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Tag Archives: College

Pulling Back The Curtain

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In August President Obama called for a college rating system. College costs and student loan defaults have risen dramatically while the job market has increased its demand for baccalaureate degrees. More people attend college now than ever before. Means of obtaining a baccalaureate degree have expanded and diversified. Yet the entire enterprise has remained quite opaque. Calling for meaningful metrics to ascertain value is a very good thing. But before you can apply measurement you must know what it is you’re measuring. Is the value of a 4-year degree in the recipient’s lifetime earnings? Is the value of a specific degree the speed in which one can earn what was spent/borrowed? Is the knowledge accumulated in four years measurable (and how do we allow for varying disciplines and institutions?) Certain things are quite measurable, such as attrition and graduation rate. But there is nothing about a dropout rate that indicates a subpar education, it does however suggest an issue with the admissions process and students services. Should a college rating system take into account more than education? The argument could be made that vigorous student services have as much to do with higher education than job placement.

We may think that college is nothing more than job training for the majority of participants; we’d be wrong. There are still many people who major in the liberal arts. There are English, Mathematics, History, Religion and Biology majors graduating every year with no plans of attending graduate school. These (presumably) well-educated people will (hopefully) enter the workforce with or without debt. How do we rate how well their college served them? An undergraduate degree in Mathematics most likely will not produce the same income as the equivalent degree in Engineering. And what of the Fine Arts majors? Will we measure the income or job placement of an artist? Do we take into consideration why the budding artist chose to attend college (versus a conservatory or institute)? Clearly there are far too many variables at work to come up with a meaningful rating system. What if instead of a rating we demanded transparency? What if we eliminated all tricks of admissions (e.g., early admission, early decision, early action)? What if we made it crystal clear exactly how it all worked? What if front and center on every piece of admissions propaganda was the exact price of everything? Listed alongside was the true percentage of how many students pay the list price. By eliminating the new car lot/airline travel smoke and mirrors from the get go, people have a better sense of what they’re getting for their money. The next step would be all financial aid officers to be legally obligated to inform students of all options. For example, an officer would have to inform a student that he/she could (a) attend a community college, transfer in and save almost 50%; (b) complete his/her degree in 3 years and save 25% (c) apply for grants, research assistantships, and awards. Most undergraduate colleges/universities ask students to officially declare their major. Before a final declaration is made a student should be provided with timely and accurate information about areas of study and what can typically be expected from those majors. A student should be aware of all the different paths to a career as well as all the different careers that can result from one path. They need to hear from faculty and alumni about their own academic and career choices. Each department would be held to a standard of transparency and informed consent when approving a student’s choice of major.

Beyond transparency lie two less manageable realities; in the end people will pay more than they should for things they cannot afford and the workplace will continue to demand college graduates until they provide a meaningful alternative. This is the darker side of the issue. It’s far easier to point our fingers at the costly culprit that is college, than to admit that our K-12 system has eroded. There was a time in which a high school diploma was a ticket into meaningful (white-collar) employment. Today more than one-third of college students need remedial courses. There’s no reason to assume that college has maintained any semblance of rigor, so one can only imagine what the real state of education actually is. Bringing a high school diploma back to what it was is a complicated and daunting prospect. It would appear to be much easier to just consider a baccalaureate to be the new high school diploma. The ethics of pawning off a public obligation to a (mostly) private enterprise is questionable. We can (slightly) mitigate that failing by making the entire process as transparent as possible.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Education

 

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How To Navigate A Campus Tour

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The summer brings many familiar family rituals; barbecues, beach vacations, sleepover camp and college visits. The college visit almost always includes at least one parent (and requisite high school student.) Other configurations include; both parents & high school student, both parents & high school student & other sibling. The high school student is as likely to be wide-eyed and humbled as he/she is to be petulant and infuriating. (It is interesting to watch the sullen teen rise and fall in his/her fevered pitch of resentment according to the hard sold enthusiasm of his parents.) These potential customers are given the tour of the property, offered one or two logo emblazoned keepsakes & given a shiny reference sheet (either in heavy card stock or in app form). It’s really like any other open house, except the “agent” showing the property is usually a current student and nobody asks about the taxes, energy bill or condition of the roof. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to overhear what people don’t ask on a campus tour. Questions about meal plans, housing, and campus celebrity appearances are a sure thing. Less common, but still overheard are questions about majors, athletics, and faculty accessibility. These generalist questions are quite appropriate given the fact that the tour guide is in fact a student. But deciding where to spend the next four years and perhaps $200,000 necessitates more than broad strokes.

Some potential students (and their entourage) sit in on a class. This is probably mildly entertaining for the visitors, but not entirely relevant. Summer school classes bear little resemblance to regular classes; they are small, often taught by graduate students, and are more endurance test than educational experience. To make a decision that could possibly pave the way for a teenager’s professional and personal life warrants more than a show and tell. Most people (unless they have money to burn) would not purchase a home without having an inspection first. With any large expenditure or potentially life-altering endeavor, a little crawling through the basement and poking at the eaves is in order. Real questions about specific majors, research opportunities, job placement, lifetime alumni support, 3-year baccalaureate degrees, joint degrees, advanced degrees, graduate school admission rates (and more) need to be asked and answered. (A college or university committed to transparency will have a website that will clearly and visibly answer some of these questions.) Depending upon the size of the institution, a student (and entourage) should meet with a college dean, dean of students or vice president of enrollment. Admissions officers are very knowledgeable and helpful but their area of expertise is that of the front end, not the middle or back end. The President of an institution will be approachable and perhaps a compelling speaker, but rarely has full working knowledge of how the sausage is made. The people who can answer specific questions about educational opportunities and outcome are those who wrestle with and analyze those issues on a daily basis.

There is a lot to glean from visiting a campus and getting a feel for the environment. Sitting in a college town coffee shop can be a heady experience for a 17-year-old kid. Picturing your 17-year-old kid in one of those sweatshirts, traipsing off to class can be overwhelming for a parent. It can be a very emotional time for a family. Is this the little boy I carried, is this the little girl at play? For some families the road to the college tour was bumpy and relief is the primary emotion in play. That’s why it’s important to develop a strategy before leaving the house. What do you and your student want to get out of an undergraduate college experience? What are your investment expectations? These are hard issues to focus on if your primary concern is the acceptance letter. Try as hard as you can to let go of that. Shopping is always a two-way street. You can’t possibly know if an acceptance letter is meaningful until you know if the school is the right choice. Modeling this research and course of inquiry to your student (and his/her sibling) is priceless. A college student is a customer and he/she should navigate higher education as such. Setting the tone before freshman year may very well result in empowering that freshman to ask questions and pursue opportunities throughout his/her higher education experience.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Education

 

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Equal (Higher Education) Opportunity

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Higher education is the launching pad for the American dream. No matter where you come from or what you’re parents have done, college holds the promise of the pathway to success. We take enormous pride in being a classless society in which anyone from any means can grab their piece of the pie. We love nothing more than stories that prove our beliefs right. Every year or two a new “homeless to Harvard” story populates lifestyle media. Colleges/universities love profiling their hard-knock life graduates come May. And why not? Who doesn’t want to be inspired by people who have Horatio Alger-ed their way to commencement? But beyond the headlines or sentimental stories is a less than cheery reality.

Higher education is much more democratic than it’s ever been in many real and meaningful ways. But institutions are rather limited in what they can do. They can throw their metaphorical doors open for any and all (who have academic potential) but they can’t make them come. There are many many truly academically gifted students who are accepted and never attend outstanding universities. These students come from homes in which they may be the first to attend college. The family may be very reluctant for a child to leave home or simply not have the resources to support the travel costs. The student often attends a local college and lives at home. There is nothing wrong with either of these two phenomenons, but when performed in concert they are seriously limiting. The point of higher education is to expand the knowledge base and worldview of students. College is most meaningful when it makes a student’s world bigger. Attending classes with people who are just like you and living with people just like you can render the higher education experience more vocational or technical than intellectual. Yes, great ideas can be explored in the classroom, but only to an extent. Lack of diversity limits the value on the exchange of ideas. Colleges and universities know this and work (to varying degrees) to rectify it. But by the time kids are filling out college applications it’s too late to impact a family’s will.

Kindergarten is the time to start exposing families to the idea of what higher education can mean to their child and how to embrace the most expansive experience possible. There is little point in preparing and urging children to soar if their parents are not on board. Over the course of 13 years (K-12) parent-teacher meetings, PTA, homework, and extra-curricular activities can have a higher-education component. School administrators, teachers and staff will no longer assume that all families are educated higher education consumers. Clinics can be held to help families navigate the (often opaque) terrain of colleges/universities. Topics such as financial aid, return on investment, defining degrees, career placement, and areas of study could be offered from middle school on. The more families are included in the conversations, from the earliest possible point, the more likely they will support the best choice possible for their child.

There are enough impediments to a truly equal opportunity for college students without this major hurdle. Some students, regardless of academic talent often have a first-class college experience while other students, of equal or greater talent, are stuck in coach. Some students are just go-getters, they will seek out and uncover any and all opportunities and not rest until they’ve squeezed every last drop out of the experience. Some students’ parents do that for them, and arrange (through personal contacts or friends of friends) network and resume building internships. Many students either need to work during the summer and/or don’t have their parents doing their work for them and graduate with a lesser experience. The same is said for many academic experiences as well. Studying anywhere off-campus cost money that is rarely covered by financial aid. Summer classes, remote campuses or study abroad programs are often not an option for students who must make every dollar count. Even on-campus these financial decisions must often be made. Most campus events and some courses of study cost additional monies. There are areas of study that necessitate equipment or fees that might not be covered in financial aid packages.

Creating a college student body that reflects the greater society is an admirable goal. However to do so in any meaningful way will take more than opening up the doors. Resources and attention are needed so that we don’t just democratizing education we also equalize it.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Education

 

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Education By Degrees

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Higher education was once a luxury item for Americans. Families who had the means and/or men, who didn’t need to support their families of origin, went to college. There were no entrance exams or even much to speak of in the way of requirements. If you could find your way there, and were of the ‘right’ background, you could give it a go. There was no such thing as ‘student life’. Oh the students did live, but they did so under their own direction. Boarding houses, spare rooms, and inexpensive restaurants were the origin of the student life species. Slowly colleges and university became more accessible, less religious, and somewhat more diverse. The G.I. Bill may have been the greatest diversification of higher education. People (mostly men) from all backgrounds were now attending college for the first time. This phenomenon created an awareness and glimmer of opportunity for families across the country. College began to seem less of an elitist pursuit and more an intrinsic part of the American Dream.

Fast-forward and we are now experiencing the aftershock of a similar deluge of students. The baby boomers’ children attended college in large numbers. Colleges/universities competed for these tuition paying people by out positioning each other. Monies were spent to upgrade and to market a ‘student life’ experience that would appeal to a generation who lived larger than their ancestors. Concurrently, government spending in higher education ebbed and the stock market did that bad thing. Tuition and student debt rose. A few years before all this, employers began to view a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement for almost every job. At face value this would appear reactionary. Well of course a B.S. or B.A. is a requirement! Why wouldn’t it be? After all, everyone has one! But the truth is probably a bit more calculating than that. The fact is that as all this was happening in higher education, K-12 was changing as well. A high school diploma rarely delivers a workplace ready employee. A high school diploma was once an accomplishment in and of itself, and a ticket to secure employment. That 50% of incoming college freshman need remedial work, speaks to the state of a high school diploma. College work has not gotten more difficult, if anything there are curriculums so breezy they would make those boarding house dwellers of yesteryear spin in their graves.

Skyrocketing tuition plus the baccalaureate replacing a high school diploma as a requirement creates a perfect storm of sorts. We are beginning, and will continue to see the formation of two tracks of higher education. Some of us remember (or heard stories) of these tracks in K-12. Certainly we’ve heard of programs in foreign lands that still adhere to tracking. Students who were seen as being more practical than scholars, were steered into technical vocations. Those perceived as having scholarly potential were readied for higher education. There are many colleges across the country that cater to average students. (There is something to say for college being an experience for all learners.) Colleges, in these cases are charging and receiving extraordinary amounts of money to create workplace readiness. These colleges are private as well as public and diverse in their origins and how they deliver degrees. They are doing nothing but fulfilling a need and addressing a reality. Some of these schools have a great alumni network and/or stellar career placement. But what of those that don’t?

We’ve created a very expensive and time consuming way to obtain what we consider a minimum education. The ridiculousness of considering a baccalaureate a prerequisite for all kinds of work is equal to the state of many high school degrees. Public education should be producing young men and women who can write, speak, calculate and think. Colleges (with their enormous expense) should not be taking the place of K-12 public education. 50% of incoming freshman are paying (big bucks) to complete their high school education (via remedial work.) Employers need to rethink what skills are actually needed for each job. They need to beef up their Human Resources offices and return to placement testing. Certificate programs (offered in high schools or in community colleges) should be created in partnership with large-scale employers. It is simply not sustainable, this gerbil wheel we’ve created. There are young men and women spending years and money they may or may not have, because their public education is not all it should be and once was.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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We Dress Alike*

triplets

There’s a stark yet strangely beautiful photo essay by Nolan Conway. Identically styled people sit in various MacDonald’s restaurants. At first (second and third) glance it would appear that this is a collection of twin portraits. But the captions prove otherwise. Capturing clusters of indistinguishable people is no doubt the point of a MacDonald’s story. It makes that obvious and the also not so obvious point of; when did everyone start looking alike?

Recently a story about the ‘edgy’ art scene in the newest hippest neighborhood was accompanied by a photo. A cluster of identically clad and groomed under 40s was captioned. But you’d have to be the profiled artist’s mother to pick his knit capped head out of the half-dozen style clones. The men had moppish 80’s hair, the women had asymmetrical 80’s hair. The men were wearing what they considered ironic T-shirts (when did ubiquitous and mundane become synonymous with irony?) The women are in clothes made to appear as if they were accidentally washed on the incorrect cycle. They are faded just so and just a bit worn. And they all are wearing vaguely ethnic scarves and polyester knit hats perched on the top of their heads. Even the manner in which they wear these unattractive utilitarian hats (indoors!) is identical.

The Bobbsey Twin-ness is not reserved for the under 40 crowd of course. If you’ve attended a high school graduation in recent years, and perhaps sat in a back row, you would see a sea of identical heads. Over 40 female hair is almost always long, straight and highlighted (it’s the equivalent of our foremother’s blue rinse.) The clothing style depends on the B.M.I. but almost always includes denim w/ a minimum of 3% lycra. This Doubleminting has always been pervasive among teens of course. It is the holy grail of adolescence to look exactly like everyone else. But what about college? Have you been to college lately? Move-in day is a riot. All the dads are in cargo shorts, untucked shirts & baseball caps; and all the mothers are in capris and generous cleavage (you think it’s easy to see your daughter turn into a grown woman?!) and the freshman are in uniform. The young women are dressed in body-con pieces from head to shin. From shin to toe they are most likely either in an Ugg or wellie (making them look as if they’re standing in a bucket, which is flattering on exactly no one) or if the weather allows, a rubber ‘shoe’ suitable for the beach, pool or hospital. The young men are either in baggy cargo shorts (like father like…) or slim fitting madras shorts. T-shirt (with message/image suited to the corresponding college/university) and unlaced sneakers or shower shoes complete the look. Since when did college students want to look alike? When did they want to follow the lead of their parents in any pursuit, least of all an approach to style? Wait but what of the art students you ask? Well if completing the checklist of body modifying (piercing, tattoos, earlobe stretchers) is a sign of creativity, then we’re good. (Note to medical students on the fence about their specialty; restorative cosmetic surgery – ka-ching!)

So how did it happen? Is it all the result of very cheap clothing in chain stores? Is it that the same ‘look’ is available across the country in a mall or big-box store near you? Is it our celebrity culture that drives style? Could it be that people (consumers, media, merchandisers) turn to celebrities (who turn to a handful of stylists) to create their look? Or is the styling of one’s person just the tip of the iceberg? Is it more that a culture that celebrates sameness is ultimately going to look the same. A culture that applauds and supports genre over niche does not cultivate creativity. Television talent contests award very specific sounds and looks (there is no Gong Show diversity on display anywhere.) Since the Rocky and Godfather days, film sequels are king. Broadway’s percentage of revivals grows every year. Where are the new ideas? How much wonderful writing never sees the light of day? What happened to the novel? Memoirs (which is a lovely sounding word for ‘it happened to me so it must be interesting’) is the genre of choice. Sensation and sequels sell, but what about good writing and great stories? Is there an audience (aka money) for talented novelists, poets, screenwriters and playwrights? We could also shine the light on indistinguishable home design and decor, museums exhibits and performance arts centers. You’d have to have a GPS to know where you are sometimes.

There have always been style trends. People don’t much go for operetta the way they once did. Sonnets went the way of hoop skirts, and you don’t see a lot of domes and columns being erected. But not since perhaps the 1950s have people strived to look and sound so much alike. Perhaps it is merely cyclical and not a harbinger of the demise of creativity. My goal is to outlive the cycle, seek creativity and to do so while wearing what flatters/interests me.

*The Triplet Song (The Bandwagon 1953) by Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Style

 

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