I have been sitting on the below for almost a year now. Revisited, reviewed, and revised time and time again. Letting it free. Note: initially written while working at a public, 4-year institution in California, therefore, many of these thoughts reflect this particular situation.
I become more and more frustrated with the state of higher education. I find bloating in areas of staffing, policies, and financial solvency completely counter-productive to the mission of higher education. We have created and try to continue working in a system that is older than we care to admit and flawed beyond belief within its current incarnation. Articles from AAC&U and AAUP have highlighted these discrepancies. Learning Reconsidered 1 & 2 have also tried to accentuate the issues. Everyone is fighting for a smaller share of resources. People are being asked to do much more with much less. Most of us know the debates and arguments and live them on an everyday basis. We want and want but are unwilling to concede anything in return. It has almost become a zero sum game when you consider the amount of students who actually graduate within six years and struggle to find jobs. Higher education has become the pathway to having a better future and lost its course from being an institution of promoting learning and change.
Growing up, I was constantly told that I needed to go to college. When I asked why, the answer was to get a good job. I am a first-generation college student and did as I was told. I attended college to get a good job. Maybe 50% of my high school graduating class followed on a similar path. I took the course I was told to take from a young age. I never questioned my parents because I had no reason to. I assumed that what they knew was correct even though they never been where I was going.
The problem with my parents declaration is that there is no guarantee. Having a college degree may open up new doorways that did not exist previously, but that does not mean there is something waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. This is where we are now. There is an expectation that completing a college degree automatically equals success. This false reality has been created and is plaguing our students.
Why do these last two paragraphs matter? When I initially started this piece, it was about higher education reform. In my opinion, reform starts with the message. And our message is broken. The message that a college degree leads to a better life in the long run is very true. On average, someone with a college degree will earn almost $1,000,000 more than someone without. While significant, it is also important to know that that particular statistic is based on lifetime earnings. People have been told again and again that having a college degree is important. In my opinion, this is becoming less and less the case.
What we really need is to rework our message to those attending and aspiring to attend college. Higher education is about expanding one’s thinking beyond conventional thought. It is about learning how to navigate social and political systems with a heightened awareness of how these organizations function. College is a time to develop skills and knowledge that will be able to be applied to “real-world” problems and issues. These are the typical learning outcomes of colleges and universities, but are not the messages being communicated to aspiring and attending students.
Higher education needs to go through a renaissance of sorts. The message being promoted needs to change. Higher education needs to look back to its academic and philosophic foundations. Students are coming to college less prepared than ever before, because these students should not be at college to begin with. It is an expectation of others to be at college, and less of personal desire. I understand that this is an extremely controversial statement. It also comes from a place of privilege, as a person who faced no barriers in attending college (besides financial which was still somewhat a limited barrier). Before you start jumping down my throat, please hear me out.
I wholeheartedly believe in open access to higher education. I believe that individuals who are capable should be provided the opportunity. I am in favor of federal and local social programs to help fund and support individuals to attend institutions. What I disagree with is people being awarded an opportunity who do not deserve it. I would rather serve a B average students who comes from a lower socioeconomic classes, work on the side, and consciously dedicate time and energy to their studies. What I cannot stand is privileged students who do no work, typically get in trouble, have no job, have someone else pay for them to attend, and feel that everything should be handed to them.
I am sure that many of you now agree with my statement. It is these individuals who have the means to attend, but don’t really care about higher education. They go because that is the expectation, and not to try and better themselves, their family, or their community. These people are what is hurting higher education. Do not get me wrong. They can be capable students. However, the effort they put forth does not justify them belonging. This is why I believe open access needs to be reconsidered. The message needs to change. If you are not willing to do the work, then we will find someone who will.
There are so many political conversations about “handouts” and “free rides,” and I believe higher education is feeding into this entitlement mindset from a degree awarding standpoint. You have met the minimum number of credits, taken enough random courses in core general education requirements, met a minimum GPA standard (usually a 2.0), maybe there is some kind of culminating project/paper/assignment/exam/portfolio, paid for your piece of paper, and don’t owe us anymore money. Voila! Graduate!
Notice the last two items in that equation. MONEY!! The philosophy of higher education has twisted to become consumerist. Instead of challenging the paradigms of “paying for a degree” and “degree = job” (then through the transitive property “paying for a job”), we have fed into these premises. Now look at where we are. We are screwed and going through a resource crisis. Not enough faculty, staff, and money to make this thing work as it currently stands. Record enrollments at most schools across the board. Funding is being cut. Tuition is increasing. Student loans are increasing. Not enough $60k-a-year managerial jobs are waiting for our graduates.
They (students) complain that it is our fault and it is to a certain point. We sold them a false sense of security. For years we have said, “Get the degree. Get the job.” The problem is we never challenged students on their initial intent of attending college. The thought process of degree necessity is flawed. Knowledge and skill acquisition leading towards degree attainment is a better paradigm. We don’t hold students responsible for their initial reasons of attending college because we don’t have those conversations.
Entrance into college has become an intricate, mechanical system. It is an equation. Meet certain requirements and congratulations you are admitted. The concepts of entrance essays and interviews are checkboxes in a list of requirements. In open access markets, these matter less and less when compared to static numeric thresholds. Purpose of attending means less compared to entrance exam scores, high school GPAs, financial contributions, and simple overall admits to make the budgetary math work.
Institutions are being asked to justify our purpose and we are being held accountable to standards that we unintentionally established through wanting to increase enrollments. We need to provide more reports. We need to do more assessment. We have to support everything that we do. We are justifying a system that is not reflective of its initial intentions. Education has become a byproduct of job placement.
This comes back to the importance of reiterating the original intent of higher education. As schools we need to get out of the game of promoting job placement, as hard as that may be. However, it is hurting us as a whole. The final product needs to be education that leads to POTENTIAL job placement. There are no guarantees and there shouldn’t be any. Higher education is a pathway to more opportunity. It is not a pot of gold ($60k) at the end of a rainbow (6 years).