Coffee heat rising

The Joy—and Value Received—of Community Colleges

Well, I came away from the community college’s four-day-long series of  training workshops feeling quite pleased. Really, I’d call them “courses,” because they were so full of content. A lot of new ideas surfaced, even though the instructor had already introduced me to many of the concepts in one-on-ones over the past several weeks. I also discovered a passle of new-to-me resources, and it was a nice opportunity to meet other faculty.

The faculty support the Maricopa Community College District provides for its adjunct faculty exceeds astonishing. Many of us were actually paid to attend these workshops, unheard-of at the Great Desert University. Not only that, but yesterday another set of paid(!!!) teacher training workshops was announced, coming up this fall.

You have to have worked at a university, where adjuncts are the lowest of the low, to understand how remarkable that is. Of course, it behooves the district to treat adjuncts decently, since 80 percent of its faculty is adjunct. However, the same can be said of any university freshman composition program, and I can assure you, “decently” is not the operative term in those precincts.

From what I can tell, Paradise Valley’s faculty support is outstanding across the board, whether for adjuncts or for full-timers. In the first place, community college full-time faculty are paid a decent wage—significantly more than most GDU faculty earn. But more to the point, Paradise Valley has enough support staff, and their training fits the faculty’s needs.

At this point, GDU West has one lonely (very excellent, very hard-working) IT staffer providing BlackBoard training and support; another who used to help was moved to the main campus. Even before the crash provided an excuse to gut the West campus’s staff, these two women were massively overworked. They could point you in the right direction, but ultimately you learned what you could about the software and about online course design by the seat of your pants. On rare occasions, the university would mount a two-hour workshop, but these were often led by faculty who had no more training than the rest of us in online instruction—it was, in short, the blind leading the blind.

The woman who led this summer’s workshops not only is experienced in teaching college-level courses, she’s completing a Ph.D. in instructional design. And it shows. She has really smart ideas about ways to set up an online course so students can navigate quickly and simply, and she also offered a number of strategies to keep the course academically rigorous without killing the instructor with overwork.

So personally, I’m very pleased about the outcome for the magazine writing course. What I’ve learned from her is going to make the course much more effective, and I’m really looking forward to engaging these ideas.

I can’t say whether this is typical of all community colleges, although I wouldn’t be surprised, since a community college’s mandate is teaching, rather than an amalgam of teaching, service, and research. Lower-division students, in particular, tend to get short shrift at universities: gigantic classes, tyro instructors, and little administrative support. If I had children who were going to attend a state university—or if I were a person who was about to embark on a four-year degree program—I would strongly recommend taking the first two years at a community college and then transferring.

The value received goes way beyond the savings in tuition, which are substantial. The real value: your students will be going to a school where somebody cares whether they succeed.

Elite Liberal Arts Education: Is it a rip?

Over  at Free Money Finance, FMF and his readers are having a field day excoriating a young woman, one Cortney Munna, and her family for having made the apparently stupid decision to borrow $97,000 to send her to an elite private school, where she took a double major in the liberal arts (religious and women’s studies). With a starting salary after graduation of $46,000—not bad, we might add, for any wet-behind-the-ears kid, even though she’s living in extravagantly pricey San Francisco—she now is looking at a lifetime of student loan payments.

The most generous of FMFs readers suggest that it’s difficult for young people to understand the implications of long-term debt, given the scarcity of practical education in personal finance and budgeting to be found in the public schools, or that the American public is being sold a bill of goods about higher education. Most, however, go in for the kill, ranting about the young woman’s naïveté and her family’s stupidity.

Well, you know… When I was a young thing and wanted a career in nonfiction writing —wanted to be the first female John McPhee—I worked like crazy at it and got published here, there, and everywhere, often in the national markets. And I got a Ph.D. from a state institution. After I’d been banging my head against the steel walls surrounding the top, high-paying U.S. markets, such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, a fellow named Norman Sims published a book called The Literary Journalists. It was a study of the type of nonfiction I craved to publish, illuminated by selections from a group of authors that included my favorite role models plus a few up-and-comers.

The headnote for each article included some biographical details about the author. As I leafed through the book, I realized that an awful lot of those folks had gone to Ivy League or “public ivy” schools: Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, Vassar, Brandeis, Columbia, Harvard, Colgate. In fact, of the 14 senior, mid-career, and junior authors whose work was collected in Sims’s first book on literary nonfiction, only TWO had attended anything other than top-ranked prestigious schools (University of Texas and Union College), and one of those is a private liberal arts college.

As they used to say at Ms. Magazine, CLICK! The light went on. For entrée into a high-powered career, four years at an Ivy League trumps ten years at a public university. While it’s not impossible to break into the upper ranks with a degree from an ordinary, relatively inexpensive school, neither is it likely.

So one might want to think twice about criticizing this family for wanting to get their child into the “best” school possible. And as for blasting Cortney Munna’s choice of majors: At Union, 25% of students major in social sciences, 10% in psychology, 10% in the liberal arts, 10% in biology, and only 11% in the potentially more lucrative engineering. At Yale, the most popular degrees are in social sciences (25%), history (12%), interdisciplinary studies (10%), biology (8%), English (6%), visual and performing arts (6%), and area and ethnic studies (5%). Of those who go to graduate school within a year after leaving Yale, only 1% go into MBA programs.

In 2008, according to Bloomberg Business Week, the median starting salary for a Yale graduate was $59,100. By mid-career, earners with Yale degrees typically made $326,000 a year, while graduates of Kent State, an excellent public school, earned an average of $124,000.

So, I’m afraid that the reasoning behind the family’s ambition to send Ms. Munna to a top-ranking school is not so all wet, after all.

Probably the issue here is that unless your family has the money to foot most or all of the bill for an elite school, you should downsize your ambitions and admit to yourself, right out of the box, that if you can’t pay for an elite degree in cash or are unwilling to shoulder a student loan the size of a house mortgage, you’re unlikely to have an elite career. After all, a salary of $124,000 is not such a bad fate. Ms. Munna and her family had only one failing: their ambitions were too high for their social and economic class. 😉

A post with no title: What can one say?

It’s 9:30 at night and the temperature on the back porch, which has been in the shade all day, is 100 degrees.

Brain’s temperature is somewhere in that vicinity, too. Today reminded me of why I love teaching so bitterly.

Several weeks ago, I spent about eight hours writing an Eng. 102 syllabus and another six to eight hours on an Eng. 101 syllabus. By the time you add all the college’s required boilerplate, one of these things is about 16 single-spaced pages long. Some of said pages are very complex, indeed: braids of the textbook author’s ideas of what the students should learn and what they should already know entertwined with your ideas of what they should learn and what you know your students most certainly will not already know and the college’s idea of what some lawyer on the District board thinks they ought to know and what some veteran of the trenches knows they don’t know and may never figure out.

So I felt pretty good about creating a creditable product, all those weeks ago.

In the interim, the college jettisoned its Eng. 101 text and took on an entirely new text from an entirely different publisher. No problem: there’s only so many ways you can express what an Eng. 101 student needs to learn (if learn she will). It’s all pretty fungible. Recreating the revised 101 syllabus took only about two or three additional unpaid hours.

Then came the announcement that lo! We have a new edition of the Eng. 102 text.

New edition. Why do textbook publishers keep churning out new editions? Because of the lucrative market in textbook resales. At the end of any given semester, college bookstores buy back used textbooks from students who would just as soon never be reminded that they took any of the courses they paid for that semester (about 90 percent of all students, I’d guess). Bookstores buy the books back for ludicrously low prices. Then they resell them for a profit to used-book dealers, who shuffle them around and reconsign them to the college bookstores, who re-resell them to the next batch of students at yet another profit.

Result? Neither the author nor the publisher makes anything on the resale and the re-resale of used textbooks. To continue to make their marginal profit, publishers a) have to jack up the prices of textbooks through the stratosphere (, which regularly underprices college bookstores, is selling the new edition of the 102 text for $78.10), and b) have to grind out new “editions” every two or three years. Each semester a new edition comes out, every single student has to pay the full freight, because no used copies are available. Which is the point.

Secondary result? Instructors get to die with overwork trying to keep up with the shit.

Our textbook author reshuffled her contents so that, although the underlying pedagogical message remained the same, readings were partly deleted, partly reshuffled, and partly changed. To salvage the course plan I’d created…oh, my god. I started around 9:00 this morning and finished at quarter to nine in the evening. During that time I got up twice to pee, and I was interrupted once by SDXB, who killed the better part of an hour talking about himself, and by a volunteer for the Mayo Clinic, who wasted about 10 minutes with a stupid customer service survey. I spent almost ELEVEN HOURS trying to untangle the mess made by the fake “new edition” whose purpose was to pluck the feathers of yet another incoming class of freshmen.

Sumbitch. Not one minute of this time was paid for. My pay for teaching these courses starts when I walk in the classroom door…not during the untold hours I spend preparing the classes.

Academia. What a scam!

What’s a master’s degree worth?

Associate editor and business partner Tina sends a link to this interesting discussion. The main post itself has several links to relevant, equally interesting posts and conversations.

Given the astonishing burden of student loans that too many young people are saddled with—M’hijito’s roommate’s girlfriend, for example, remarked that she will graduate from a top-quality institution with a master’s degree in international business and $1,400-a-month student loan payments—assessing the “value” of graduate education is not a crass or pointless exercise. It’s well and good to love learning for learning’s sake and so to feel that the graduate school experience is irrelevant to one’s vocational prospects. However, once that graduate school experience ends, you still have to pay for it. You still have to keep a roof over your head, put food on your table, and foot the considerable cost of raising a family. When young people are saddled with five- and six-figure student loan debt, they should reasonably expect the financial investment in graduate education to pay off with jobs that will support them.

“That, unfortunately, is too often not the case. In our current economy, there simply aren’t enough decent jobs (or jobs at all) to accommodate the rafts of M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s that learning factories like GDU crank out each year. Certain degrees, like an executive doctorate in educational leadership, make for more employable graduates than others, hile some degrees, such as the M.B.A., need to come from a top-tier (read “wildly expensive”) school even to get the holder hired, to say nothing of commanding an upper-middle-class starting salary. And some degrees, to be blunt about it, are simply fraudulent: they’re money-making scams perpetrated by administrators solely to extract as much cash as possible from as many suckers as will bite.

For example, GDU has a much-ballyhooed interdisciplinary master’s degree that has virtually no entrance requirements and virtually no substance. Students in this program, which the university advertises as something that will help working adults get ahead in their careers, pay a $200 per credit surcharge, on top of the regular graduate tuition and various extra charges (all GDU students, for example, pay an extra fee to support the athletic program). Since a standard graduate course carries three credits, every single course you take in this program costs you $600 more than any other student on the campus would pay for it. Students enrolled in the program take a few core courses taught by the program’s director and then fill out their card with electives in regular departments. One elective is U.S.-Mexican border history. A student in this exotic interdisciplinary program may sit next to a History Department graduate student who pays a full $600 less to be in that classroom. Because the program is pretty fluffy and leaves one with a master’s degree in nothing recognizable by another university or by an employer, its value is highly questionable. IMHO, it’s a scam.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t pursue a master’s degree. Or a doctorate, or a J.D., or degrees in nursing, public health, history, English, library science. To the contrary. Graduate education has—or should have—real financial value in addition to the intellectual adventure and polish that students rightly expect to gain from it.

After altogether too many years in the ivied halls of academe, I would advise those who are thinking that now is the time to go back to school for a master’s degree, a professional degree, or a doctorate to plan very carefully. You need to develop a two-pronged planning scheme:

1. Intellectual and spiritual planning

The prospective graduate student should ask Why, really, do I want to do this?

Do you want to pursue a subject because you’re crazy-passionate about it, so much so that you don’t care whether you can ever make a living at it? (There’s nothing wrong with this, BTW.)

Do you feel a graduate degree will make you look smarter to people who matter to you? (You’d be amazed at how many people with Ph.D.’s wanted, at heart, to prove to someone that they weren’t so stupid after all! This is not a good reason to go to graduate school.)

Do you want a graduate degree because you hope it will open the door to an interesting line of work, whose pay doesn’t really matter as long as the job doesn’t bore the pants off you?

Do you want the degree because you think it will open the door to high-paying occupations, whose remuneration very much does matter?

Is it that, at the grand old age of 28 or 30, you still don’t know what you want to do when you grow up and you’d like to take a couple years in graduate school to figure that out? (Chances are you won’t figure it out then, either—precious few of us ever know what we want to do when we grow up!)

The answers to these and similar questions not only bear on your choice of major, they bear on financial issues, too. To make a just-barely-living wage in teaching, journalism, or library science, for example, requires a master’s degree, but it doesn’t require one from an expensive university. As long as you can put food on your table, a vocation that calls to you need not earn a ton of money. But…maybe it shouldn’t put you in hock for the rest of your life. And surely Tucson, Buffalo, or Austin is as good a place as New Haven to take two years to seek the meaning of your life. On the other hand, if a high-powered corporate career is what you’re after, then you probably need a degree from a world-class institution—a costly program may pay for itself within a few years after you graduate.

2. Financial planning

Bringing your real motives into sharp focus goes a long way toward deciding how much to spend on a degree and how to finance it. First, of course, you now can decide whether you truly need a degree from a prestigious (i.e., expensive) school or whether an in-state public university will suffice.

Consider that even lukewarm public universities often have one or two first-rate—even world-class—programs. The University of Arizona, for example, has one of the premier programs in astrophysics on the planet. Psychology programs at Michigan, Cal-Berkeley, Illinois, UCLA, Minnesota, Indiana, and Washington rank among the top twenty in the U.S. Cal-Berkeley, NYU, North Carolina, Indiana, Washington, and Maryland’s MBA programs have shown up among the top twenty. Don’t discount your home state’s public schools, especially if you’re in a place in your life where one master’s degree is about as good as another. Check university rankings for schools in your state and for public universities whose out-of-state tuition is more or less within reason.

If nothing close to home has a program that suffices, investigate universities in other countries, such as Canada, where costs are far more reasonable than out-of-state fees in the U.S.

Try to get your employer to foot part or all of the bill. Many companies and government employers will underwrite graduate training relevant to the job. Even if you have to agree to stay with the company for a number of years after you finish the degree, that’s more than a fair trade to avoid being saddled with student loan debt for years.

Look for research assistantships that waive tuition. Tell the program director or whoever is trying to recruit you that you can’t attend unless you get an assistantship or other support that will waive tuition. Remember: graduate students are the bread and butter of most university departments. They want you.

Failing that, try to get a 50 percent FTE job on the campus. Most universities waive tuition for employees, and often this applies to half-time as well as full-time workers. GDU, for example, considers a 50 percent time job to be “full time,” complete with health insurance and tuition waiver. The waiver is taxed as income, but since you will earn so little, your tax will be minimal…certainly compared to a lifetime of student loan payments. Often this applies only to in-state tuition; bear that in mind if you’re looking at out-of-state schools.

Some universities will waive tuition for an employee’s spouse. If your husband or wife has a job that’s fungible and is willing to work at the desired college or university, this is a strategy that might make sense.

If you’re interested in a university in another state, get a job in that state, register your car there, register to vote, and wait a year to enroll. This will establish residency and avoid the outrageous tuition often charged to  out-of-state students.

Do everything you can to avoid having to take on student loans, even if it means maintaining your dreary day job and taking coursework online and at night. If you possibly can get by on a part-time income, tighten your belt for the two to four years it will take to complete a program while you work. That’s a hard row to hoe, but well worth the goal: completing the degree free of debt.

Finally, I’d add one more bit of advice:

Caveat emptor!

Investigate and think carefully about any degree program before enrolling—no matter which institution offers it. Some otherwise respectable universities have gone into the diploma mill business—under pressure from legislators and alumni to compete with outfits like the University of Phoenix, university administrators and boards of regents crave to operate their institutions on a business model, even though education is not and should never be a business.

Any degree program that does not require the GRE, the GMAT, the LSE, or a similar entry exam is suspect. My university, for example, offers a very respectable Master of Business Administration, for which applicants must submit GMAT scores. It also offers several knockoff low-residency and online versions of the MBA, none of which requires an entrance exam of any kind. Savvy employers know the difference.

Any fully online degree program should be regarded with deepest suspicion. Any low-residency program should be approached with caution. Any interdisciplinary program that leaves you with a strangely titled degree (“Master of Liberal Studies,” for example) should be avoided. These degrees may get you a perfectly fine job. Maybe not, too.

If higher education is a business, then students are consumers, and they should use as much care in buying the “product” as they do in buying a refrigerator or a dishwasher.

Postscript, June 6, 2009: One other strategy for underwriting a master’s degree without going into permanent hock is to join the military. I didn’t think about this as I wrote the post, first because it’s such a huge commitment and second because IMHO, you should join the military because you want to serve your country, not because you want to extract a lagniappe. If your main motive for signing up is to have the taxpayer cover the cost of your graduate tuition, you really ought to ask yourself whether a master’s degree is worth risking your life. There are higher reasons for serving America.


Oxford University, Andrew Yong at Wikipedia Commons
U.C. Berkeley, Tristan Harward, at
Wikipedia Commons, ShareAlike License

A modest proposal…

Over at The Simple Dollar, Trent is kicking himself for what he calls Seven Huge Financial Mistakes” he made while he was in college. Most of these, such as “Going into College without a Clue,” “Not Taking My Classes with Enough Seriousness,” and “Signing Up for a Credit Card—Then Using It with Reckless Abandon,” are functions of youth. No one should be surprised when a young person does exactly these things and all the other alleged missteps Trent describes.

Youth, after all, is wasted on the young.

As a veteran of 15 years of university teaching, I’d like to trot out a radical idea that has silently lurked inside my mind for a long time:

Students should not be allowed to go directly from their senior year in high school to their freshman year in college without passing “Go.” Given the staggering cost of a college or university education, its importance to a young person’s future, and the number of financial predators waiting to prey on the kids the instant they’re set loose with no real responsibilities and no parents to watch over them, America should make it an expectation that everyone will work or do paid community service for two years before enrolling in any form of higher education.

We should set up a national service program for young people, one that could send high school graduates anywhere in the U.S. and to parts of the world that are relatively safe for Americans to live and work. This program should provide jobs that pay more than minimum wage (possibly through a matching tuition savings plan) and build real-world, salable skills.

Then we should give high-school graduates three options:

a. join the military;
b. sign up for a national service program; or
c. get a job in the real world.

In addition to paying young people a salary, the national service program could provide something like a 401(k) for prospective college students, into which pre-tax dollars could be contributed—and employers would match this—to build a fund to help pay college tuition. Actually, for people under, say, 26 years of age, all private, municipal, and state employers could offer a 401(k)-style college tuition fund, with matching contributions. Since soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen risk their lives in the service of their country, the military should provide a benefit like the GI Bill with more generous provisions than the proposed tuition fund. The latter would apply only to the national service program and to real-world employment.

This scheme would have a number of advantages.

First, it would expose kids to a period of responsibility at a time when they need to build maturity…and at a time when, as Trent’s post so accurately reveals, many young people are simply not ready for college.

Second, it would allow the students themselves to earn a portion of their college tuition, even it it’s only a small portion. This would help them to appreciate what is entailed in earning the amount a university education costsbefore they rack up a lifetime of student debt, take some of the burden off parents’ shoulders, and give students time to learn responsible financial habits.

Third, it would get kids out of an environment where they can easily be exploited by credit-card mongers and others who make a business of ripping off college students. By the time the young people return to campus life, they will be two years older, more mature, and smarter. The difference between a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old is significant, particularly if that 21-year-old has been earning a living for a while.

Is a national service program socialism?

Yup. So are public universities and community colleges. So is federal support of research at private universities such as Harvard and Princeton. So are city roads, state routes, and interstate highways.

We work together to make life better.

It should be so. There’s nothing wrong with creating a program to employ young people productively and give them time to grow up before completing the final part of their education, when it ultimately will repay us all with a better-educated, wiser, and smarter workforce.

Are college degrees overrated?

On Monday, NPR’s Talk of the Nation chatted with career coach Marty Nemko, who recently published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that the bachelor’s degree is one of America’s most oversold products. He stops short of calling the marketing of undergraduate degrees to those who are unqualified for university work a scam. But after twenty years in academe, I surely would go that far.

Nemko points to the vast numbers of college graduates who end up in jobs they could have had with a high-school diploma, and then goes on to cite figures showing that only 23 percent of high-school students who take the ACT are prepared to perform at the college level in English, math, reading, and science. That just about accords with my experience. As I’ve explained in earlier posts, I organize students into groups, each of which is led by a classmate who, in the absence of grade inflation, would genuinely be an A student. Any given class of thirty students will have at most six who really do perform at the A level: that’s 20 percent. The rest are folks who tell me that Wisconsin is a Rocky Mountain state and World War I occurred in the nineteenth century, and who turn in papers with their own names misspelled.

According to Nemko, of the four-year college students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high-school classes, two thirds had not managed to finish the bachelor’s degree after eight and a half years! Meanwhile, however, universities merrily collect these kids’ tuition, running them deeper and deeper into debt as the young people continue a fruitless pursuit.

And fruitless, he suggests, is le mot juste. The claim that workers with college degrees earn more over their lifetimes is, he says, “misleading”:

You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they’d still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound—they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.

While that is not 100 percent so—thank goodness, we still do have some social and economic mobility in this country—the truth is that class matters. Students who do well in school often are those whose parents were well educated and have provided their kids with a fistful of educational, social, and economic advantages. Not least of those is Dad’s old college chums now in a position to hire Junior. The uphill climb for a first-generation college student is a lot steeper than it is for a kid whose parents have graduate or professional degrees.

He adds that as increasing numbers of decently paying jobs are sent off-shore or converted to part-time, the pool of good opportunities drops. So, many college graduates are forced to take blue-collar work, driving trucks and waiting tables.

Then there’s the question of whether college students get what they pay for. It’s a big question, since many university graduates start their working lives with five- and six-figure student loan debt. Graduates surveyed in recent studies are understandably dissatisfied with the quality of instruction in environments where an average of 28 percent of their courses are taught in classes of thirty or fewer.

But did they learn anything?

Apparently not much. A 2006 study underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that 50 percent of tested college seniors could not follow the argument in a newspaper editorial or compare credit-card offers. Folks. That’s half of them! Twenty percent had such weak math skills that they could not estimate whether their car had enough fuel to get to the gas station.

Think it can’t get worse? Think again, says Nemko:

Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education, things are getting even worse: “Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. . . . According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. . . . Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”

What to do?

Nemko suggests that colleges should be held to the same standards as, say, tire manufacturers: at the least, they should be required to provide applicants full data on their performance in areas such as graduation rates; average costs for every year, broken out by race and gender; and employment data for graduates. He also suggests that a high-school graduate in the bottom half of his or her class consider more profitable alternatives, such as associate-degree programs at community colleges, apprenticeships, the military, and on-the-job training with a successful small-business owner.

The national campaign to enroll every body that’s still breathing in four-year bachelor’s degree programs is a rip-off. It rips off the young men and women who are unprepared to succeed in universities, and it rips off the ones who are prepared, by siphoning resources away from them. Not everyone needs a four-year degree. In fact, some people are likely to find more success by using those four years in vocational training and on-the-job learning.

3 Comments left on iWeb site


I think that a degree isn’t necessary, per se, and you can certainly have success, even great success, without one.

That said, I don’t think Nemko is right if he says that many of the jobs could have been landed without the degree.Degrees are actually required for more jobs above a certain pay grade than not, especially in corporateland, and having one certainly gives you the edge when all other things are equal.That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other industries where great success can come without that degree.

To me the issue isn’t how many people are going for degrees, the issue is the commitment of each individual student to learning and getting what they’re there for in a university setting. Many kids go for the social aspects instead of the educational aspects, and view it as a way to delay having to take responsibility for their own lives.

That’s why I agree with Nemko’s suggestions.College isn’t for everyone, and parents IMO should look at who their child really is and what they are really capable of and committed to.Otherwise it’s just a waste of time and money, and it dilutes the quality of education for those that are really committed.

And the lackluster way these uncommitted grads approach their jobs has far-reaching effects and dilutes the quality of life for us all.

Wednesday, May 14, 200810:47 AM


I’m not an American, or going to university in America, but I’ve seen the relative worthlessness of bachelor’s degrees all around me. I’m not sure if it’s so much more of a scam than a high school education was back in the past, though. You know, when only the rich or the scholarship kids went to uni?

Nemko’s right, class does matter, and I’m pretty sure that it’s really one of the few constants in this whole education-employment system. If you’ve got parents that went to uni, you’ll get a decently paying job. If not…be prepared to struggle. And as for the upper class, it’s unthinkable that you could NOT have at least a bachelor’s degree from somewhere (the quality of the degree…well…it only really matters that you can say you went to university).

Here (in the Caribbean) if you don’t have some kind of degree, you’re simply not going to get an ‘acceptable’ middle-class job. Sure, you can be a tailor, or a carpenter, or a maid or whatever without a degree, but you’ll never be higher up than a bank teller, really. Many more people go to university now than ever before.

However…since everyone has one…bachelor’s degrees aren’t worth much any more. University graduates are jobless because lower-end degrees won’t get you the pay you want…but you’re not going to go into a trade or some such ‘menial’ labour because you went to uni, darn it!

It’s definitely true that many people are getting ripped off by the system and preconceived notions of status in relation to a certain type of education. Really, there SHOULD be some attempt to expose high school graduates to the various options open to them, and to emphasize that an excellent mechanic will be more successful than a pass-degree BA Literature grad will be. However, people in general aren’t stupid. They figure things out sooner or later. Many people drop out, work for a few years, and when they settle down, do their degrees successfully. And I know many people that only started to shine in uni…moving from simply passing in high school to really maturing and buckling down (and being really successful) in uni. There ARE positives to the huge increase in enrollment in the university/college system; more people have more opportunities, and a greater chance of realising their full potential.

Friday, May 16, 200801:35 AM


It’s true that for certain kinds of jobs, a bachelor’s degree is key. It’s also true that an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts enriches your life immeasurably, in ways that far surpass the financial cost of obtaining the degree. And a bachelor’s degree in an academic subject prepares you for graduate study in professional programs such as the law, business, journalism, and education; in that sense, the bachelor’s degree does eventually pay for itself monetarily.

However, when you’re actually in the trenches, you come to appreciate Nemko’s estimate that 40 percent of students who are sucked into the university system are not prepared for university-level work.

Persuading those kids that they need a bachelor’s degree to have a decent life is probably a scam. When they finish the four-year degree, too many of them end up in low-skill, low-wage jobs that DO NOT REQUIRE A COLLEGE DEGREE. I have a nephew, for example, who got a bachelor’s degree in construction (don’t ask!) some years ago and to this day drives a delivery truck for a paint company. He could have driven the delivery truck with his high-school diploma and got a four-year leg up in experience and wage increases.

Advertise for a $28,000/year secretarial position and you’ll get a slew of applications from people with bachelor’s and even master’s degrees. You don’t need a college degree to push papers and answer the telephone. Give me a break! Why have these people wasted their time and gone into debt up to their schnozzes if jobs like this are what they have to look forward to?

I argue that for many young people, there are alternatives that may serve them better than marking time for four years in a bachelor’s degree program. For example, a two-year program at a community college could very well land you in a job that will earn lots better than the $28,000 secretarial position—or at least no less. Many trades are well paid, and you can’t off-shore a plumbing or an electrical job. A paid apprenticeship could prepare a young man or woman for a decently paying job—and possibly prepare the person to own a business—without leaving him or her in five-figure debt.

I also argue that filling up our universities with students who are academically unprepared dilutes the quality of the degree for every student. When faculty have to deal with gigantic classes, 40% of whose members cannot keep up with the work, attention that should be given to those students who belong there is diverted and wasted. We would not be sending college graduates into the workplace with subminimal skills if we were not having to grant degrees to people who come to us with subminimal skills.

Should we flunk out every freshman who arrives in our classes with subminimal skills? What? Send away 40% of our little cash cows? Not and keep our teaching jobs!

By and large, as a college instructor you are ill-advised, indeed, to fail students whose skills and performance do not come up to par. Promotion and tenure depend largely on semester-end student evaluations—if you give these students an honest assessment of their performance, they blow you out of the water. If you fail them, they and their parents show up at the dean’s office. If they are members of minority groups and you are not, you’re likely to be accused of discriminatory practices. If their politics are conservative and yours are liberal—or vice-versa—you may be accused of vindictive behavior.

The system as it is currently set up is designed to churn huge numbers of students through to the bachelor’s degree. Because some 40% those students are unprepared and stay unprepared throughout their four-year experience, a large proportion of those degrees are fraudulent. It is a system that cheats the students and cheats employers. And because it defrauds strong students as well as weak ones by diverting resources away from the truly qualified, over time it weakens our country’s economy.

Monday, May 19, 200809:59 AM