"A college degree is not a sign that one is a finished product but an indication a person is prepared for life."  ....Edward A. Malloy.

Commentary of the Day - March 21, 2011: The Year in Review.   Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

Tiffany waits to talk to me after our film class ends.  It is 9:30 p.m.  Tiffany has an average of 55.  She wants me to know that she is trying her best but that English isn’t her thing.  Math is.  She tells me that she's doing well in the math class that she is currently repeating.  She must see something in my expression, because she goes on to explain: the only reason she failed the first time around was because it was accelerated.  She pronounces it "asselerated," and because I am tired -- I have been on campus for 13 hours -- it takes me a moment to understand what she is saying, even as she rushes on: her advisor told her to take it, and she didn't know what accelerated meant.  But, she reassures me, even though math is now her best thing, she is trying hard in my class; she is taking notes.  She holds out her pad for me to see, and there, in capital letters is the line THE TRUCK EXPLODES!!!!

This is the sum and substance of what she has derived from a three-hour class that consisted of a viewing of Thelma and Louise and a lecture/discussion about the movie as a marker in film history.  Tiffany tells me that her goal is to earn a "D" in the course.  She is a business major who has never calculated the cost of her student loans.  She has three children; she does not have health insurance.  Driving home, I question, once again, the ethics of taking our students' tuition money.

Some of the major topics of the past year in higher education were tenure, early retirement, the necessity for more (and more) assessment, the death of the liberal arts, the corporatization of the university, and retention of students.  The second item should help to take care of the first, and indeed those first two topics, which flourished in the spring, were eclipsed by the others as summer turned into fall.  But all of them are related, of course, and they are all connected to the academic elephant in the room: the admission of individuals who aren't interested in or capable of succeeding in four-year college programs.  Our mantra has become that everyone needs to go to college.  At the same time, society in general expects colleges to serve as training centers for specific jobs -- to be, in short, trade schools.  But the purpose -- and value -- of college is that it prepares individuals for their lives -- lives that may demand as many as four career changes and lives that should demand good -- thoughtful and informed -- citizenship.

The clash between these differing ideologies isn't going to end any time soon.  Beyond the hopelessly contorted vision statements of colleges struggling to please all of the people all of the time in a climate that is distinctly anti-intellectual, what can be done?  We might start with longer school hours in elementary and middle schools and a fifth year of high school.  Both high school and college advisors can practice informed advising that takes into consideration the individual student.  Some students will complete undergraduate and graduate programs; some will benefit from solid four-year programs; some will find all they need in two-year programs at community colleges; some will find what they need in trade schools and apprenticeships.  The skilled-trade industries are in need right now of workers -- electricians, plumbers, specialists in heating and air conditioning systems (Manpower Inc.).  Meanwhile, what I see in my classes are more and more students like Tiffany -- they're burdened by debt and failing in class after class.  Self-esteem is another subject that comes up repeatedly, as in "our students do not have a good sense of self-esteem."  That's because so many of our students are lost: they're failing at what they’ve been told they need to do.

*   *  *

It's the eleventh week of the semester.  The classroom is dark.  The shades are pulled all the way down, because the last class was watching a film.  I can see -- dimly -- my students sitting in their circle, waiting for our writing workshop to begin.  I walk to my desk, drop my books and their papers on it, and ask cheerfully, "Who can tell me what the mission statement of the college is?"  None of the 14 students will say. "It’s leadership," I tell them. "Next week, will someone please turn on the lights?"

What if we started by assessing and revising the rhetoric?  Anyone who wishes to should certainly be able to take college courses.  Some will succeed; some will fail: that's the nature of any venture.  Everyone should have the opportunity to -- if they wish—try college.  But as William Carlos Williams said in "January Morning" they "got to try hard."  Forget lengthy mission statements: impress upon potential incoming students and their parents that the purpose of college is education -- for life.  Explain that successful careers in the work world follow successful years in education.  Then, teach students what it means to be a student, that is, someone who is responsible, flexible, curious, and engaged.

One way to teach students how to be students is to treat them like athletes.  Require study sessions, with a proctor, five nights a week, from Sunday through Thursday.  Make certain that qualified tutors and mental-health professionals are available.  Advisors should meet with students monthly, not in the last desperate days before registration for the next semester.  Group meetings will work too.  Meanwhile, core courses should allow for individualization: one student may need an extra class in math, another in writing.  Self-esteem can come only from accomplishment.

Colleges need to stress the basics: core courses in writing, reading, math -- and history.  Nine out of ten colleges now include the word "leadership ' in their mission statements; many colleges do not require a single course in history.  Along with leadership, colleges are now stressing "global initiatives," even as they slash foreign language programs.  It's enough to make one nostalgic for the days when every college mission statement emphasized critical thinking.  In planning, we need to think about what the poet Donald Hall calls the "inside" of words.  The fact is that all two-hundred students in the entering class at my college don't want to or need to be leaders; they do, however, need to know enough not to be blind followers.

2011, Carolyn Foster Segal.
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Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: Carolyn has identified much of what ails American higher education today.  Unfortunately, decades of globalization and outsourcing have taken their toll on well-paying, middle-class jobs that don't require a college degree.  What we have been left with is a society in which a small fraction of the population has garnered a disproportionate share of the wealth, and where most of those remaining struggle to get by on the poverty wages that are paid by service jobs.  In such an environment, only those with a college degree have a chance at a job paying decent wages (and even with the degree, that is by no means guaranteed).  As a result, every young person is encouraged to go to college whether he or she is a suitable candidate for a college education or not.  The skilled trades still offer some opportunities for a well-paying job that is immune to outsourcing, but even those now require higher levels of education and training than once was the case.  It appears that for the foreseeable future, comprehensive universities and colleges across the country will be struggling to cope with large numbers of students who are poorly prepared and under-equipped intellectually to succeed in a college environment.


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