www.thebestcolleges.org recently numbered the college from which I undergraduated, William & Mary, among the overall “Top Five” in the United States. W&M normally ranks highly, but this is our highest unqualified ranking to date for quite a number of years – not counting ye olden days when it was just us and Harvard.
Normally, alums greet such news with cheering – but I was disappointed with the education I received there, and to me, this ranking simply provides further confirmation of how far the quality of U.S. higher education has slumped.
It's no secret that our colleges and universities, along with our K-12 schools, are failing us, unable to deliver on their prime objective. I can't count the number of articles I read over the past few years that all basically made the same point: that a college degree alone is no guarantor of employment. Employers need additional proof that a college graduate has the skills to make productive contributions to their companies.
Sorry, additional proof? Isn't that proof precisely what a college degree is supposed to be? And if it isn't, if it can't demonstrate that those who hold it are ready for jobs, what good is it?
“But the recession!” some are tempted to cry. Yes, yes, the recession... certainly it's not helping the unemployment figures, but neither is it fully to blame for them. Prior to the recession employers had the luxury of hiring new graduates despite their educational shortcomings; they could afford to waste time and money bringing them up to speed on-the-job. Now they can't, and the increasingly fantastic equation, College Degree = Better Job, is beginning to be exposed.
Even for several years before the recession began, we were seeing articles and studies on how far behind U.S. students are in math and science when measured against students from comparable nations. As if that weren't enough, we have a far more basic problem – one most people acknowledge and yet hardly anyone seems to be admitting: college graduates can't write.
I don't mean that they can't write the Great American Novel (how many people can?); I mean they can't be trusted to consistently write grammatically decipherable emails. Business day-to-day doesn't get much more fundamental.
Literacy is the foundation of all learning. If we encountered elementary school students who weren't fully literate, that might be expected; in middle school students it's perhaps forgivable; in high school students it ought to be inexcusable. But college graduates? I'm all but reduced to spluttering incoherence at the sheer absurdity.
No wonder companies are hesitant to hire college students with nothing but a bachelor's degree to their name. No wonder the average income boost from having a degree provides less for your retirement than if your parents had simply invested cash equal to average tuition over those four years instead of sending you to college, and you had gone straight into the workforce, starting when you turned 18.
Products of a failing K-12 system, students head off to college unprepared for it – and then graduate college unprepared for the real world. This is rapidly becoming common knowledge, but we've made attending college so much a part of the American Dream we don't want to face up to it.
It's long past time we did. Here's what's going on:
- Colleges and universities have built remedial English, writing, and math courses into their programs for the least-equipped of their students. Individual departments now offer dumbed-down versions of the classes that satisfy core and major requirements. The 'Renaissance man' ideal of liberal arts has consequently become a sham, and the liberal arts degree has become deservedly undervalued by job recruiters.
- Professors and teachers have lowered their expectations for the quality of work students are capable of. They've shifting the emphasis of assignments away from concept comprehension and independent study skills towards “busy work” and memorization. In an age where everyone can access the most comprehensive and most quickly searchable information library in human history from their mobile phones, memorization is an increasingly irrelevant skill – and yet it's the skill that students are most incentivized to practice. The opportunity cost of emphasizing this skill at the expense of those that would enable students to continue educating themselves outside the classroom and excel at on-the-job training is unaffordable.
- Lowered expectations for students seems also to have translated into lowered expectations for the educators themselves. I can't speak to the K-12 system from experience, having been homeschooled through the lower grades and then largely self-educated through high school, but the number of college professors I encountered who functioned as little more than human study guides was shocking. I know first-hand how far a reasonably intelligent person can get with just a textbook; I expected considerably more from people who've made careers of studying their subjects. Even more widespread than human-study-guide phenomena was a lack of basic public speaking skills among professors. A higher-learning institution's primary role is to teach, so one would think its teachers would be expected to be good at teaching. Not so, at least in my experience at a 'top-five' school.
- Colleges and universities try to make themselves stand out from the glut of higher-learning institutions with low acceptance rates and high graduation rates. By accepting the smallest practical percentage of total applicants, while graduating the highest possible percentage of those accepted (preferably with high GPAs), colleges appear to be attracting and successfully educating a better-than-average caliber of student. It's a paradigm that pressures colleges to invest in campus amenities that are only tangentially related to education – luxury dorms, extracurriculars, athletic facilities and programs, on-campus entertainment – in order to attract higher numbers of applicants, and pressures professors to prioritize passing students over educating them. Does anyone think that colleges and universities are investing in their faculty proportionately to the rocketing price of tuition? No? Then to what more deserving cause is the money going?
What we've got, folks, is runaway inflation of the value of a bachelor's degree. We are being ill-prepared for college by a school system that is lagging behind the performance of other leading nations. We're paying more money to go to college than ever before, but the degree we receive upon graduation represents less real education and less earning potential than it used to. However, because the U.S. job market creates fewer and fewer positions available to those without college degrees every year, students seem forced to settle for whatever they can get. It is a losing scenario for everyone:
- Households are footing an ever-bloating tuition bill, or else deferring it onto students via loans. The cost of going to college is outpacing the corresponding elevation in expected income that results from holding a bachelor's degree, even as the availability of jobs for those without some form of post-high school education declines annually. In short, students are being coerced into paying higher prices to obtain the minimum credentials needed to be considered for under-compensated employment. The problem is typically not that the positions now being classified as entry-level are worth more than what they pay; it's that bachelor's degree holders ought to be overqualified for them, but often aren't because of societal and political pressures that short-circuited their education.
- Employers, who ultimately drive the demand for degrees, have learned from experience that a college education is no longer a reliable indicator of quality among prospective new hires. Recruiters, fully aware of the declining relevance of the four-year degree, are faced with an increasing number of job applicants whose only substantive qualification for work is that very degree. Identifying those who are worth risking the investment of initial hiring on is a more difficult and time-consuming task than ever before, and getting new graduates up to speed within the company might well take longer and cost more than what was needed for recipients of a more robust education from decades prior.
- Colleges and universities, although able to cash in on the increased demand for degrees, have chosen to focus their investments on marketing themselves to prospective students rather than improve the quality and depth of the education those students receive. Because of the average undergraduate's underwhelming professional abilities, higher education institutions are faced with eroding reputations. It's only a matter of time before traditional higher-learning institutions feel the effects of the business world's diminishing support and are no longer able to justify their hefty price tag. The liberal arts degree cannot hope to compete against other programs of study that will soon be viewed as more practical – certainly not when it can't even live up to its own image. It will have to be strategically revivified, or it will have to be de-emphasized, and either direction means expensive changes and upheaval for institutions that are firmly entrenched in their ways.
- Meanwhile, taxpayers subsidize higher education through government programs for everything from direct financial assistance to tuition tax breaks to subsidized loan programs and more – and, of course, the salaries and expenses associated with administering those programs. Moreover, everyone ultimately shares some part of the cost of societal pressure towards, and widespread access to, underperforming college degrees. As a nation, we're heavily invested in undergraduate education and our whole economy is impacted by its diminishing returns.
How did we get to this point?
Decades of small backslides, slow changes of attitude and outlook, cheap political solutions, outside meddlings and internal compromises.
How do we fix it?
No matter which way you slice it, education depends on educators. Policies that attract new teachers, retain experienced teachers, weed out bad teachers, reward good teachers, provide teachers with plenty of resources, shelter teachers from job-related stress, invoke teaching ability, and continue to develop teaching skills, must become the top priority for every educational establishment. Any educational establishment that does not do this does not deserve our support. Period.
Rather than remodeling their campuses to appeal to students' wants, colleges and universities can also restructure their degree programs to better serve students' needs:
- Divide degree programs into a professional track and an academic track, focusing requirements towards equipping undergraduates for what they will do with their degree after they graduate. Departments should also create opportunities each semester for students to engage in field-specific professional networking.
- Update core requirements to include in-depth office software training and internet proficiency. Aggressively foster internships and other business opportunities among all students... which means embracing highly flexible scheduling options so that students can take advantage of these opportunities.
- Turn the 4-year degree into a 3-year degree by eliminating the 30 (or so) credits of required “elective” courses liberal arts programs are needlessly padded with. This would allow decisive, single-major students to save a considerable amount of money and enter the workforce a whole year sooner, degree in hand, without taking away the options of those who want to earn a minor, double-major, or who want more exposure to classes before they declare a major. Accelerated degree tracks would be a welcome alternative to the status quo.
What about today's students?
What can they do to avoid getting the increasingly short end of the stick?
No matter what happens in the next few years and decades, it's unlikely that avoiding higher education will become a winning strategy. You've still gotta go to college; the good news is that there are a number of excellent options for mitigating the problems with higher education and avoiding post-commencement resume slush piles. Here are some of them:
- Don't spend four years at a four-year school. The best-kept secret of higher education is the community college, at which you can earn fully transferable credits, professional certificates, or even an associate's degree, all before you graduate from high school. If you then transfer to a four-year school to complete your bachelor's degree, you'll have saved yourself a significant amount of both time and money (in tuition as well as room and board). If you're not sure yet what you want to major in, this plan is definitely for you: you can satisfy core requirements and earn elective credit while exploring fields that interest you, all for a lower cost and under less pressure than you'd incur doing the same thing at a four-year school. You can take advantage of community college almost anytime: you can dual-enroll while still in high school (or forget high school and enroll outright after you turn 16); after you get your diploma, you can put off going to a four-year school and attend community college first; if you've already enrolled at a four-year school, but need to take a step back to re-evaluate, you can probably arrange to study away for a semester or two and come back later. Creative strategizing and a careful eye to your four-year school's transfer credit program are the key.
- Know what you want out of college. Start your research into prospective careers early in high school, and really knuckle down to it. Don't hesitate to invest a little money on reputable aptitude assessments and career placement tests; it's far less costly to begin with a career placement test than to end by switching majors. Try to determine, as best you can, what it is you want to be doing five years after school; then, find out what it takes to obtain a job doing that and work backwards from there to identify your program of study and the schools that offer it. Not only will careful research and planning simplify your college decisions and save you potential frustration, it will excite you and provide you the motivation you'll need to get through tough assignments and classes. Didn't start the research process early enough? Then put on the brakes. Going straight to a four-year school right after high school because you don't know what else to do or because "that's what everyone does" is an expensive, inefficient, and often dissatisfying way to figure why you're getting a degree. You need to have a reason in hand before you set foot on campus.
- Be willing to say "no" to a four-year school. There are plenty of careers for which it makes very little sense to get a liberal arts degree before you start. Part of this country's push towards the universal bachelor's degree has been to unfairly stigmatize those whose higher education comes solely from community colleges and vocational schools, but the reality is that people who pursue technical degrees or professional certifications in specific skills valued by their chosen field are often more eligible for hiring and are able to begin their careers sooner and more smoothly than their counterparts at liberal arts colleges and universities. Again, the key here is research: know what you want to do and what education and experience is necessary to make you qualified to do it. However, and this is very important: before you decide against getting a bachelor's degree, make sure your chosen field is growing and likely to be hiring by the time you're ready to send out your resume. Liberal arts degree holders may not be as well-prepared for work in any one specific field, but their credentials do have the advantage of being much more flexible and applicable to a wider array of career choices than vocational degrees.
- Always be looking for ways to supplement your education. Just as the awareness of slipping high school grading standards has driven college admissions officers to rely more heavily on other factors like test scores and extracurricular involvement in making admissions decisions, so recruiters have had to rely more heavily on industry-relevant coursework and real-world business experience obtained along with the bachelor's degree in making hiring decisions. Get this into your head: "my bachelor's degree will not be enough to get me the job I want all by itself." Do internships that are relevant to your career choice in the summers after your sophomore and junior years, or better yet, try to get yourself hired short-term by a company that does business in your chosen field. Work for free if you have to, and use college loan money to support yourself. Take a semester off if you have to. Be resourceful – make it happen. Relevant internships and work experience go lightyears beyond your bachelor's degree in getting you noticed and hired.
- Have a plan for what to do with yourself while you are applying for jobs. On average, even in a good economy, it takes six months of steady job-hunting before new college grads get hired. That's enough time to also pursue continuing education in your chosen field. Attend seminars and conferences, earn a professional certificate... don't just sit back and wait for the phone to ring. Pursue ways to make yourself stand out among your peers.
- Don't discount graduate school. You were sick of high school; you'll be sick of college; you may think you'll never want to see another textbook or the inside of another classroom, and you may be right. Or, you may become excited about going on for more, or you may determine that a graduate degree will give you a competitive edge in the job market. You may realize you want to go back to school after working a few years. While most job interviewers won't ask or care about your undergraduate GPA, you need a B-average (3.0) or better to be considered for grad school. Don't accept anything less from yourself while you're in college, lest you find you've shot yourself in the foot. Give your class assignments the attention they need so you can put them to work for you later.
- Get know at least three of your professors. Participate (intelligently) in their classes, go to their office hours, email them questions about how other things you're studying or reading relate to their subject, talk to them outside of class. If they host students for dinner or arrange for the class to meet for drinks or attend additional lectures or events not on the class syllabus, go! Not only will it improve your grades in their classes and give you a better grasp of the subject, you'll make some good friends and earn willing references for jobs or grad school applications later.
Higher education cannot be expected to ferry passive students all the way to a good job, but it's not yet a sinking ship. However, with a creative and proactive approach, students can still disembark prepared for real life.
As for me, well... one of these days I'll figure out what to do with the B.A. in Bureaucracy Navigation I earned in order to complete the requirements for a degree in English.