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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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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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Inheritance Allowances

According to reports, retirees are distributing (what would have been) inheritance to their children while they are still very much alive. This is not a new phenomenon; it is just going by an awkward and clumsy new name. “Early distribution of inheritance” is also known as supporting your adult children. The reasons for the life support are somewhat varied. There are adult children who come upon unavoidable and devastating life experiences, and need a hand. Thank goodness for family. But the stories that seem to bubble up, and are told rather defensively, seem to be of a different ilk.

Married retirees speak of their adult children “needing” health insurance and suggesting that it would be tantamount to eating one’s young to have these grown-ups go uninsured. Spend your money on whatever you’d like Mr. & Mrs. Retiree, but no one ‘needs’ health insurance (yet.) What your elderly children need is healthcare. Purchase hospitalization or cataclysmic insurance if you must. But they can go to doctors and pharmacists on their own. If they can’t afford those bills, chances are that they (or at least their children) qualify for assistance. Don’t confuse what your children “need” with what you or they may “want”. If you do that you might end up paying off your elderly child’s six-figure student loan debt.

Yes much of higher education is ridiculously expensive. But so are sports cars, and sable coats. Before buying sable most people would have to do a little R.O.I. exercise. “Will I miss the money that I would spend on this coat?” “Do I have a life which will enable me to get use out of this coat?” It’s pretty much a given that this exercise does not include “How high is the credit limit on all my cards?” If you can’t afford it, you don’t buy it. If you live in a warm climate, or have a casual way of life, you don’t buy it. For many people, attending any kind of institution of higher education will demand incurring debt. But it never should be more than the projected career can support. The high school teacher with $100,000 in debt either had very poor advice or experienced some sort of catastrophic event. Four years of a private liberal arts education is a luxury few can afford. Two years at a community college followed by two years in an accredited college/university can be made affordable by most. Savings, grants, awards, and work-study (students do better academically when they have a job) can make a serious dent in what needs to be borrowed. For the graduate who wants to teach; you might want to look into public school systems that pay for your master’s degree.

Of course not all baby boomers are supporting their adult children with large chunks of change. Some choose a more homey approach, and modify their existing dwelling, or move to a larger abode to accommodate elderly children and their families. Many extol the old-fashioned virtues of multi-generational living. But often there is something a little less sweet simmering beneath the Norman Rockwell imagery. The retiree might not have pictured a lifetime of parenting of a seemingly developmentally typical son/daughter. The retiree might have niggling thoughts of how they might have contributed to this situation. One thing is pretty certain; these ‘kids’ are not worried about an inheritance. For an adult living with his parents, time has pretty much grinded to a halt. The relationship dynamic has not shifted yet. The two-way street of adult child/parent relations has not been paved. No one is getting older and no one is ever going to die. Chances are they’ve never even heard of Sugar Mountain.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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