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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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Tackling College Athletics

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Spelman College has dropped all sports and has picked up fitness. They plan to use their athletic facilities and budget to create healthy bodies and habits. Dr. Beverly Tatum, Spelman’s president, chose this path after making disturbing observations about the dollars spent per student athlete and the physical condition of students and young alumni. No doubt every college/university administrator has made these observations at some time. But Dr. Tatum has made an unpopular but wildly responsible move to create meaningful change.

Higher education costs have been rising exponentially for some time. At the same time, a bachelor’s degree has become a minimum requirement for most jobs. College, which was once for ‘some’ people, has become necessary for most people. Colleges and universities in the race to remain competitive have felt compelled to spend extraordinary amounts of money on features giving them an edge. For some schools, an edge means stellar facilities, for others it means technology programs that by their very nature are an insatiable repository of funds. Smaller programs, particularly liberal arts programs, fall to the wayside in some schools as they don’t provide the most obvious return on investment. An institution can sacrifice language programs, performing arts and soft sciences with its eye on higher education dominance.(Nobody ever got on a Top 10 University list by virtue of its wonderful poetry department.)

There has been a collective consensus in recent years that higher education is no longer simply an institution of thinkology. There are only so many resources (public, private, endowment) to go around. Yet athletic programs are still an assumed part of the college experience. Why is that? Why at a time when student debt AND the level of obesity is skyrocketing, do we think higher education athletics is simply a given? Now before you start waving your pennants or foam fingers at me; let’s have a word about school spirit. Piffle. Nobody ever got a better education or a leg up in life from painting their face and wearing overpriced sweatshirts. Is playing on a team fun? Yes, and so is performing in a play. Is cheering on ‘your’ team a kick in the pants? Probably, but so is watching the debating team wipe the floor with the competition. Do team sports teach team skills? One would think. But if we agree that team skills are important (and I’m not convinced they are) can’t they be built in class or on a Habitat For Humanity project?

But what of the schools who actually make a significant portion of their budget from playing sports at an elevated level? Quite frankly I would say; huh?! Is that really what we want higher education to be in 2013? If we really want to train young men and women to be professional athletes, can’t we just create technical sport schools? If we had a crystal ball we may very well see that these schools with profitable athletic programs will in essence become technical sport schools. But for every other school allocating large parts of their budget to athletic programs while their tuition skyrockets, it’s time to reevaluate. Yes the alumni will be up in arms, and yes perhaps some students too. But part of being a charismatic leader is being able to communicate why change is beneficial. The Spelman athletic director (with 25 years on the job) is on board and in agreement with Dr. Tatum’s directive. Dr. Tatum is currently fielding calls from college/university presidents questioning the value of athletics to higher education.

Great leadership should involve more than getting one’s institution’s name in the paper. Great leaders must make difficult and at times unpopular decisions for the betterment of the institution and the people it serves. Cutting costs by cutting sparsely populated (but wonderful) programs is not an act of bravery or long-term solution to higher education costs. We are now into overtime with the issue of higher education affordability. Too many qualified students cannot afford tuition (which is why they have such debt.) Pulling the plug on an expensive program that is not an integral part of a baccalaureate or graduate degree should be a serious consideration.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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Hand-Picked For College

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According to today’s paper better colleges fail to lure talented poor students. If it’s true the reason is simple; it’s complicated. While it is not complicated to identify and recruit academically gifted poor students, it is more involved to ensure that they succeed.

Many if not most financial aid packages do not include monies for housing and/or dining. There are rarely stipends for books, computers or travel. There are several periods during the academic year in which dormitories close and dining plans evaporate. Students who come from great distances and/or do not have the funds to travel are left utterly unmoored, often during a holiday. Colleges and universities now invite not just parents, but entire families to weekend events on campus. Families with limited means could not attend and students might be affected. Student activities occur throughout the years that cost money (not supplied by aid). Joining the Greek system (aka fraternities & sororities) is not free. Attending sporting events, senior class events, or arts events are rarely free. Without a meaningful stipend a university would ensure a second-class status to poorer students.

The more complex issue is that of social and/or emotional support. Attending classes and getting good grades is only one part of the college experience. If the idea of luring talented poor students to ‘better’ colleges is for them to get more out of the college experience (than they would’ve attending their local college) then more has to be done for them. Academic advising would need to be aggressive and include tutorials on research opportunities, graduate schools, and career opportunities. Student services would need to help foster networking opportunities to ensure the students reap the benefit of the stellar student body. Adjusting to college life is never all that easy. The environment always feels just a bit foreign, and the expectations daunting. For poorer students the culture itself could be off-putting and/or foreign. If a student has left an economically struggling family behind, it can feel disorienting to be among people with plenty. There can be issues of guilt if a family could use the student at home.

Finding talented students who are poor is not difficult. Every high school in the nation can identify their top 10% and SATs do a fine job of categorizing people. Many universities already recruit students from big cities (which no doubt offer a pool of talented, poor and ethnically or racially underrepresented students.)  Many schools have institutionalized support programs for students from ethnically/racially-underrepresented groups. If the ‘better’ schools are to recruit poor students from more remote locations they will need to create a similar model of institutional support programs. Recruitment and admission are only the very very beginning of the higher education journey. If colleges and universities take an aggressive role in recruiting students they must take seriously their obligation to ensure success.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Education

 

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Shameless

The University of Colorado, Denver has been conspicuously silent about their former graduate student turned gunman. There’s nothing particularly surprising about that. Universities are loath to discuss their students or alumni unless doing so will bring glory to the institution. Universities are also part of the elite group of organizations known as suffering from acute “litigation paranoia.” But onlookers accept the silence as being a vague yet misguided attempt at protecting someone’s privacy.

If what we were discussing was a physical disease or impairment, patient privacy would be a valid and even laudable motivation. As a society we’ve determined that patient privacy, even when a diagnoses could involve potential contagion, is necessary. We’ve also determined that when a disease poses an imminent public threat the afflicted will be quarantined (and thereby outed.)  In other words; public good trumps the individual. On the most basic level we apply this same principal to mental health as well. If a person states (unequivocally) that he/she is going to hurt him/herself or others, they are held (usually for a very short period) until they can be examined and either sent on their way or hospitalized.

This flaccid approach to protecting individuals and the public stems from the deinstitutionalized of mental healthcare several decades ago. The “expression of specific harm” is employed to prevent people being hospitalized against their will. One only need sit with the preceding sentence a bit to see the absurdity of this approach. People struggling with mental health issues rarely are clear and conscientious enough to seek hospitalization on their own. We leave it to the ill to state clearly their intentions to do harm before highly trained professionals are allowed to intervene. That’s a problem.

Adding to that little issue is the fact that we are freaked out by mental health issues. Yes, we’ve been Oprahfied enough to (sometimes) toss around the right terms. But we are glaringly uncomfortable dealing with real life mental health. If we see someone, day in and day out, who we consider odd, what do we do? Maybe we mention it to a friend, but beyond them who would we actually tell? And what is exactly do we say? Is the guy who only comes out at night and keeps his door covered in aluminum foil a danger to anyone? Are his odd behaviors actually highly honed coping skills for his illness? Maybe he sees a psychiatrist every day and is adequately medicated. Maybe he’s just eccentric (versus ill.) More often than not, we say nothing and just hope to avoid someone who makes us uncomfortable.

There is somewhere where aluminum foil should send an observer directly to the phone, and that’s at a university. Most students (graduate and undergraduate) are under 30 years of age; a primetime for the onset of very serious mental illnesses. Students are often sent away to school already presenting symptoms and perhaps fully medicated. The beauty of a controlled environment (like a university) is that elaborate and accessible systems are in place. A professor who observes disturbing behavior knows exactly how to report it immediately. No doubt, they sometimes do. But too often we err too heavily on the side of our own discomfort (which we shroud in “patient privacy” rhetoric.) It’s very unsettling to be the person who may upend someone’s life. However it’s far worse to be the one who stayed silent.

When we stop seeing mental health issues as being somehow shameful we will be a safer and more humane society. When newsreaders no longer intone (in sotto voce;) “He even spent time in a mental hospital” we will be further ahead. When a political candidate gains sympathy points for a spouse with a physical illness and looses popularity for one with a mental illness, we will be further ahead. When we stop using the word “rehab” (invoking images of large sunglasses and hangovers) as a euphemism for mental health facility, we will be further ahead. And when celebrities stop claiming to be suffering from “exhaustion” (as if it’s the 1900s) versus having depression, we will be much further ahead. There is no shame in illness of any kind. The only shame is silence.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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A Letter To A Freshman

Dear Recent High School Graduate – Feels good to be done, doesn’t it?  That ’12 tassel looks kind of cute hanging from your rear view mirror/lamp/mirror/bookcase.  Take a long nostalgic look at it and then turn away.  It’s time to look ahead to a degree which done correctly will make your world as big as you want.  (‘The world is your oyster’, ‘the future is yours’, and every other platitude you read on those cash containers called greeting cards is actually true.  But happy endings are not a given and you need to be in the driver seat.)

You’ve already chosen where you will spend your freshman year.  (You may have chosen the absolutely positively most perfect place for you.  Great!  If that’s not the case however, keep in mind that transferring is always a very viable option.)  You probably have been hearing about the dismal employment prospects for recent graduates.  You may even have an older sibling who is living proof.  However you may have also been hearing from some friends or relatives of questionable maturity, that college should be above all else a social amusement park.  You may have even visited some colleges and universities that bear a striking resemblance to Disney U.  (Hopefully you chose the school that speaks to your goals not the one had the best rides.)  Unless you will never be expected to support yourself, ignore your friends and those relatives chanting ‘Toga Toga” under their breath.  In 2012 (“Yeah! Class of 2012!!”) a college degree should be a tool for job readiness.

To help you achieve that goal here are some key tips:

  • College is your job now.  Show up to class, be prepared and do a good job.
  • Before you choose a major look at job requirements.  Think about the industry or job that appeals to you and find out what course of study and/or credentials are required.  Speak to people in the profession.
  • Before you choose a major consider how far you want to go in your studies.  There are baccalaureate degrees that are meant to be a starting point in higher education and some that are meant to be the finish line.
  • Find the right adviser for you.  You’re paying for this experience.  If the adviser you’re assigned doesn’t work for you, find another, and even another if need be.  Good advising will open up the world to you and could save you from wasting time and money.
  • Get a job.  If it’s a requirement of your work/study package great, if not, go find one.  Even if it’s only 5 hours a week.  A college job will provide you a respite from student life/studies.  A job is also a good way to find out what you absolutely do not want to do.
  • Make a point of getting to know people entirely different from yourself.  (Remember this whole experience is about making your world bigger.)
  • Try something so not you.  Take a class you would never ordinarily consider (you can always drop it after one or two sessions.)  Attend an event that sounds ridiculous to you.  Volunteer for something odd.

You are about to learn so many new things; about the world and yourself.  It’s really just the beginning.  Life above all else is a learning experience.  Take the biggest bite possible out of the next few years.  Don’t worry too much about making any mistakes.  Embarrassing yourself in public or failing an exam or class doesn’t count as mistakes.  The only mistakes that really count at this point are those that limit your choices later on.

 

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Education

 

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