Thursday, June 3, 2004

20. Collgeges are transforming

Higher education is changing. The manner in which it is being offered, the expectations of students, professors and potential employers, and the diversity for which an education is accessible have all undergone considerable change the last decade or so. Some of these changes are impressively innovated, offering a college education to individuals previously excluded from the traditional university setting. On the other hand, some changes have shortchanged the value and experience that an advanced degree is supposed to represent.

A college education is intended to prepare one for the career of his or her choosing. This is accomplished, not only through knowledge, but also by enduring and showing tenacity through the process. College is designed to test both what you have learned and your resolve to achieve set goals. A degree may dictate your area of study, but it also demonstrates the investment in yourself.

Make no mistake about it, college is not for everyone, nor was it ever intended to be for everyone. If one can achieve his or her goals without college, then college is a burden that need not be suffered. Many careers do not require college, whether it is because of other specialized training or the nature of the job itself. It is not that college would not benefit everyone, but rather that some careers do not require it.

However, as the job economy has changed, a college education has become more and more important. Well paying factory jobs are not as easily obtainable, nor are they secure for the lifetime of the employee. In addition, as evident by the hoards of college graduates that are willing to accept factory positions- especially for companies like Ford which offers reasonable security, excellent benefits and fair wages- competition is tougher than ever. As these jobs are lost, they are often replaced by low paying, service jobs with little or no benefits. As anyone that was one of 3.2 million workers that lost their jobs over the last three years can emphasize, it is tough out there- degree or no degree.

Colleges have capitalized on this economic state by making college available to as many students as possible. Student loans, flexible scheduling (evenings, weekends), alternate methods (on-line, television), and low cost community colleges have all aided in making college accessible to non-traditional students. Those individuals that may have not considered college right out of high school, for whatever reason, have an opportunity to go back to school to further or change their careers. Those that previously couldn't afford a college education can now find programs, through community colleges, student loans and evenings classes, which are financially manageable.

However, a negative residue outcome of this economic state is the competition for students. It is still a business, and obviously, colleges make money by enrolling students. I fear that this level of marketing and accommodation may lead to a "watering-down" of the educational and disciplinary aspect of the journey towards a college degree. Simply stated, college is supposed to be difficult.

One must remember that any holding is only worth what someone will pay for it. If someone owns an antique lamp that is said to be worth $5,000, but the most anyone is willing to pay is $4,000, then in reality, it is only worth $4,000. The same is true with any degree. Because Harvard has such tough admission standards, a good reputation and requires a large investment in one's self (both in time and money), a degree from Harvard is worth more on the market than a comparable degree from, say, Southwest Texas State University. As some colleges lower their standards to admit and graduate more and more students, it is important that this is remembered.

Degree programs have diversified across a spectrum of alternatives, some of which I feel are not testing the true commitment and determination of their students. On-line courses offer many advantages to the traditional classroom setting. Some even exceed the value of a classroom (the professors can be pooled from across the country, for example). However, some on-line courses never require the students to test in person- thus the professor and school never really know who is doing the work. For example, MBAs can earn their degrees completely on-line. One MBA graduate I spoke with said the only time she ever stepped foot on campus was to receive her degree.

Another factor being marketed by colleges is how fast one can receive his or her degree. Colleges now advertise bachelor degrees that can be earned in as little as thirteen months. Of course there are catches, but the point is that they are seeking to serve the interest of the "immediate gratification" generation. Fearing that students might be unwilling to make a four-year commitment and realizing that many people want the greatest return for the least amount of effort, colleges have both accommodated the needs of the students and undermined the value of the journey.

Finally, and I hate to criticize teachers, but some teachers, especially part-time adjunct facility, are simply too nice. For them, they are there because they like to teach and to earn some extra money. But, too often, they cave into the pressure of students that consistently complain of the work assigned. Although a generalization, I have found a large degree of difference in the commitment required of students from full-time professors and part-time evening instructors. While the truth is that an education is only worth what the student puts into it- it is still the duty of the instructor to challenge his or her students and to ensure that future employers are getting individuals that have worked hard in earning their degrees.

The changing nature of a college education has both positives and potential negatives. However, ultimately, if employers ever begin to feel that graduates of any particular school, program, or teaching method is questionable, then those who received those degrees will have wasted their time and money- at least in terms of market value. And, if an employee enters the workplace feeling unprepared, then shame on both the school and those professors that did not demand more of their students.

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