A College By Any Other Name

Mid-terms have come and gone at the University where I teach and work as an administrator.  With their passing, students are left to ponder just what it will take to get them through the rest of the semester.  Some will take advantage of the services available to assist them as they try not to buckle under the growing burdens of their blended school work, jobs, and social life.  An even larger number, however, will fall by the wayside and drop out of their classes.

This is especially true of the First Year students I teach.  ACT statistics from 2012 show a first to second year retention rate at all of the United States’s colleges and universities they surveyed of approximately 67%.  Even if the financial burden of going to college were not as bad as it is today, this rate is still alarming.  It is indicative of an educational system that is good at persuading students to enroll, but not as good at ushering them towards the completion of their degree.

Part of the problem is the message that parents, educators, and public figures such as President Obama send to prospective students.  First they tell them that college is a surefire ticket to a better life.  And then they convince prospective students that any college and degree program will do.  All the would be students need concern themselves with is that they hurry up and get a BA before its too late.

A major problem with this message is that the first assertion is a selective interpretation of the truth.  Statistics show that “on average” college graduates have greater earning power than those with only a high school degree.  The reality, however, is much cloudier.  Earning power depends largely on the degree earned and the school granting the degree.  As more Americans have Bachelor’s degrees, employers can be more selective.  This makes the subject studied and the network of potential recommenders that a well-known school can provide more important than ever.  Also, it is worth noting that the only reason college earnings have remained higher than the take home pay of non-college graduates is that the average wage of high school educated employees has plummeted since the 1980s.

Armed with this faulty information, students are then fed the equally faulty perspective that all institutions of higher education are essentially alike.  How many students do you know of who are savvy enough to parse the distinction between a college and a university?  How many faculty can do this for that matter?  What does a community college really offer?  How about for profits?  Students are left with the impression that college is vital to their future, but then are left essentially adrift to figure out where they should go on their own.  Is it any wonder that undergraduates are often better at comparison shopping for a smartphone than they are at picking out a college?

One way to alleviate this problem is to be honest with would be students.  Don’t discourage them from going to college, but explain that, depending on what career path they are intent on pursuing, a college degree might not be necessary.  There are numerous certificate programs and high school vocational programs that can place students in satisfying careers that pay a living wage.  Additionally, there are two-year colleges that can either serve as a place for would be students to discover what they are interested in studying or provide them a skill that is immediately applicable to the workforce.

Making these career track options more visible and more viable will then enable colleges and universities in the United States to stop marketing themselves as job training centers.  Four year institutions of higher learning should busy themselves imagining the jobs of tomorrow rather than placing its students in the popular fields of today.

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