Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is College Really the "Worst Decision" a Young Person Can Make? That Depends!

LEFT: Loyola freshman Theology class, ca. 1964.

BELOW: One night's freshman Theology homework for Loyola University, (Sept. 1964)

According to writer Matthew Saccaro attending college is the "worst decision" a young person can make. He writes:

Each autumn, millions of young Americans parade into colleges with cheap plastic furniture in tow, expecting their work over the next four years to result in a career worth going into debt for. Instead, they jeopardize their futures. There’s not a worse decision a young American can make than attending college sans parental money or massive scholarship. 

When I went off to Loyola University on scholarship in September, 1964, I really had no idea whether it would be a good decision or bad. All I knew is that I was offered a full tuition scholarship so why not take the opportunity? (I took out a student loan to pay for room & board.)  After all, I'd hoped I hadn't spent 3 years on Mgsr. Pace High's Honor Roll for nothing!  If you're excelling in the academic domain, why not continue in that domain?

After arriving at Loyola, and seeing all the theology courses I had to take, I began having second thoughts - given I was a religious skeptic already, and on the path to atheism. But the science and math subjects more than made up for it. As things turned out, college was the right decision - not because it enabled me to make more money - but because it exposed me to people and ideas I'd never have encountered otherwise. In other words, it helped me grow, as well as develop the critical thinking skills I have.

Saccaro again:
Let’s start off with the basics. In 2012, 71 percent of all students who graduated accrued some amount of student loan debt, with the average amount of debt soaring to $29,400. More than half of student loans officially became delinquent or in deferral in 2013. New information indicates this trend will only worsen; recent college graduates face the worst unemployment rate in more than 20 years, as well as severe underemployment, with 44 percent of grads saying they could find work but not enough of it. Not even the vaunted STEM fields are immune from the perils of cheap labor, smartsizing, and the Great Recession. 

All of this is true, of course, but doesn't necessarily mean college is a terrible decision or the "worst decision" a young person can make. As far as the loan debt and delinquency this has arisen because the loan burdens are much greater today than in my era when National Defense Student loans were available, at 1 percent interest, and the draconian measures to demand payback weren't in place.

The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are affected adversely because the investments in research have declined - a phenomenon almost in lockstep with our nation's refusal to continue to invest in its infrastructure. Earl  Shorris, the author of  'A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of  Culture', has pointed out that one reason support of culture and abstract research has declined is on account of too little saving by Americans as a whole, giving rise to a bottom basement commercial culture.  We'd rather spend, spend and spend.....on foolishness, than put it into support for learning and research. Why else have so many states' voters rejected essential tax increases for state universities, as here in Colorado - which leaves them with no choice but to raise tuition? Of course this means higher loans are needed by their kids to attend college, and it will take longer to pay them off. But the parents would rather buy a new HDTV than invest in higher education.

Saccaro then throws what he obviously believes is his best punch:

Here’s where college apologists will say debt used to acquire a degree is “good debt” since it ultimately pays off in the end — both because the degree will land you a job and provide “intellectual enrichment” and “critical thinking” and other impossible to quantify, dubious buzzwords used in college marketing pamphlets across the country. 

This baby boomer-esque sentiment is garbage. 

Not really! The points about intellectual enrichment and critical thinking ARE well taken, provided the college student takes full advantage of acquiring such benefits. If he just attends to pledge a fraternity or attend keg parties, then obviously the debt amassed is for bad reasons and counterproductive.  As for "getting a job"- especially a high paying one, no one is promised that. And no college degree can guarantee it..

 A highly perceptive take ('The Myth of Higher Education') offered by Dr. Steven B. Mason in an issue of Integra (No. 9, Oct.  2010) the journal of Intertel, is that a huge error of American education is orientating it explicitly for the utilitarian purpose of making money or getting a job. As he writes:

"the bottom line regarding a well -rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music, art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons and replaces faith and belief with reason and logic"

Mason adds that it "teaches a person to live - not to earn a living" and that living encompasses an impetus for further learning just for its own sake. If a fantastic, well-paying job also comes with it, that's icing on the cake.

Again, whether Saccaro accepts this is Boomer piffle or not is irrelevant. At least for those who DO attend college for the best reasons there IS a payoff, and it inheres exactly in what Steve Mason  describes.  I would also add that the college experience also incites the curiosity and desire for continued learning as well. Thus, many of us with college degrees continue to avail ourselves of academic exposure - such as in the open courses at MIT or Yale - not to mention continue to do research, and access current academic papers to stay abreast of our specialties.

Sure these are "impossible to quantify" but that's not a benchmark to use to reject the argument that college can be beneficial for a significant percentage of young people  - even if they don't land a job on Wall Street, or in some bank. 

There are other points that Saccaro makes which can be taken more seriously, and these also concern some issues with which I've also had a beef regarding current higher Ed. He writes:

In 2011, a Chronicle of Higher Education study found that “large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master.” To put it in less pedantic language, students are paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree and walking away equally empty-headed as they were when they graduated high school, straight-A’s notwithstanding. The degree, which failed to get them a job, failed to educate them as well

This is spot on and in earlier blogs I highlighted my pet peeves with many universities in the modern era. As long ago as January,  2011 I pointed out that barely one -fifth of  college freshman are required to take any course in which they have to read more than 30 pages per week, or write (compose) more than three, 3-page essays or homework papers per term. To top this off, the plurality leave college or university with next to zero critical thinking skills, as betrayed by one stat which indicated most of these graduates were unable to read an editorial or newspaper page and discern the facts presented from opinions!

My recollection of my own first year college experience (e.g. at Loyola University, New Orleans, 1964-65) was in stark contrast. Escaping writing? You've got to be kidding! Attached for example, is one night's homework from the Freshman Theology class. Each of these questions had to be finished to completion with sound and well-reasoned responses provided - no short cuts and no doing the equivalent of copying from books (for today's students)!

This type of assignment, which usually consumed at least seven written pages, sometimes eight (depending on the questions) was given three times each week conforming with the frequency of the class. In addition, more detailed questions would often be asked in the class pertaining to the assignment.

Given the recent U.S. college survey results, it appears not 1 in 20 of today's students would be able to keep up with such a course. I warrant most would probably take a drop class before two weeks elapsed.

Even more appalling to me, is how today's students seem to be getting breaks galore regarding grades.  One stat that struck my eye recently was that 60% of ALL grades awarded at Harvard were A's! Of course, this is preposterous and renders the A given meaningless. You simply cannot have three fifths of all grades awarded in the 'excellent' category. Even if ALL your students are putatively 'excellent' the A's among that group can't be more than 10% at most, meaning if there are 300 students in a large class only 30 can get an A. (And a prof's tests, mid-terms and final exams, as well as homework assignments ought to seek such discrimination via a Gaussian or normal distribution!)

The rule at Loyola (as at many other universities at the time) was that to garner a Gentleman's 'C' you did 2 hours of outside study for each hour in class attendance. (This did not include written assignments). To get a 'B' for a typical 18-credit hour (normal- at that time) load, one would have to invest at least 3 x 18 = 54 hours a week in study! In other words, nearly all these college kids today would have flunked out at Loyola. Which leads me to conclude that most Cs given back in the 60s are equivalent to most As today!

So why are they such high fliers? Much of the problem to do with grade inflation began with the absurd "teacher evaluations" - which placed a power in  immature students' hands that was hitherto unavailable. Trouble is, the power has been misused and abused to the point profs are terrified of giving anything less than a 'B' for fear of retribution on the eval form! (Which many universities and colleges egregiously use for judging whether the prof is tenure-worthy - or worth just retaining in a assistant professorship-   as opposed to being relegated to the realm of the adjunct.)

Notwithstanding all these grievances and complaints, I still maintain the serious student can get his money's worth from even a university that doles out A's like free popcorn. The chief way is to realize that you may be part of an elaborate con and you need to use other measures to ensure you're really as good as your class grade says. For example, a physics B.Sc. graduate can gauge his academic creds by way of the GRE Advanced test - or just taking the GRE sample test problems I've posted on this blog. Are you really an 'A'  Physics student?  Did you really graduate summa cum laude? Then you ought to get at least 93 of the 100 problems I post correct!

Beyond that, the serious student can still develop his critical thinking skills to the fullest in the college environment by always delivering homework assignments - especially written ones - to your maximum effort. Don't take short cuts and even if most of your peers finish their assignments in 1 hour, make sure that yours are much better, even if they take two or three times longer.

Saccaro leaves his best insights for last:

All this horror awaits if you succeed at college and get your degree in four years. Your fate is worse if you attend but then decide academia, even at its lowest level, isn’t for you. Failing to jump through the hoops carries a steep price of debt and unemployment; more than half of unemployed Americans have attended at least some college. Attending college might be the worst decision you can make as a young adult in America. You’re paying for nothing that you can’t get elsewhere for less money or free, save for the piece of paper with a con man’s signature on it.

He is, of course, correct that if you're really diligent you can get the same course content (pretty much) for free. For example, taking a set of courses at the MIT open courseware site, e.g.

 that embodies pretty well all that would be required for a B.Sc. or B.A. degree.  But is taking a set of courses online the same? No it isn't.   Any intelligent student is bound to encounter problems or difficulties in any course. In the online setting, you're on your own. There's no chance to meet one-to-one with a professor and hash out the difficulty. At Loyola, for example, professors were always available and also conducted tutorials (weekly meetings with only a few students for problem solving or question resolution purposes. ).   When I taught  Space Physics (including labs) at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, I always set aside office hours to meet one- on- one with students having difficulties. Often the resolutions were fairly simple, but sometimes they required tutoring students in their  math methods - which  they already ought to have under their belts..

A student- I don't care how diligent he or she is-   simply can't obtain the same measure of mastery without that intense contact which is directed to the sole purpose of resolving the difficulty. It simply isn't the same as staring at a passive computer monitor - or even 'participating'  in an online tutorial or physics class -  when you can't get answers to questions or immediate feedback at that instant.  (Let's not even get into the difficulty of doing proper labs, say in physics and chemistry, without an instructor to guide you in terms of correct technique, methods.)

Thus, grabbing all your free content from courses online, though it may seem to be the same, isn't really - because you've not had the benefit of professional guidance or direction. Nor will you have had the benefit of thrashing out arguments with your peers in what we used to call 'bull sessions' - all equally important to developing critical thinking.

Finally, you won't have had the experience of attending seminars in person given by terrific thinkers   - such as Jean -Paul Sartre at Loyola, in 1965, or William Fowler and Martin Schwarzschild at Univ. of South Florida in 1970. 

In terms of cost vs. benefit each young person certainly has to make his or her own determination on whether college is worth it.  My advice again,  for what it's worth, is that if you're considering college exclusively as a 'meal ticket' then it's probably the wrong decision.

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