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A Higher Education Wake Up Call

There was a horrific fatal stampede this week for a chance to attend college, in South Africa.  A line over a mile long, waited at the gate for a coveted seat in the University of Johannesburg.  High school graduates (and some parents) crowded together, arms filled with blankets and other supplies, desperate for a chance for a better life.  One third of that country is unemployed and high education is only recently available to all.

This heartbreaking story needn’t suffer any disrespect to serve as an allegory for us.  We have reached a point, for better or worse, at which a four year degree has taken on mythic remedy.  A bachelor degree may not be the ticket to upward mobility it once was, but you’d be hard pressed to gain employment without one.  We need only to turn on an old movie to remember that high school degrees were once a coveted commodity.  Independent of the swelling middle class and higher education accessibility, I’m not sure a high school degree today bears any resemblance to that of pre-World War II.  However thanks to the G.I. Bill and the major shifts in American industry, a college education has become an increasingly normative expectation in the world of work.

Today we expect the vast majority of high school graduates to attend college.  We can probably agree that high school graduation standards are not what they once were.  Everyone is expected to graduate, and every measure is taken to ensure that will be the case.  Bluntly put, a high school diploma is not the proof of mastery it once was.  In addition to potentially ill-prepared students, we have the skyrocketing costs of college.  It is no secret that students (and their families) are incurring crippling debt with absolutely no guarantee on investment.  For every college graduate with a marketable degree there must be at least one who paid for five or six years of school, or has graduated with a degree in a traditionally non-income earning field (i.e., art, dance, etc.)

Now before we all start waxing poetic about the priceless nature of a liberal arts degree, and the beauty of learning for learning sake, let me just say; It’s over.  The only people who still have the luxury of pouring over great works of literature in gorgeous libraries (for enjoyment’s sake) and sitting on grassy quads discussing Plato, are those who know they will not be supporting themselves.  Higher education has become a means to employment.  Trust me, I am none too pleased either.

Aside from the romantic dream of a liberal arts degree withering in front of my eyes, it is the more practical matter of expecting all students to succeed in college, that worries me.  One size never fits all.  However we really do expect every high school graduate to either attend college or enlist in the military.  Yes, there are a few “trades” jobs in this country, but the unemployment rate would suggest that any available jobs would not be going to teenagers.  What we need is a viable alternative and lucky for us, we have one!  Americorps has existed for twenty years, yet it has not been integrated into our culture in the way the military has.  If business were under the same guidelines to hire Americorps veterans as military veterans, and high schools offered Americorps as an equal option to the military, people would see the experience as a viable path to employment.

I am not anti-higher education, far from it.  I am not, however comfortable with the tail wagging the dog, and colleges (and I use that term somewhat loosely) cropping up to service remedial learners and (for a hefty price) provide them with a degree.  We’ve already gone done this road with high school.  I am not comfortable with the crippling students loan debt and the national economic implications.  I am not comfortable with telling every high school student that they have such limited options.  Let’s take a step back and think of what our economy and our teenagers need.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Education

 

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School Spirits

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has publicly broached the subject of higher education costs.  This could be a moment to remember.  If done thoughtfully and strategically, it could change the landscape of our country.  The skyrocketing debt being incurred by students is no secret.  However, those saddled with the debt are only one part of the problem.

There are countless high school students who could/would not even consider such amounts of debt.  They may no even know it is an option, albeit a questionable option.  Currently the admissions and bursar process for most institutions of higher education are not designed to assist lower income families.  Yes, a lot of noise is made about “need blind” admissions, and generous aid packages, but there are loopholes and hurdles.  For every college application there is a fee.  Most high school seniors are encouraged to apply to an average of six schools.  That can be a lot of fee money, yet to receive a waiver a family has to be practically at the national poverty level.  $500 or so is a lot of money to a family of four making $42,000.  And that’s just the beginning.  Visiting colleges to determine the best fit?  That costs money.  Food, housing, books, fees?  Often aid packages do not cover those expenses.  Traveling home for holidays and random school breaks?  Not all that possible on a limited income.  Did you know that when colleges/universities are “closed” for these breaks, their dining plan is often closed as well, leaving students of limited means to fend for themselves?  Taken as a whole, these specifics add up to, “you need not apply.”  At least to my sensibilities.

Demanding colleges/universities lower tuition is fine.  But we could do far more to change things dramatically.  The federal government, a major contributor to higher education (in the form of research grants and projects) is in a position to demand changes.  I am specifically interested in what could be done to protect the consumer.

There is far too much mystique about the admissions process and higher education in general.  It is time to look behind the curtain.  I have outlined many considerable cost savings measures in my previous post Educated Consumers.  In addition we need to share with high school students the actual dollars and cents of higher education.  Not all majors are equal and nor are all degrees.  Not all schools are legitimate are worth what they’re charging.  Colleges and universities should not be allowed to be anything but transparent.  Every cost needs to be listed (in one place!)  Every school knows their job placement outcomes and income levels of alumni (of every major)  This information needs to be shared with potential students.  Truisms such as “we can’t force you to live on campus, we just prefer you do” need to be stated.  Let’s eliminate some of the smoke and mirrors.  Minors are the consumers of higher education and they need more protection than we are currently offering.  The government, for better or worse, is in a position to do just that.  Remember, before the F.D.A., snake oil was available on practically every corner.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Education

 

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Educated Consumers

The White House announced a new program (last year) to ease student debt.  The plan (to start in 2012) would allow graduates to pay 10% of their discretionary income for 20 years.  Any remaining student debt would be “forgiven.”

The amount and proliferation of student debt has grown to ridiculous proportion.  But why in the world should we address this after the fact?  Why are students incurring debt that might have to be forgiven in 20 years?  Either they accrued too much debt, or they accrued too much debt for their chosen profession.  I suggest educating the consumer is a much more effective solution than debt forgiveness.  Like the mortgage crisis, many are buying a product incompatible with their means and needs.

Imagine how easy it is to get caught up in the college selection frenzy at 16 or 17.  It is often also difficult for adolescents to consider shades of gray in decision making.  There will always be more than one way for them to accomplish their educational goals.  If I may, I’d like to offer a little food for thought:

  • Transfer, transfer, transfer.  Two years in a community college (particularly one with a reciprocal agreement with a prestigious university in the area) will save almost 50% in costs.  The degree from the 4 year school (attended for the last 2 years of study) will be exactly the same as the one given to 4 year students.
  • Stick to your own kind.  Do not attend state schools in other states.  State colleges and universities can be wonderful.  They can also be as expensive as a private school for out of state residents.
  • Live at home.  I’m not interested in hearing about the missed social experiences of dormitory life.  That’s not the goal of education.  If money is an issue, would you rather the person living in their childhood room, a college student or a 30 year old trying to pay off a student loan?
  • Consider your major.  I know it’s hard to think ahead as a teenager.  But teens can be savvy consumers.  What kind of degree is worth the associated cost?  A B.F.A. for a total of $40K might be a better choice (for some) than a B.F.A. for $200K.  Better yet, a B.A. for $40K with an Arts major, may be the best investment.
  • Know what you’re buying.  Does the college/university have a robust alumni network or career services?  How is their reputation in your chosen major?  What leadership or research opportunities are available at the school?

Forgiving debt is not sustainable and does nothing to ensure that people are getting the best education they can afford.  The skyrocketing cost of higher education aside, student debt exists in the same realm as consumer or housing debt.  I’m not suggesting a cash only society, but debt should always be incurred thoughtfully and judiciously.  During a time of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, when the next generation is not guaranteed a better standard of living than the one before them, attention must be paid.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2011 in Education

 

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What Would Bill W. Do?

Not too long ago, there was some media buzz about the efficacy of addiction therapy.  This is not a popular subject.  If one works in the rehabilitation (rehab) industry one is understandably resistant to any metric devices that might prove the methodology ambiguous.  Addiction is a very resistant phenomenon.  There are occasions, when a society of thinking people can agree, that lacking a 100% guarantee, erring on the side of empathy and care is optimal.  For some addicts, the simple act of stopping something in motion, is enough to change their lives.  Rehabilitation can be that barricade.

Addiction to alcohol, drugs or eating disorders has never seemed quiet or private to me.  I recognize someone in the throes of the phenomenon (whether they are using or not.)  People with a Faustian relationship with food are very obvious to me, and I completely understand the entertainment value of metaphorically playing with one’s food.  Of course, when it spills into passive suicidal tendencies, all bets are off.  It is torture to be in the life of an addict.  Addicts can be very unpredictable and by definition, not reliable (their primary relationship is to their addiction.)  Empathy can wear thin after multiple incidents.  It is helpful to remember that people use drugs, food, and alcohol to the point of personal destruction, NOT because the substances or processes are so tempting, but because without them, life would be unbearable.  In other words; drugs, eating disorders and alcohol work.  They numb and distract from an inner pain that for some people is devastatingly crippling.

Posh rehab centers are part of the American lexicon.  Most of us can rattle off one or two without thought (Hazelden, Betty Ford.)  Colleges and universities now address eating disorders via education campaigns, marketing (‘all you can eat’ dining have been replaced with ‘all you care to eat’ dining) staff training and additional counseling staff.  Certainly excessive/binge drinking (which can be an indication of alcoholism) has been the bane of higher education for some time (drug abuse, because of its inherent illegality poses more of a conundrum.)  Employers contracting with treatment providers has become de rigueur.  Clearly, there is treatment available for some.

But what of the veterans?  Veterans are returning, and mercifully will continue to do so in even greater number now.  They will come back to what kind of treatments and where?  This week it was reported that 1 in 5 suicides is that of a veteran.  Now, I’d be the first to say that NOT screening people for mental illness before enlistment is absurd.  But regardless, we have a problem here.  I don’t mean to imply that veterans (or anyone) who commits suicide is an addict.  Not at all.  But there is overlap.  Suicide, most often, is not a well thought out end of life plan, but an act of someone who feels they have no options.  Addiction is also the result of feeling there are no feasible options.  Teaching people to recognize their pain for what it is, and providing them tools to pull themselves out of that pain, is effective.  Rehabilitation, at its best, does just that.

So what’s our plan?  If rehabilitation is accepted by the wealthy, the educated and corporate America, as viable treatment for addiction, shouldn’t it be available to all?

 

 



 
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Posted by on October 12, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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