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Opinion column: College education

Posted: Wednesday, Aug 28th, 2013

If you are a French literature, art history or journalism major, you might want to quit reading this now and skip over to the “help wanted” section of the classified ads; continued reading may cause high-blood pressure, depression, psychosomatic manifestations or PTSD.

The effectiveness and the costs related to post-secondary education have been top stories in the news of late, and I thought I would wade in on the debate.

You could say I am somewhat of an expert on the subject: I spent more time in college than Ronald Reagan did in office. My wife was also a college junkie, and my daughter is currently finishing up her final semester in elementary education. I have felt the pain of higher education.

Last year, I attended a meeting in Cheyenne where representatives of the University of Wyoming explained the rationale behind raising the university’s entrance requirements to more closely match the Hathaway Scholarship guidelines.

Personally, I couldn’t care less what the entrance requirements are, I am more concerned about the back end of the deal; what are the chances that a college graduate will actually get a job in their field of study?

I made the mistake of asking why the university felt it needed to raise the entrance requirements.

After several minutes of blather and spin talk, I was able to decipher the answer: studies have shown that students who meet these requirements are more likely to graduate in four years.

Despite the fact that there are no current college students that I know of that can graduate in four years (it has taken my daughter five-and-a-half years of full-time work to graduate in elementary education), UW officials never once mentioned, referred to or acknowledged the concept of “preparation for the world of work.”

When I went to college (sounds a lot like how my dad used to start sentences, “When I was a boy or when I was in school,”) we looked at college as a pathway to a good job, decent pay and the opportunity to take a vacation once in awhile.

Somewhere in the 30 years since my last stint in graduate school, that ideology has changed significantly.

I looked up the mission statements for UW and all Wyoming’s community colleges and found that only one of those mission statements made a reference to work, and the word used was vocation. I was dumbfounded.

All the mission statements talked about providing an exceptional higher education experience, coursework that is second to none and an atmosphere conducive to getting the most out of the college experience. The words work, vocation, workforce or employment are not mentioned.

Education for education’s sake; I find the ideology disturbing.

But it really shouldn’t be surprising. Many colleges do not refer to students as students anymore, in many colleges they are referred to as financial units.

Which really does explain a lot. For instance, why colleges continue to offer coursework and degrees in French literature, art history, journalism, outdoor recreation, women’s studies, ethnic studies (I know I’m going to hear about those last two), English, philosophy, sociology, fine arts, drama, history, political science and the list continues to grow.

It’s about the money. Colleges make money by offering and defending degrees that are almost worthless when it comes time, and there will be a time, when the college grad needs to find a job.

When a student graduates with a degree in journalism but can’t find a job, the college he or she graduated from does not suffer any of the consequences. They are free to keep pumping out unemployed journalists.

I accept the fact that college is about more than just coursework and graduation, it also about spreading wings and exploring possibilities. Trust me, I have explored my possibilities and spread my wings as much as anyone.

We often tell students to follow their dream, whether it will pay the rent or not. Unfortunately, as parents, we often indulge our kids’ desires to expand their artistic talents or social awareness, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

If we really want to fix higher education, from college to high school, we need to make not only some hard financial decisions, but also some decisions about the purpose of a higher education.

First, we need to quit funding dead-end majors. Money for student loans and grants need to be funneled to students who are in courses of study that have a financial future, with the likelihood of paying back the loan.

Students who want to study French literature would be free to do so, but without the support of monies from the federal government, whether in the form of loans or grants.

Rather than tracking graduation rates so closely, data needs to be collected on which students in which majors are actually getting jobs that keep them above the poverty level in their field of study.

Second, guidance and career counseling needs to be exactly that, guiding students into careers that make good financial, business and social sense. If those choices don’t allow a student to follow their dream, then they need help finding another dream.

Everyone reading this has had reality slap them up alongside the head more than once, causing a drastic change in which dreams to chase and which ones to leave behind.

And third, secondary and post-secondary institutions of higher learning need to reexamine their missions. Most of us hold the philosophy the purpose of a college education is to be better prepared for the world of work. If that is wrong, I wish someone would let me know.

With the number of young adults, including college graduates, who are moving back in with their parents, it would be interesting to know their college degree or coursework. I have pretty good guess as to what they might include.

If, as parents and supporters of the American education system, we don’t insist on basic ideology changes in the education system that includes a more realistic expectation of work, then we need to change our vocabulary and expectations to more closely fit with the current reality of our education system, students that are nothing more than financial units and the ultimate goal of education is simply to be educated.

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