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College Inc.

by on July 19, 2014

                                                          College Inc.

                                                    by Marco M. Pardi

“For the most part, colleges are places where pebbles are polished and diamonds are dimmed.”  Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) “Education”, The Philosophy of Ingersoll, ed. Vere Goldthwaine, 1906.

Most readers know I have a lengthy history with higher education.  Although I went through graduate school on a University Scholarship, I also had a research position and taught Introductory classes.  Turned off by the effete atmosphere of the Ivy League private university,  when I left I steered intentionally toward teaching positions at what were then becoming more popular – Community Colleges.

The history of colleges in the United States may surprise some.  Almost all of the now prestigious private colleges and universities originated as church affiliated schools.  This is not saying they were phony – like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, or even lunatic asylums – like Bob Jones university, but rather their orientation was not so much career preparation in the subject matter sense as it was producing “well rounded” and well connected scions of already established families developing the industrial foundation of the growing country.  The college students of those years, almost all male, had no worries about after graduation employment; employment in or connected to the family business was a given.  A college degree was a Rite of Passage, a protracted “Coming Out” party for a privileged few.

Over time that slowly changed, accelerating in the post WWII years with the G. I. Bill, a program from which I derived some support after my Viet Nam Era service.  As the American workplace broadened and became more complex the high school diploma quickly fell from its benchmark status.  A four year college degree, seemingly in anything, became an employment ticket.  The late 1950’s and especially the 1960’s saw college enrollment swell at a record pace.  But there was more behind this than just the changing employment landscape.  WWII was seen as a just war, Korea far less so, and Viet Nam quickly became viewed as an abattoir for those too young to vote against the Draft that was intent on sending them there.  A Student Deferment was seen as a means to forestall the day when, literally, your number was up.  Add in the “Sexual Revolution” spurred by pharmaceutical contraception, the growing popularity and availability of mind altering drugs, and the growing intellectual social protest movements spinning out from the Civil Rights era and you get the university campus, the epicenter of the “Age of Aquarius”.  Trade schools just did not carry the cachet.

Yet we still needed people who knew how to install and repair plumbing,  fix and maintain the automobiles,  wire homes and offices safely, repair the air conditioning that was becoming ubiquitous and all the other “blue collar” realities so many still take for granted.  The community college was a, then, unique blend of trade/tech school and undergraduate core program college.  Typically, a student could elect to pursue an Associate of Arts (A.A.: essentially a certificate of completion enabling package transfer to the Junior class of a four year college or a university) or an Associate of Science (A.S.: a certificate program of varying duration which certified the graduate at higher than unskilled labor in a particular trade).   The common campus, and even some common classes seemed ideal for this realistic approach.

However, during my first 10 years (7 of which were tenured) at a community college, also teaching by request at another community college and at a four year private college, I found little variance in a troubling statistic:  Of the enrolled community college students, 80% enrolled in the A.A. four year college track; of those who actually completed the two year track, only 20% transferred to a four year college or university.  I felt there were two main factors at work here:  Enrollment in an A.S. certificate program was seen as far less prestigious; and, there was a prevailing attitude that two years of college were better than no years of college.  Of course, tighter admissions policies and unforeseen costs also played roles

I felt the colleges were at least partially to blame, in differing amount, for each of the two main factors.  Holding elaborate “Graduation/Commencement” ceremonies for people completing the first two years of what normally is a four year program is misleading, to say the least.  Another trend, as community college enrollments swelled and larger amounts of money went into infrastructure and a growing ratio of highly paid administrators to lowly paid faculty, was the cost cutting measure of increasing reliance on adjunct faculty, for whom no benefits are provided and whose salaries are mere fractions of full time faculty.  In many cases that I knew of the only qualification for such a position was possession of an appropriate degree; no teaching experience was required.  The result was an increasing presence of “faculty” whose loyalties lay elsewhere, who were doing this for reasons other than commitment to their subject field (their full time work was often unrelated to their degree and they were not current in their field), and who, frankly, were using access to the college classrooms as dating services.  And, as enrollments swelled classrooms, sometimes to physically uncomfortable levels, the emphasis increasingly moved toward “getting them through.”  The institutional euphemism for this was “Student Success”.

But, what is “success”?  I’m familiar with success subsequent to college education.  My biological family is quite small, but when my extended family is added we count 9 physicians, 5 BSN or MSN nurses, 2 Pharm. D. pharmacists,  1 microbiologist, 2 mechanical engineers, 1 CPA bank president………and me.

I won’t judge anyone in the foregoing group, but will say that my 23 year career in what many consider the world’s premier medical science institution afforded me the opportunity to know hundreds of medical specialists in a variety of fields.  This served to sharpen my perception of what I consider to be the difference between Smart and Intelligent.

When I play chess against my computer it instantly recognizes my move and responds with the appropriate counter move.  My computer has banked all possible moves and holds a reserve of logical counter moves. My computer is smart.

When I ask my computer to discuss the social applications of playing chess, it does nothing. When I ask my computer to venture an opinion on my approach to life, based on how I play chess, it says nothing.  My computer is not intelligent.

As higher education has grown into a mega-industry, complete with a baffling complexity of infra-structure, personnel, financial networks woven throughout the prevailing economy, lecture rooms commonly populated by some 300 students at a time watching state of the art techno-media teaching, tests scored electronically, and entire degree programs being offered through on-line instruction it has lost any room for intelligent.  It has moved toward producing and certifying smart.  This strong trend is manifest in the larger community colleges and in most if not all (undergraduate) universities.  There is variance from one university to another, and even within a given university.  For this reason, ranking of universities can be misleading.  A university is a collection of colleges; the same university can have a world class College of Architecture, and a bottom rung College of Life Sciences.  

In sum, at least at the undergraduate level, many colleges and universities are little different from businesses.  They receive marketplace information on what products are needed, take in the raw materials, fashion and certify the product and push it out the door – with a ceremonial handshake if you care to stick around for it.  The problem lies in the fact that the complexity of the process affords rapidly diminishing room to the innovative, flexible, intelligent student, rewarding the narrowly focused performer who, as I have seen in the tumult of the real world, is ill prepared for how things actually work and poorly prepared for true problem solving.  Compounding this problem is the speed with which the employment arena is changing.  The very attributes that colleges and universities should be developing and encouraging in students are being blunted; by the time a student completes a program the career for which it was designed may have radically changed or disappeared. 

For at least the past twenty years it has been commonly said the person entering the workforce should anticipate and be prepared for at least three or four significant career changes.  The standardized product oriented mega-machines we now call colleges and universities fall dramatically short in quality control while excelling in quantity control.

“The aim of the college, for the individual student, is to eliminate the need in his life for the college; the task is to help him become a self-educating man.”  C. Wright Mills, Power, Politics, and People, 1963     

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17 Comments
  1. Gary permalink

    At the same time one finds ridiculous demands in the workplace for “over credentialed” people for the jobs being offered, like a receptionist who must possess a four-year university degree. Previously this kind of job would only require high school matriculation, and in my mother’s day might have been obtainable with just Grade 10.

    • Thank you, Gary. I entirely agree. I suspect that this common trend reflects the idea that a college degree speaks of your having proven some level of smartness, and trainability (if that’s a word). It’s an assurance that “you’re one of us”. No matter that it has no significant bearing on the subject matter or application of your work; it’s a certificate of membership. Thanks again, Marco

    • Dana R. Seiler permalink

      Gary, you are so right. My father (now 71) had an eighth grade education, yet moved up the ranks in a municipal parks and recreation division (draftsman/project manager). My mother (68) had a tenth grade education, but was later employed in executive administrative support for many years in the provincial government. Granted, they were intelligent and highly motivated people, but this would never happen today.

  2. Gary, Given your stellar career as an attorney, I’m embarrassed that I forgot to include a nephew who is chief legal counsel to one of the most powerful U.S. Senators. I would find it very difficult to imagine a successful attorney who fits only the definition of smart and does not measure up well in the area of intelligence. I follow your commentaries closely, and usually don’t respond much because you are “way above my pay grade”. Marco.

  3. “Holding elaborate “Graduation/Commencement” ceremonies for people completing the first two years of what normally is a four year program is misleading, to say the least.” I used to feel that way about the high school graduation ceremonies in my kids schools. My kids all went to IB schools and in Florida they are most often put in the poorest, lowest functioning high schools. It was pointed out to me the majority of these students had achieved the highest level of education in their families. Graduating high school is a big deal. So I do understand the big celebration. I’m sure the same is true for community college.
    Thank you for another educational and enlightening article. In the Denver area I am amazed at how many young people here do not have college. Many are in the tech industry and many have their own businesses. So, while my kids were in college getting degrees that would not enhance their abilities to get jobs, these guys were well on their way creating successful careers.
    My brother reminds me at the time the new community college opened in Winter Haven, Florida a new grocery store opened in our town, called Publix. He got a job there but our oldest brother made him quit and go to the community college. He did his 2 years and continued on and got a law degree. He recently retired at the age of 65. Publix gives stock shares to their employees. He said had he not gone to college and just worked at Publix, by the age of 40 the stocks would have been worth close to a million dollars.

  4. Thank you, Mary. Like you, I can think of many circumstances in which choosing some path other than college would have brought perhaps greater material success. I know a young man locally who was a Georgia Perimeter College student of mine, took over his father’s industrial water treatment business, makes an absolute fortune, but admits to low self esteem for not having “that degree”. The New York Times magazine just published interesting interviews with unemployed or marginally employed recent college graduates as they struggle to pay their student loans. It’s an odd world. Marco

  5. I would agree with you. There are several people I know with successful businesses who did not go to college and each always seems to be trying to prove something to the world about themselves. I told my kids if you don’t get a degree you spend your life thinking you missed out and those who do have a degree know something more than you. With the degree you realize they don’t.

  6. My 34 year old associates degree sits in a box on a shelf; totally unused and mostly forgotten. I am among that sad percentage who did not “complete my degree”; it is the greatest disappointment of my life. It doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent, only that I did not manage to get that piece of paper which is so valued by the world in general. I can’t honestly say I remember the full reasons why this is true, but I can say it was not lack of desire. To me, education is not just a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

    Many of my friends here have pursued their educations through the trade schools which masquerade as colleges. When whatever “degree” they obtain fails to net them employment, they simply choose another and try again. None of the “credits” they earn in these so-called colleges is transferable to an actual institute of higher learning; either you get all that you need there, or you start over from the beginning someplace else.

    A few days ago, I told my teenaged granddaughter that she was smart. When she asked me why, I replied, “because you remember things”. She is autistic with a learning disability; she can not read, write, or count, but she can and does learn and remember things which are important to her. What better definition of “smart” could we ask?

  7. Thank you, Rose. I remember you as one of the few I saw as “over qualified” for the school you were in. I know there were many reasons for students not continuing further, and many of them were sadly realistic. I agree with your characterization of trade schools masquerading as colleges. I think we need to admit to the trade school nature of much of our educational system. Some of my physician relatives get a bit stiff when I refer to the trade they learned. And, we need to become more aware of the qualities people such as your grand daughter truly have.

  8. Dana R. Seiler permalink

    Marco, your mentioning Bob Jones University reminds me of my one year experience at the age of sixteen in a Baptist fundamentalist college – I mean – lunatic asylum (Pensacola Christian College). Unfortunately, too few are aware of the insidious and highly dangerous agenda of these institutions that operate in the U.S. today.

    As you know, I was permitted just a handful of colleges to which I could apply – BJU being one of them. When I went on a guided tour of the campus, I found out female students were forced to “cover their head” at required church services. Most opted for a crocheted doily. This was just one of dozens of bizarre and often strangely complex rules and policies.

    (Interested readers may want to take a glance at BJU’s 2013-14 handbook. It is extremely disturbing to know this operation offers a nursing program. http://www.bju.edu/life-faith/student-handbook.pdf).

    As for public higher education, I can attest that it is quite the racket. I do not care to think about what I was forced to spend on textbooks alone. Rarely were they available for rental, and the majority were at least $150 apiece or more. Each semester the latest editions are usually required, eliminating any opportunity to sell or return barely used books.

    Yet, I am very glad for my recent college experience. I do often wonder if I would feel as such had I not met you. Probably not. How fortunate I was to have sat in your lectures; how much more fortunate to have gained such a wonderful friend and confidante.

    Dana

    • Thank you, Dana. I’m certain everyone joins me in saying we are so glad to have you back and sharing your thoughts.

      I was a bit leery of naming schools, but I guess they are in the public domain. Most of us have read your accounts, here and elsewhere of what you went through. Yet, you, like Rose, Mary, Jason, Petr and a few others I was so very fortunate to meet came into classes that you were superlatively qualified – or over qualified for. I did not return to the classroom for the pay, but in the hopes of meeting outstanding minds such as yours. And I am so glad I did.

  9. Gary permalink

    I did a stint as an executive recruiter. I placed a quality control engineer at a well-known confectionary manufacturer. The person who got the job was excellent. However, in my search phase for qualified candidates I came across an individual who had graduated from community college in an engineering field and at that point in his career had a stellar decade of outstanding industry experience. Given the criteria of the company I thought he fit the bill 100%, with the exception of the college degree. I sent him for an interview. He was turned down. The HR guy said that there were many university degreed engineers who would be reporting to this position and they would not like to be reporting to some guy with only a community college diploma. Whether this was true or just the usual HR prejudice commonly found in corporate enterprises I could not determine.

    Marco, thank you for your kind comments, but I am in no way, shape or form above your pay grade.

    • Gary, Your experience is so troubling, but so informative. I am sure we all can take a lesson from it. Thank you for pointing to a reality which I am sure still prevails today. Marco

  10. i have not much input to offer on this, but just want to say it is always a pleasure to read your posts Marco and the comments of all those who follow !!

  11. Masha permalink

    I agree 100%. I am seeing evidence of the “factory” approach to higher education in my clinical psychology PhD program on a regular basis. Two weeks ago I was participating in a class discussion (honestly, more listening than actively participating) and felt a bit uneasy at the overly simplistic interpretation of a complex theory. Finally, I felt I truly had something to add and offered a comment that addressed the conversation in the room but also brought in some parallel ideas from other disciplines. I couldn’t believe the reaction. All the students stared at me blankly, they couldn’t comprehend anything outside the assigned reading. Finally, my professor (a Japanese man educated in multiple countries and the son of a Buddhist monk) said, “yeah, this conversation would be more appropriate over a beer, we don’t go there in this program.” Unfortunately, the days of universities producing well rounded individuals are long over. Most people in my program are completely ignorant to any and all topics outside their tightly confined and strictly structured “area of study.” You would be shocked.

    • Thank you, Masha. I know we all appreciate your cogent and well informed input. I had concerns when I was speaking to your class, but those concerns were long predated by my experiences at CDC with freshly minted Anthropologists who, in my opinion, should never have been awarded the title. I think the problem is not new in its nature, but certainly more pronounced in our current classes. You are definitely one of the students for whom I would have great concern; the stress of seeing and experiencing what you do, while trying your best to master your field and be a credit to it is more than I can imagine. Marco

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