The Higher Ed Scam

As I pointed out Monday, there is a clear correlation between income and college degrees. In particular, certain graduate and professional degrees carry a punch. But, to be fair, certain undergraduate degrees do not. In fact, it’s pretty clear to me that certain degrees from certain colleges are basically a waste of time, or worse if one considers the high cost of attaining the degree, including lost opportunity cost.

Thus far, the high water mark in the U.S. for undergraduate education was 2010, the same year I assumed the presidency of a small liberal arts college. Since then, overall undergraduate enrollment has dropped by 6.6 percent. But just look at what student-loan debt has done since that time:

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What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

The Nonprofit Scam

It’s that time of year again, when nonprofits are beating down doors for end-of-year donations. Some time ago I explained why I no longer contribute to most nonprofits. But, of course, I don’t care if others do. It’s their money; they can do with it as they please. It’s just that I no longer desire to subsidize the gross waste, redundancy, extravagance and inefficiency (including lack of results) that permeate the nonprofit world. That said, I’m sure there are some nonprofits that are doing wonderful work and are good stewards of their donors’ contributions (so if you’re working for such a nonprofit, please don’t get upset by this post). It’s just that it might take some work to confirm whom they are.

My current position was triggered by my time working for a nonprofit college. But the seeds of it were present long before that. I had earlier served on an executive volunteer board for the United Way. That was my first exposure to the extreme redundancies in the system. And it was then I first learned of the number of nonprofits that exist mainly (if not solely) to provide employment and income to their founders or executives (or faculty).

But back to colleges for a second. Today the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story titled Private Colleges Had 58 Millionaire Presidents in 2015. The president of Wake Forest University received more than $4 million of compensation (which, to be fair, was overshadowed by the $9.6 million showered on the president of Savannah College of Art and Design in 2014). You can find all the presidents’ compensation here if you’re interested.

Colleges have had a relatively easy time raising money because many of their alumni have a strong sentimental attachment to their schools, which, of course, if a good thing for Mr. Hatch (president of Wake Forest) and the other millionaires leading our nation’s colleges and universities. Meanwhile, of course, our nations’ students and former students are carrying nearly $1.5 trillion of student debt. What a system we have.

I used to tell my students that, to understand the dynamics of a particular situation, they should follow the money. Most of the time, it’s that simple.

Fortunately for many nonprofits, their donors aren’t all that concerned where the money is going. But if they ever get concerned, watch out. The nonprofit world will be turned upside down.

Colleges Survive on Exploitation

Colleges love to tell you how great and wonderful they are. And, indeed, great and wonderful things happen on most (perhaps all) college campuses. Intellect is stimulated, curiosity is nourished, and inspiration is given and received. Yet all is not as wonderful as it’s cracked up to be. Continue reading

Final Exams May Be a Waste of Time

I graded final exams this week. Once again, I’m thinking it makes no sense to keep giving final exams. I haven’t had a long track record of teaching college students, but in courses I’ve taught thus far I haven’t been surprised by a student’s final grade — not once. Which leads me to believe I should save myself the time and effort of developing and grading the exams. Continue reading

Getting Ready for School

I had a lot of good times in college. It’s where I first learned I could compete on a larger stage. It’s where I had some great social times. It’s where I first experienced getting drunk (which, at the time, seemed quite enjoyable). It’s where I first experienced the power of inspiring teaching. It’s where I discovered I truly liked the law.

It’s also where I had the freedom to spend my days as I decided to spend them without seemingly arbitrary parental direction and constraints. It was a liberating time. A time of exploration and new experiences. A time of growth.

It also was a time of waste and anxiety. I was forced to take courses that had no value to me. I had to do stupid homework assignments that served no purpose other than to satisfy someone’s belief there was inherent value in busyness. I had to sit through boring lectures. I had to get up for 8 o’clock classes (a really dumb idea for 18-year-olds). For the first year and a half, I had to live far from the girl I loved.

For good or bad, these experiences helped form me. To this day they inform my views of education and teaching and, more importantly, learning.

So here I am decades later preparing for school. For fun I teach one or two college courses a semester. I say for fun because it is fun and it’s something I don’t do for the money. I am concerned, however, about those people who have to do it for the money. Colleges take advantage of adjunct faculty. They’re paid a pittance. Every semester I think about the newly minted Ph.D.s who are trying to launch their careers, often burdened by mountains of student-debt, and wonder how or why they do it. And I wonder how college administrators and trustees get comfortable taking advantage of an entire group of people. But I digress.

I said I do it for fun. But I suppose there is another reason. I like a good challenge. And teaching is a challenge — teaching done well, that is. Anyone can “teach” a course, but it takes more to teach it well. It takes a lot of thought and planning. And superb execution. And a genuine compassion for one’s students.

I lived through some great teaching in my childhood. I also survived a lot of very bad teaching. The challenge for me is to do it well. Very well.

I love the challenge.

So in one week my class begins. There hasn’t been anything in life I take more seriously. Yet it never feels burdensome.

The anticipation is building. I’ve never met the students who’ll be taking my course. They’ve never met me. And they’ve probably never experienced a class like the one they’re about to experience.

I almost wrote “my class.” But it’s not mine. It’s theirs. It’s theirs just like the learning will be theirs.

I’ll be the guide, the listener, the mentor, the questioner, the seasoned, battle-tested warrior, the storyteller, and, from time to time, the entertainer. But the students are the ones who truly matter. Whether this experience that is about to unfold will be valuable and impactful depends entirely on what happens between their ears and in their hearts. My simple task is to help ensure magic happens there.

I hope a lot of magic occurs in your life, Vera.



Things I Think About Education – Part II


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. Continue reading

Things I Think About Education – Part I

Education may be the last bastion of mediocrity left in America. It also has become a contributing factor behind the massive inequality that now plagues our country at levels not seen since the lead up to the Great Depression.

By “education,” I mean our formal educational system. Fortunately, learning is far more important than education. And, fortunately, motivated people will figure out how to learn what’s important, with or without a strong educational system behind them. Moreover, there are still some great teachers in the system and pockets of excellence throughout, so the situation isn’t as bad as it could be. But it’s getting worse. Continue reading