Thursday, August 29, 2013

The High Schoolization Of College

Last week, President Obama made a series of speeches about making higher education affordable, which of course would be a great idea if we really had a socialist system and the government could tell schools what to charge. The problem is that we have a quasi-meritocracy with a bit of market capitalism mixed in, and that's created the idea that expensive colleges must be good and really expensive colleges must be terrific. Meanwhile, the competitive and not-so-competitive schools that scoop up most American teenagers are considered second-tier and many of the students who attend don't have the financial wherewithal or the intellectual stamina to stay in them.

Of course, this is not going to change any time soon because the Republicans in Congress won't approve anything Obama wants and there isn't enough money for the federal Government to get more involved in college financing. What's really needed is a radical restructuring of higher education where all truly gifted students can attend schools that will challenge them and all other students who want to go to college can find affordable financing to do so. College is still a great investment, but the division between the have and have-nots is beginning to mirror larger society, which will in turn solidify the status quo.

But the president didn't stop there. He is also proposing a rating system to rank colleges and universities by...wait for it...quantitative data that will separate schools by how much money their graduates make and how successful the schools are at making their students employable, cost and the advanced degrees graduates earn.

Let's see...where have I heard of a system that attempts to use quantifiable data like, for example, test scores, to rank school and educators. Oh yeah; the public K-12 schools. It's a terrible idea for them and it's a terrible idea for colleges.

The reason it's so bad is that the president's proposal, and the philosophy behind it, succumbs to the erroneous idea that the purpose of attending college is to find a job. If you accept that, then measuring college's performance by how many employable graduates it turns out makes sense. But that's not the purpose of college and it's a mistake to believe that it is.

A university education is an exercise in academic exploration, of ideas, of research, of trying to find truth and beauty and a sense of who you are. It is available so that a young person can have access to people who have studied a topic or subject so thoroughly that they have something nuanced to say about it and can analyze it at a deep level. It's there so you can take a course in something that you want to learn about, rather than what you think you have to learn. It's an exploration. It's difficult. Unsettling. Motivating.

But it's not job training. There's no such thing as a readily employable English, Philosophy, Communications or Media Ecology major. You need to apply your knowledge. And to be considered an educated person, you really do need to know about more than just finance or accounting or marine biology, though they might get you a high paying job down the road. I'll concede that an engineering or acting student has employable knowledge and skills, but even they will need to learn a great deal on the job. So when the president wants to tie all of this data to how successful a college is, I see that as bunk. What a job pays is in many ways out of a graduate's hands. Many people would like an advanced degree but can't afford the money, time or both.

And what of students who don't belong in college? The default attitude now is that everyone should go, but that's also bunk. We've dismantled the system we used to have that recognized that some jobs do not require a college education. We've even begun this in high school, where many districts have stopped offering actual job training classes because they don't feed the everyone-goes-to-college beast. Then when the students who would benefit from those programs find that college isn't for them and they have no discernible job skills, society suffers.

The president should find other means to boost education and job skills without turning universities into glorified high schools, where students ad parents have unreasonable expectations of what they're paying for.

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