Thursday, March 22, 2012

On "snobbishness" and higher education

"To my astonishment, I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!--why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it." --Thoreau, Walden.

Thoreau's feigned dismissiveness of the value of formal education notwithstanding (he himself was a Harvard man), he does have a point: There indeed do exist any number of human activities which can be learned more effectively by doing them than by sitting in a classroom and reading and talking about them--activities, by the way, I and others a lot more thoughtful about these things than I am contend, that one doesn't necessarily have to have a college degree to become qualified to do.

It's from that angle that I find myself sorta nodding with Rick Santorum's recent remarks that treats as snobbishness President Obama's oft-stated goal of ensuring that as many people as possible have a chance to get a college education. Before a few days ago, I confess to not having thought too hard about Santorum's remarks beyond dismissing them as bald attempts to occupy the anti-elitist, colleges-seek-to-turn-everyone-into-godless-liberals seat of the GOP bandwagon. But a few days ago, Andrew Sullivan linked to two articles which take seriously Santorum's recent comments, though not quite for his given reasons. In other words, they (and I) think Santorum is right, but for the wrong reasons.

(And for the record: There are any number of ideas I'd love for my students to entertain that are probably at variance with their own, but it's been my experience that they seem to have very little practice in really thinking about the ideas they bring to the classroom in the first place, and that--the thinking part--is what we end up spending more time on.)

Besides: By Santorum's standards, it's not just Obama who is elitist--more and more, it is the work world that has become thus. I have had more than one student tell me that they have more than enough work experience to advance in their places of employment, but they are in school because they lack a BA or BS, which are stated requirements for those higher positions. The subject matter is irrelevant, they have told me; the company just wants them to have that piece of paper. (Which, come to think of it, isn't so elitist a position after all, but that of course begs the question of what sort of value that piece of paper actually signifies for the company that work experience does not, since they don't seem to care what it might signify for the employee.)

So anyway, I find myself in a quandary. I'm obviously sympathetic toward the idea, in the abstract, that students go to college. However, as pleased as I am, again in the abstract, that Obama has spoken so frequently of the value of community colleges in our nation, I have reservations, often stated in this blog in the past, about pushing too hard the college-is-for-everyone theme. At least as we do things at my place of employ, all too often my colleagues and I see students who simply aren't ready even for community college. I'm not speaking here merely of intellectual preparation; I'm also referring to the lack of discipline and desire to do what is asked of students, not to mention impediments arising from family, employment, etc. Adding to my quandary is that my understanding of Obama's rhetoric regarding community colleges is that he thinks of them as chiefly providing voc-ed training--which I wish were both more nuanced and accompanied by a companion argument for beefing up academic preparation and restoring the legacy of voc-ed training in high schools, as advocated for in the articles linked to above (and as I posted on here a while back).

But. We live in the world we live in. And in that world, or my corner of it at least, we're beginning to hear rumblings that colleges and universities may some day be held financially accountable in some way for the numbers of students they graduate. The argument runs like this: Given colleges' ever-growing socioeconomic importance and the state and federal monies that fund higher ed, it stands to reason that government wants to see some sort of positive return on investment in the form of a certain percentage of students clutching diplomas within a reasonable period of time after they enroll as dewy-eyed freshmen. Completion of degree=Successfully-educated person.

Neither of us has time for me to recount the number of ways in which this is a terrible idea (many of those reasons will just sound elitist anyway), so I'll just stick with the one that I hope will demonstrate its terribleness, by the very standards described above.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has up an interactive website showing graduation rates for all public, private, 2- and 4- year schools, both non-profits and profits. It's kind of fun to look at, but a little thinking about all this data soon reveals that we have to have better ways of measuring "student success"--which is to say, a broader metric or set of metrics--than graduation rates.

I know a little more about Kansas 2-year schools than I do about those of other states, so I'll be discussing this data. So, apologies in advance for the Inside-Baseball quality of some of what follows. But even allowing for the fact (and crying shame) that some schools' low graduation rates indeed do reflect that those schools are failing to serve their students in important ways, I hope to show that for some schools--like my own--those low rates may in fact not be anything to be ashamed of. Moreover, I strongly suspect that what is true of Kansas schools is equally true of many other schools throughout the country.

If you follow the link above, you'll see that good old Butler Community College leads the pack of the Kansas 2-year schools with the lowest graduation rates. Butler is the second-largest community college in the state; Johnson County (located in the Kansas City metro area and with a much lower graduation rate than we have) is the first largest. We, they, and the other schools with the lower graduation rates have one very big thing in common: The vast majority of the students we see never intend to graduate from these schools in the first place. They are there for a semester or a year, intent on earning transfer credit before enrolling in a four-year school in the area; they are there to earn a certificate in some sort of training that doesn't require them to actually take a degree; many are part-time; many, because of other obligations, want to take a degree but won't be able to complete it in two years. If such students, in the "Completion of degree=Successfully-educated person" formulation, are somehow equated with high school dropouts and/or that their leaving without completing a degree is seen as an institutional failure, I would argue that such a judgment is unfair to both the college and the student. Assuming that students have indeed achieved what they enrolled for in the first place (and actually learned some things besides), I would argue that we have served those students well, and on their own terms at that.

And here's where the "college-for-all=snobbery" dynamic cuts in a way other than that intended by Santorum. I assume that a President Santorum would be in favor of holding colleges accountable in some way for their "success" in educating students. I would simply say, though, that as long as students are still not obligated to attend college, it would be equally snobbish if state and federal governments were to devise some way of measuring student success that did not also try to take students' academic goals into account. To neglect or negate those measures would be to neglect or negate that which is an implicit assumption of a college education--and, indeed, what gives it its real value: that students' choices initiate and perpetuate (or not) that thing called a college education and that they therefore can be held accountable for the choices that follow from that. For the state to behave otherwise infantilizes and disempowers grown men and women who are seeking to take charge of their educational lives.

(None of this, I hope you understand, argues against colleges' not being held accountable for things that are under the control of faculty and administration. Obviously.)

You can see where this is going, I hope. I'm all for the educational nanny state to do its thing up to and including high school, and that is why I'm in favor of high schools that, as they once did, provide a basic education their graduates will need for entry into the adult world. High schools would once again seem relevant and important to all concerned. Employers should encourage this thinking.

College, meanwhile, should be for adults, and the ways in which the states evaluate what colleges do should in part reflect that no one who is there has to be there, or is there for exactly the same reason.


R. Sherman said...

Lots to think about here.

I wonder if part of the disconnect is that the word "college" means many different things to many people, stretching between the classical university to the vocational school. I can stipulate that education is good, the more the better, but I cannot accept that everyone needs or should have the sort of degree that you and I have.

I've always maintained, some people just can't do the work, not because they're stupid, but because we're all different. It's immoral, in my view, to encourage these people to borrow staggering sums for something which, personal gratification aside, is superfluous.

As for tying financial aid to graduation rates, all that would do is encourage a further lowering standards, standards which are already too low as evidenced by the quality of students of which you (and the EMBLOS) speak. Additionally, the value of all degrees, your and mine included, will diminish, because anybody can essentially "buy" a degree by showing up.

Alas, the preceding is denominated as "elitist." It is not. It is simply an acknowledgment that we all have our own gifts and should use what we have to the best of our ability.


John B. said...


Yes to all. Re your comment about the broad application of the term "college," I think that's especially true. It's interesting to note that, in the data on graduation rates for the 2-year Kansas schools that I linked to, the schools with the highest graduation rates are "technical colleges," schools whose focus is on training people for things ranging from HVAC repair to IT. There's nothing at all wrong with those sorts of places, of course, and the graduation rates of those places would indicate that those who enroll there are there for very specific purposes. As I noted in my post, it's those 2-years whose missions are broader and whose students' goals are more diverse--that is, ironically, those places which are more like traditional colleges in their providing a foundational, general education--that suffer by comparison. To compare our graduation rates to those of the technical colleges would be an apple-to-oranges comparison because our respective missions and students' goals are so different, despite the fact that we're all "2-year public institutions."

My hope, as I alluded to, sort of, in my post, is that the discussion of all this will lead toward a re-enhancement of the status of the BA/BS (that is, that it signify something beyond a recognition of Time Served) and the desire to work at shoring up what goes on in high school. To the latter end, my college is engaged in a pilot project with a high school here in town whose population is could be euphemistically termed "disadvantaged," the goal being to identify shortcomings in the high school curriculum and see what can be done about improving them. I would hope that similar things are going on elsewhere in the country; if not, why the heck not?

Here again, I think it reasonable to expect that kids who graduate from high school, whether urban or rural, wealthy or not-so, should know and be able to do the same stuff. Sure--let the states determine some of the particulars of that, but measures of basic competencies in reading and writing, math, and science should, I think, be determined at a national level (so as to avoid situations like what was happening here in Kansas in the last decade, where the evolution vs. creationism debate would get renewed every time the balance of power on the Board of Education would change). I've already mentioned my hope for a restoration and re-valuing of high school voc-ed training, too: Unless I'm just really dumb, I see no need to require a garden variety radiology technician--the person who takes the x-rays but doesn't interpret them--to have a college degree. To be sure, places like my college would do some yowling; we see lots of folks like that, and our enrollment (which is how state funding levels get determined here in Kansas) would be affected. But like you, I could stand to see a little more elitism at the community-college level as a result.

R. Sherman said...

You touch upon that, which in Education Policy, amounts to the lethal "third rail:" High School preparation. The fact of the matter is, people of our parents' generation have a greater education from their high school years, than does the current cohort of diploma holders. My mother read quite a bit of Shakespeare, corrected my papers, speaks precisely using correct English grammar, all without setting foot in a college. My dad had four years of Latin in high school and was quoting Ovid and Marcus Aurelius until he died. Why the disparity?

It seems that in the last fifty years, the tried and true methodologies, i.e. diagramming sentences, have been jettisoned in favor of all manner of fads, the only result of which is the dumbing down of the curriculum. And they wonder why people flee public schools in favor of parochial or home based alternatives.

Add that to the current middle management fixation with "credentials" as opposed to actual skills and you're on the way to where we are are now.