". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Value of a College Degree

I've been thinking about this article, linked by one of my Faceboook friends. It was published in The Atlantic a couple of years ago under the byline of "Professor X." While reading it, I came across sentence after sentence that I could have easily written myself:

"I work part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English."

Yep. Although when I was teaching college English I also worked days.

"I teach two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college."

Yep again. I've taught both those courses at both types of institutions.

"For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. . . . They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé."


"Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence."

Yes. Sigh.

"In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.

"Our textbook boils effective writing down to a series of steps. It devotes pages and pages to the composition of a compare-and-contrast essay, with lots of examples and tips and checklists. 'Develop a plan of organization and stick to it,' the text chirrups not so helpfully. Of course any student who can, does, and does so automatically, without the textbook’s directive. For others, this seems an impossible task. Over the course of 15 weeks, some of my best writers improve a little. Sometimes my worst writers improve too, though they rarely, if ever, approach base-level competence."

All of this is painfully familiar. I have not taught classroom English for several years, but I spent about 10 years doing exactly what Professor X so vividly describes. And while all of the institutions at which I taught required placement tests in reading, writing, and math as prerequisites to students' registering for college-level coursework, I nevertheless had countless students who were in way over their heads in my classes. The typical writing placement tool is a multiple choice test covering the basics of capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. But being able to squeak out a passing grade on that kind of test does not automatically equate to having the ability to conceive of and write a reasoned and meaningful essay. Professor X relates the story of "Ms. L," a female in her forties that he gamely tried to shepherd through writing a research paper. It was a fruitless effort. He would advise and direct; she would nod vaguely and then proceed to disregard his suggestions and default to her comfort zone of recycled high school topics. Her response when her paper was returned with an "F": "I can't believe it. I was so proud of myself for having written a college paper."

But as Professor X points out, "She most certainly hadn’t written a college paper, and she was a long way from doing so." He continues:

"Yet there she was in college, paying lots of tuition for the privilege of pursuing a degree, which she very likely needed to advance at work. Her deficits don’t make her a bad person or even unintelligent or unusual. Many people cannot write a research paper, and few have to do so in their workaday life. But let’s be frank: she wasn’t working at anything resembling a college level.
"I gave Ms. L. the F and slept poorly that night. Some of the failing grades I issue gnaw at me more than others. In my ears rang her plaintive words, so emblematic of the tough spot in which we both now found ourselves. Ms. L. had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college."

The emphasis in that last sentence is mine. Here is the crux of the matter. Some people just do not need to be in college, at least not pursuing the kind of studies that we associate with college-level work. The fact that college catalogs these days brim with remedial courses attests to that fact. And yet the common wisdom is that everyone should go to college and that everyone can succeed there if only given enough time and support.

But the fact is that not everyone can and not everyone should try. And why is that not okay? Why do we shrink from acknowledging that some people are more suited to the "ivory tower" than others, or that some disciplines have more need of it than others? I know all sorts of people who do all manner of cool things in the areas of gardening, cooking, sewing, knitting, building, drawing, mechanics, electronics, finance, music, chess, writing and more. I am awed by their talent and skill and level of accomplishment. And you know what? Most of what they do did not require a college education. It was taught to them by parents and grandparents and other mentors and learned through reading and self-study and practice. So why in our culture do we worship a college education the way we do?

I think part of it has to do with the concreteness of it. We live in a society that values learning. And a high school or college diploma is a tangible sign of that. Putting all sorts of money and effort and time into a systematized educational process "proves" that we care about education. At least it looks good, whether or not education is truly happening.

We have also managed in this country to turn education into an industry upon which many people depend for their livelihoods. And as with any industry, self-preservation and growth are paramount. And what is required for survival and growth? Food, of course. In the case of the educational system, the food is students. There is no educational bureaucracy if there are no students for it to feed upon--the more, the better. So we encourage anyone and everyone to go to college.

Now I am not saying that college is of no use. But the more I think about it, the more I think that its greatest usefulness is in the teaching of a skill that requires a high degree of specialized knowledge and expertise as well as the providing of some external measure of proficiency in that skill. If you want to be a doctor, you should have a medical degree. If you want to be a lawyer, you should have a law degree. The lay person cannot easily tell, himself, whether someone is qualified to perform those services. So it is good to have the appropriate degree or certification. I think it can also be argued that if you want to market yourself as a teacher or expert in an academic area that is content rather than skill-based, a degree in that area would be a plus. But I think we put far too much emphasis on a college degree as an end in itself, as something desirable for its own sake. Today, as more and more people go to college to acquire the most basic of competencies, the college degree is becoming increasingly overrated. It is quite possible to become highly learned and skilled in any number of fields by simply availing oneself of books and practice and private instruction.

I wish the powers that be realized that. Unfortunately, it seems these days that employers put more value on the piece of paper--the thing they can see and touch and that has someone else's stamp of approval on it--than they do on personal characteristics and achievement and work ethic and skill. Easier for an employer to give the colleges and universities the responsibility of sorting out the wheat from the chaff than to have it yourself, and easier, too, to be able to blame a third party for a disappointing hire than to take responsibility for it yourself. Still, as the true worth of a college degree continues to decline (and everyone knows that it is doing so, whether or not people want to admit it), I can't help but wonder if we're about to come full circle. When governments print dollars, the value of the dollar goes down, and people turn to other means of measuring worth. When colleges indiscriminately churn out graduates, lowering the value of the college degree, it is only a matter of time until the marketplace realizes that the current educational "dollar" is falling and likewise starts looking for other ways to measure the commodity that we call learning. In the meantime, sadly, it is "Ms. L." (and others like her) who suffers, as she wastes time and money trying to jump through educational hoops that, even if she clears them, will probably not make her any better of a worker and will certainly not make her a better person.


Cheryl said...

A postscript:

I want to be clear that I am not saying in this post that all so-called "smart" people should go to college and no one else should. I have met a lot of very smart people who don't belong in college, either because they don't have the temperament for it, or because they don't have much to gain from it due to their being so good at learning what they need/want to learn in other ways. I have also met many "less smart" people who needed a college degree to pursue their life or vocational goals and who worked their rear ends off to get it. My point is simply that a college degree is not The Answer for everyone in every situation and that I wish we as a society could realize that. There is so much that college can offer apart from the bestowing of a degree. Some people may benefit from taking courses just to become better at whatever it is they do. Others may benefit from the remediation that is available at most colleges these days, pursuing the goal of basic competency in writing or reading or arithmetic. Still others may simply want to take a smattering of courses in a variety of areas so as to be a more well-rounded, broadly educated person. I think all of these are worthwhile pursuits, and I wish they would be respected as such, instead of looked down upon while the attainment of a degree is turned into some sort of Holy Grail.

Susan said...

1. We idolize smarts as much as we do money.
2. We have been trained to trust the experts more than what we see for ourselves; hence the high regard for the piece of paper.

I agree with you. It's sad how we're sending everyone to college. My husband says people with whom he works (who shouldn't even need a bachelors, but that's the requirement) are now working on masters degrees. Why? Because we're told over and over that we need it.

And maybe we do, if that's what the folks doing the hiring have been convinced of.

Tim said...

Another personal attestation: I've spent many thousands of dollars over the last 3 years working towards a masters degree and certification, but after all of it, I don't perform my job any differently. My improvements have all been on-the-job training and experience, but the three letters that now follow my name will be extremely important for the advancement of my career.

Cheryl said...

"We idolize smarts as much as we do money."

Hmmm, I'm not sure I agree that we idolize smarts quite as much as money and beauty. The rich kids, jocks and beauty queens are usually a lot more popular than the nerds. On the other hand, I do think smart people tend to respect smart people, and your point is well taken (at least I think it's part of your point ) that smartness is really not anything we can take credit for any more than athletic prowess or beauty. They're all gifts. True, they can be cultivated and developed, but the basic aptitude is a gift. Really, when you think about it, someone that has actually earned his money deserves our respect more than the beautiful and the intelligent because it shows he has gone out and done something with what you've been given.

I admit it. I like smart people. Do you think I shouldn't? I don't think intelligence makes you a better person. It's not a virtue. But I do admire and respect intelligent people more than those who are not. Is that a bad thing, do you think?

And didn't we have this conversation somewhere else not too long ago?

Cheryl said...

Tim, thank you for the case in point. Your experience is representative of many, I think, including my own husband. He took a post-Master's hours a few years ago in order to move up on the salary ladder. He did benefit from the instruction he received, but overall I think he would say that it was ultimately not worth the time and expense. He may have improved ever so slightly in some of his job skills. But I'm not sure that slight improvement was ultimately worth the time away from family and job, the expense to both him and his employer, and the personal stress he underwent.

Susan said...

Smarts is the tool to get us the money. So maybe you're right; maybe intelligence is just a means to an end.

I just think of how we make fun of intellectual blunders: think of Dan Quayle. Or how much we extol intellectual achievements such as whatever-it-was conference that Bill Clinton participated in annually. Or how we say that somebody is "Mensa material." I guess I just keep thinking about political campaigns and how Smarts plays into it.

Oh. And I think of how people will take pride in children's (or grandchildren's) high intellect even if a kid's smarts is being used to deceive. "Oh, he's so smart." Oh, and we see the same thing in movies, how we admire those who are smart enough to be tricksy and devious and pull scams on others.

I agree with you, Cheryl. I like smart people. I value intelligence. I generally respect intelligent people more than less gifted people. But I've been seeing more and more in the last several years how intelligence can be a problem, and how there are things much more important than smarts. It sounds almost like I'm speaking against intelligence; I'm not; it is good to cultivate whatever gifts you have been given so that we might be of better service to the neighbor. But between my experiences with my daughter and my granddaughter, I'm definitely getting a different perspective on what people (including myself) think about intelligence.

Anonymous said...

I think part of our society's flight from authority is the typical person's flight from judgment (discernment).

Thus, hiring or promotion by certificate.

Rebekah said...

Any amount of time in most graduate programs will illustrate right quick that the degree is not always to the swift.

My dad, who saw when I was in high school that I shared his intellectual aspirations and knew how dangerous that could be, took upon himself to hammer into me 1 Cor 8:1b--"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Better to have good kids than smart ones.

Peggy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Many students are not interested in learning but very interested in having a credential. Unfortunately you can't make people competent by credentialing them.

Further, those with less ability are also less likely to do a reasonable cost benefit analysis of their course of study. Since virtually all able students go to college, expanding college necessitates admitting less able students. The growing percentage of law school graduates who never pass the bar is evidence that schools are taking money from students who cannot benefit from education. It is particularly painful because student loan debt cannot be discharged. The colleges know they are exploiting people with only modest intellect who don't realize they are being had. It really is disgustingly unethical.

Anonymous said...

>> The colleges know they are exploiting people with only modest intellect who don't realize they are being had. It really is disgustingly unethical.

Amen. Add to that students recruited to top schools in order to pad out affirmative-action numbers (minority recruitment, whatever the PC term is nowadays), students who would profit from attending a 3rd or 4th tier school, but are plopped into one of the 1st or 2nd tier only to fail--but the school's numbers look good!

Melody said...

A long time ago, I read The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, which I recommend.
One of the many points he made was that high school became a gate, a metering point, for letting young people into the work force. Prior to the Depression, very few people went on to high school or college. During the Depression, those numbers increased, until, afterward, the majority of Americans finished high school. The GIBill after WWII ensured that college would now become the metering point. Imagine the impact on the job market if all those GIs had gone straight from the military to the work force! It's an interesting read for those who have teens or have ever been one. :)