take care that schools are fudging the definition of remedial classes) and requiring that schools make available all services given to student athletes be made available to all students, among other actions.

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