by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education..".... ...Mark Twain.
Commentary of the Day - May 11, 2006: Who Needs a Four-Year College? Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker
Only a few weeks ago I would have answered the question my title poses with a resounding "Everybody!" This, despite my feeling that far too many colleges have been, for far too long, in the dumb-down race. Nevertheless, colleges and universities remain our best hope to realize Thomas Jefferson's dream of an "educated electorate." I could rattle on about this but anybody familiar with the columns I've written for The Irascible Professor know that I'm a guy who stands tall where higher education is concerned.
However, a recent bout with cellulitis landed me in the hospital for a two-week stint. There was precious little to do, other than to lie in bed as one nurse after another checked my vitals, drew my blood, or changed the bag that dripped antibiotics into my arm. True, I could read -- and I did so, even making notes on a book I had agreed to review -- but mostly, I divided my time between staring at the walls and watching television.
Among the things I learned from my stay in TV-land is that one can see reruns of "Law & Order" or its spin-offs -- "Law & Order: SVU" or "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" -- at virtually any hour of the day or night. I may not have made my way through a rereading of War and Peace, but I'm sure I watched every episode of "Law & Order" -- no small task, believe me.
I also learned about Keiser College, an institution that doesn't show up in US News & World Report's annual rankings of the nation's colleges. Why so? Because Keiser College and a growing number of other vocational training schools not only operate under the radar but also just beyond the law. What they promise, in television ads that regularly interrupted "Law & Order," is a chance to get a high paying job -- as a medical coding and billing specialist, a fingerprint analyst, or a nurse's aide -- all in eight months or less.
Each of the ads featured satisfied graduates who looked into the camera and got right down to business. "I didn't want to waste four years in college. So, I enrolled in Keiser College and four months later, I graduated as a billing and coding specialist. Keiser College even helped me land my dream job. They could do the same for you." At that point, the camera pans to a bank of telephone operators as an 866 number flashes across the screen.
What's wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, I had world-class trouble with the medical billing and coding person at the hospital when I tried to get myself discharged. I would not have been surprised if this person was a recent graduate of Keiser College's accelerated medical billing and coding program. But more importantly, proprietary for-profit institutions that promise to change lives in a matter of a few months rank with the television ads that show people who have lost 60, 70, or 80 pounds -- all without changing their diets or exercising.
In short, the claims of Keiser College and its cousins often are so much snake oil. The sad part is that they fleece the very people who can least afford it -- or they fleece a government that does not seem to know the difference between a real college and those that offer questionable vocational programs.
Who needs a four-year college? The young woman in the Keiser College ad makes it clear that she doesn't, but I would argue that she does. I say this not as an intellectual snob but rather as a person who is as clear sighted about the world as she claims to be. An education -- and by that I mean one that lasts longer than four years, indeed one that lasts a lifetime -- allows a person to know when somebody is speaking rot. That, alas, is what the huckster for Keiser College is doing in the two-minute spot before yet another episode of "Law & Order" resumes.
I'm happy to report that I'm back at my keyboard, more ready than ever to give higher education the two cheers it deserves. And as for the vo-tech folks, let me make it clear that I think all work is noble, including billing and coding. But "work" is only one part -- albeit, an important part -- of what makes for a fully realized person. To imagine that a life can change after few short months at Keiser College or any of its innumerable cousins is to believe in the tooth fairy or in any of his or her innumerable cousins. Every episode of "Law & Order" begins with a wisecrack. The sentence launched by "To imagine that a life. . " is mine.
© 2006 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. His opinions appear regularly on this web page. He plans to make his way back to the beach where nobody advertises anything.
The IP responds: To be fair, Keiser College does offer a limited number of accredited B.A. and B.S. degrees both online and in classroom settings. However, as Sanford notes, they vigorously promote their accelerated, non-degree vocational/career programs. There are several problems with the vocational/career programs offered by proprietary, for-profit colleges. Sandy hit on two of the problems -- cost and the lack of educational breadth. Unlike Sanford, I don't think that every student needs a four-year college education. Not every student has the intellectual capacity to cope with the rigors of a four-year college program. Vocational and career education often is a good option for these students. And, if our high schools were of uniformly high quality, I would not worry as much about the "educated citizen" issue as much as Sanford does. However, a high-school education these days is not what it was four or five decades ago.
As far as costs are concerned, students in proprietary vocational and career programs often pay outrageously high tuition for programs that prepare them for relatively low-paying jobs. Financial aid at these institutions consists almost entirely of loans that will keep the student in debt for years after graduation. "Advisors" whose main job is to sign up students for these programs often promise far better job opportunities than actually exist.
The sad thing is that most students who are interested in vocational and career education could obtain just as good or better training at a public community college for far less money. True, it most likely will take them two years to obtain their A.A. degree rather than a few months. And, along the way they also will have the opportunity to take some additional general education courses that will help them become more informed citizens. The IP thinks that the community college vocational option is a good compromise between the accelerated vocational programs of the proprietary colleges, and the four-year college degree that may be an unrealistic goal for many students.