Things I Think About Education – Part II

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What to look for in a college

As for college, if I were a graduating high school senior today:

  • I’d look for a college with a strong value proposition (yes, I know that’s a concept that makes many academics cringe). If you don’t know what a “value proposition” is, keep reading.

As I mentioned in Part I of this post, there are only 100 to 150 U.S. colleges I’d even consider attending, and, personally, I’ve winnowed that list down to 25-50 without much trouble.

Of course, my ability, as evidenced by the metrics most colleges value (SAT or ACT scores and high school grades), would dictate my options to a large degree. As a general rule though, and subject to affordability (a very important factor because incurring more debt than a degree is worth is not wise), I’d attend the college that was toughest to get in — the one with students who were smarter and better than I (provided, of course, it met my other criteria).

  • If money were an issue, I’d seriously consider attending a community college for the first two years, at considerable savings and, often, with teaching as good or better than I’d encounter at many four-year institutions. I’d be committed to getting my gen eds out of the way (general education requirements that all colleges mandate), excelling there and then transferring to a top four-year school that was on my list of 25-50 preferred colleges.

Financially, it’s hard to beat this approach. It’s also a way to get into some highly selective four-year colleges that might be out of reach (financially or academically) directly out of high school (for instance, some community college transfer students manage to get admitted to UVA as a transfer student when they were or would have been rejected as incoming freshmen).

  • I’d be less concerned about the course and more concerned with the professor. Great teachers can make a difference. Students should be more concerned with the competencies of the professors. Some profs don’t deserve students. Some deserve all they can get.
  • I’d try to remember that I am responsible for my own education. I’d try to own it and not outsource it to any institution, department or professor. I’d also realize I wasn’t choosing only a school but also a program. I’d be more aware that, within every college, certain programs are stronger than others and some are just plain awful. Too many students fail to appreciate that choosing a college may be a less consequential decision than choosing a major or one’s courses.
  • I’d study something that required rigor. I’d try to limit my dose of social science courses (after all, they’re not really science in any meaningful way) and resist the urge to enroll in a soft (i.e., easy), overly subscribed, low-value major like communications or business (or, if I couldn’t help myself, would at least be sure to double major or minor in something more rigorous or attend a college with a well-regarded program and strong job-placement record).

No matter my major, I’d endeavor to take at least two statistics courses, microeconomics (macro is a waste of time, built as it is on discredited models and theories and taught, at most institutions, mainly by faculty who have no idea how the real economy works), behavioral economics, psychology, history (but only if taught by an interesting professor with a holistic understanding of history and integrated approach to teaching), writing, computer science, finance (but only if a good course was offered, which is not always the case), and the visual or performing arts. Again, who was teaching the course would be a major consideration in building my schedule.

  • I’d look for a college that graduated at least three-quarters of its students in four years (although I’d be more lenient with engineering and technology schools and public institutions that serve a less affluent population).

When I assumed a college presidency, I inherited a school that was graduating less than half its students in four years. My goal was to increase that to three-fourths (a big hairy audacious goal some would say but one that I was convinced was achievable over time).

Four-year graduation rates are a crucial metric. The rate tells us something about value. The economic value of one’s degree in the marketplace is highly correlated with your institution’s four-year graduation rate. The rate also tells us something about cost (the easiest way to minimize your total educational expense is to finish as quickly as possible). Institutional values and competency are revealed as well, as are an institution’s ethics and morality (colleges that produce large numbers of indebted drop-outs are arguably following an unethical business model).

I think prospective college students should put a whole lot more weight on this factor than they presently do. Indeed, if I had to make a college decision based on only one factor, I would choose based on the college’s four-year graduation rate (and absolutely not on the basis of its five or six-year rate).

  • I’d want to know the college’s job placement record. That would be difficult if not impossible to ascertain at some colleges. I’d have to be on guard for false claims. Some college say x percent are employed, but they really don’t know. They merely extrapolate meager survey data (in other words, their data are statistically insignificant and their claims unfounded). Many don’t distinguish between jobs that require a college education and those that don’t. If I had trouble ascertaining an institution’s true job placement record, or was spoon-fed flawed data or spurious claims, that would speak volumes as to the prospects of that college’s recent grads.
  • I would not attend a so-called liberal arts college (most so-called liberal arts college truly aren’t as evidenced by the number of their students who major in professional and vocation programs and their use of the same teaching methods employed by universities) unless I was certain I was going on to graduate school. Many of these colleges are far more into their liberal arts ideology than they are their students. If you want to become one of them — that is, a professor — or plan on attending med or law school or enrolling in some other graduate program following college, a liberal art college is not a bad choice; otherwise, I think there are better options.

I also think the stringent residency requirements many of these schools force on their students are unconscionable. Compelling on-campus living for more than a year or two is motivated, I’m convinced, mainly by the desire to raise revenue. Once again, it’s not the best interests of the students that are paramount. Who would want to live on a small campus for four years? Not me. Who would want to pay above-market rates for housing and food? Not me.

  • I’d look for a college that was large enough to offer adequate curricular options and a contemporary curricula. My cut-off point would be roughly 3,000 undergraduates. If you get much smaller than that, students’ options are pretty limited (both curricular and faculty). I’d look for a faculty that was in touch with the outside world and not merely interested in theoretical learning in an Ivory Tower vacuum.
  • I’d try to avoid provincial schools, realizing that could be hard. Many colleges have deeply entrenched insular and provincial cultures. That’s an advantage of universities over colleges: research universities tend to have far more connections to the outside world and are less insular than small colleges.

I’d also look for a school that had a diverse faculty and student body (again, easier said than done since most colleges don’t value diversity and quite a few, including many of the church-affiliated ones, are hostile to the concept). Diversity fosters learning. We know it, yet we choose to ignore it, valuing homogeneity and so-called “community” (often a warm fuzzy way of saying we only want to be around people like us) over the interests of the students.

  • If financially feasible, I’d study abroad for a year in a non-English speaking country. Never before in the history of the world have tribal and national boundaries, and distance and time, meant so little. My preparatory years should reflect that reality if possible.
  • I’d avoid colleges that are on the ropes financially. I’m amazed people still enroll at struggling colleges. (I’d list some of these colleges but the list is too long and it would probably put some people in orbit.) Some of these institutions have already failed (even though they’re still open), and many more will close or merge before the current restructuring of higher ed has run its course. There is no upside to a student in attending a college that can’t support itself over the long term; there are many disadvantages however.
  • I’d put a premium on seeking out a worthwhile internship or job. There are a lot of great teachers outside of educational institutions. It’s good to get started early, especially in this hyper-competitive labor market in which employers and clients are looking for relevant knowledge and experience and proof of a candidate’s desire and commitment. Due to the importance of internships, I’d be biased towards colleges located in or near major urban centers, which would afford more opportunities for students. Indeed, choosing an urban school can increase your odds of success after college.
  • If earning a lot was important to me, I’d be aware that, in nearly all fields, a graduate or professional degree is essential. That would be my goal, and my choice of a college would be dictated in large part by that goal, and not the beginner’s bachelor’s degree.

And if I had to borrow, I’d keep as much of my borrowing capacity in reserve to fund the more important graduate degree. And I’d target the most prestigious graduate program I could afford and to which I could gain admittance. If I wasn’t good enough to get into a top program, then I’d reassess my goals. I’m always amazed by the number of people who enroll in lowly regarded graduate schools or programs, devoting a large chuck of their lives and resources to earning a degree with relatively poor economic value.

  • I hope I’d be savvy enough not to go deeply into debt for a degree whose value didn’t warrant such debt levels (that value proposition again). Few undergraduate degrees justify tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And some degrees, or degrees from certain colleges, don’t warrant any debt at all (or very, very little).
  • I’d look for a college that was tech savvy. Many aren’t. In fact, many are technological dinosaurs.

We live in the age of digital technology; however, many, many colleges are firmly planted in the mid-20th century. Many think PowerPoint is high tech. I’d want a school that equips me for the future, not one that serves as an anchor to the past.

  • Finally, I’d look for a campus and program cultures that are intellectually vibrant. Not all are. You’d be surprised at how many campuses and departments are stale. Vitality would be a must.

I’d want to be around faculty and students whose appetite for learning and discovery is insatiable. If it’s present, people would be having fun. I’d want to have fun and learn a lot in the process.

Unfortunately, our systems do a lot to take the joy out of learning. As I tell my college students, if you’re not enjoying learning something is wrong. Let’s figure out what it is.

Is it the teaching? Is it the content of the course? Is it the choices you’ve made (taking a course or major that doesn’t truly interest you)? Is it that you’re simply not ready to learn in a formal setting at this particular point in your life? Whatever it is, let’s address it.

Bored people can’t learn, and bored (or boring) teachers can’t be effective. And force-feeding doesn’t work either. Unfortunately, there is a whole lot of boring and force-feeding in our educational system, which may be the biggest problem of all.

Conclusion

We will never have a perfect system of course. But we could have something far better than we have. But how we get there isn’t obvious to me. It’s really hard to dislodge an entrenched system.

Perhaps we don’t get there. In that case, much of the responsibility for learning and making sound choices regarding their school, courses and finances will fall on the shoulders of the students and their parents.

Fortunately, the formal education system is not dispositive. In reality, life’s real classroom has no walls. And no beginning or end. Most people learn what they truly need outside the confines of the school walls.

Whatever you do, Vera, don’t outsource your education. And don’t be overly deferential to anyone else, not even those who darn medieval garb at graduation time.

I hope I’m around long enough to be a part of your discovery and learning process. I’m truly interested in learning what will excite you and playing a role in nurturing that.

Yet I hope I never say or do anything that implies it’s your academic achievement or accomplishments that matter. I hope you will know that it’s the content of your character that matters most to me. How you live your life will be much more important than what you know (or think you know).

If things go well, you’ll love learning. And you’ll be a lifelong learner. And you’ll get up everyday eager to learn more. And to understand more and be motivated and excited to engage the world and contribute in your own way.

And if we do our part well, we will help awaken the teacher within, for, in the final analysis, that’s the most important teacher of all.

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