Un-scamming College

A recent posting at Marketwatch (May 26th) entitled “College is a scam — Let’s make some money off it” by Robert Altucher stopped me short. I can best summarize through some quotes that I believe fairly represents his position, a perspective that I have been reading with increasing frequency elsewhere as well. The piece was written to provide investment advice for the myriad of publicly held enterprises that have gone into the education business and have been increasingly shaping both the landscape of higher education but also the perception of it in many circles. I’ve left out the many references to the share values of X and Y companies.

“We can’t deny it anymore: college is a scam… Student loan debt is now greater than credit card debt for the first time ever. After the huge debt crisis we experienced in 2008 and the financial bust in housing that ruined so many lives you would think we would be having more of a national discussion on this but we just aren’t…As a result, for the first time ever we are graduating a generation of indentured servants rather than the entrepreneurs, innovators, artists, and inventors that America is known for. I just hate seeing Americans go down the drain… 44% of graduates in 2009 are either unemployed or hold jobs that don’t require degrees. So in other words, these millions of young people are five years behind their peers and many are holding over $100,000 in debt. What a shame…”

“People tell me, “school teach kids how to think”. To that I say, “learn how to use a library.” And while we’re at it. Put more computers in the library. The knowledge is out there. We don’t need to owe the banks and the government $800 billion to get knowledge… People tell me, “there’s a huge income gap between people with a college degree and people without a college degree.” To that I say… It (this statistic) has selection bias..It also ignores cause versus correlation… A true test would be to take 2,000 people and separate them into two groups of 1,000. Group A is not allowed to go to college. Group B goes to college. 20 years later lets see how they are doing. Obvious this test will never get done but the basic idea is common sense. Take people who are equally intelligent and ambitious and give them a five-year head start and with no debt. They are going to do very well, I have no doubt.”

“Some people say, “College teaches kids how to socially interact and network.” That’s great. But it doesn’t cost (for example) $300,000 for little kids to make friends. Join Facebook for free. And start networking on LinkedIn.”

“Well what about teaching …the classics like Plato. How does art and beauty persist generation after generation. My answer: People with passion will read. I didn’t read a book while in college. But I read several thousand in the 22 years since. If people want knowledge they will seek it out with a hunger like you can’t even imagine. You can’t force feed passion or knowledge.”

“What about if you want to be a doctor? Clearly you need a degree. Maybe. Are you saying you want to heal people or are you saying you want to be an MD? Try working for a few years cleaning people’s bedpans and learn a little about the medical industry. For anything you want to do in life, try it first rather than waste money and time learning something you ultimately never think about it again.”

“Again, tuitions have gone up 10 times faster than inflation in the past 30 years and three times faster than health-care costs in the past 30 years. We need to have an active discussion on this as a society. Meanwhile, the greatest entrepreneurs, artists, and inventors in history either didn’t go to college, were kicked out, or dropped out.

This is all fine, you might say, but what are the alternatives?” And what if I’m now old enough to know that I’m not not an entrepreneur, artist, or inventor? While I believe Mr. Altucher’s point of reference was mostly in regards to education for those of us below the age of 24 or so — though I think most of the target audience for proprietary universities are adults – the ‘value’ of institution based (whether private, public/land grant, or corporate) education as we know it – is going through a period of doubt and re-evaluation. The outcome is meaningful to us as students, academics, parents, citizens and probably every other role we hold and play in contemporary society.

I think we need to be careful not to confuse the institution of education as it is from what it can or should be and toss judgments such as ‘scam’ or ‘school’s not important or worthwhile’ around loosely. I think there are alternatives, some which jive with Altucher’s if you follow the trail of his blogs… but I’d rather open this to responses and rejoin this topic in dialogue with those.

I hope we can engage this conversation.

m fiddler


Overheard in the hallway during break…

I don’t always get to hear what the folks in my classes are talking about during break, but I did recently when I caught snatches of what they were saying about various faculty they’d encountered… so I’m passing along today some of the things I heard that fell into the ‘man, that annoys me’ category —

“Why did she bother writing a syllabus when she didn’t stick to it anyway and didn’t let us know what she was changing?… and I must have been sleeping in the 5th week or something when she added that big final assignment that kinda came out of nowhere.”

“I wish I would have taken advantage of his invitation… really a suggestion.. to hand in drafts; it would have made getting to the end a lot less difficult and anxiety producing. I think I was afraid.. or was it lazy? I don’t know.. but it’s a good idea I wish more instructors would offer from the beginning of a course.”

” Someday, maybe just maybe, a teacher will let me know WHY we’re doing what we’re doing in class. It would be nice to be offered some explanation or rationale for this and that in a seminar.”

“If my clients heard me say “I’m new, so excuse my ineptness” or “My company made me say this, don’t blame me” I’d probably forego my next raise… maybe even my next paycheck! C’mon.. no excuses.”

“I thought the readings were lightweight… until we really got into discussions about them. That made it a lot easier to get into some of the bigger pieces. And I had one teacher who assigned some heavy duty stuff but I don’t think I had a clue what it was about or why I was reading it. But I couldn’t admit that to her… or myself! And, while I’m at it, I didn’t know why we were reading something from 25 years ago… there’s got to be a reason but I’ll be darned if I can figure it out by myself.”

“Did I pay for other students to stand up and deliver uninteresting presentations so the teacher can say we did collaborative learning?”

“I don’t get the relationship – or lack of it – between the criteria in the syllabus and the grade. I think I should have gotten a better one. I didn’t see or hear anything from him about 10 pages not being enough. Don’t you think it’s fair for teachers to stick by what they say is worth a B… or a C, for that matter? I guess they have the power to give any grade they want for whatever reasons.”

I thought I heard some other comments but I retreated to my classroom… knowing at least one of these referred to me but wondering how many more?

If you’re a teacher, any thing here hit home? If you’re a student… anything you’d like to add under the umbrella of, ‘man.. that annoys me?!’

m fiddler

This month’s set of bumper stickers

Driving home from work during rush hour in Chicago, on the expressways, has its moments… of silence, thoughts, considerations of road rage, emptiness, and appreciations — many of which, if not left to the comforting void of unimportance, become illusions of what I’m seeing on the rear ends of cars in my path. Here’s a few I’ve remembered over the past weeks (along with a note-to-self to take note of others for future blogs)…

Do I believe in education… or do I believe in believing in education?

Is starting a graduate program like many love affairs — falling in love with the optimism of what’s going to be this time only to find out, again, the reality of him or her isn’t quite the same?  And now what do I do…?

How did I distinguish between self assessment and self deception today?

What group(s) am I “in’ with and what groups am I not?  And do I know how — I mean really know how —  to get in with those folks that I want to be “in” with… and get away from those I’m fine being on the “outs” with? 

Rats… mean and hungry… are worth collecting and taking care of.. they make good gifts down the pants of those who think they have authority.

Think back to someone who you felt violated your trust… how long did it take to have it restored…?  And are you willing to say that education has violated your trust?

If a cauliflower is a cabbage with a college education (Mark Twain), how did we get broccoli?

As the new year comes along.. with spring right around the corner.. I’ve resolved to pay attention to those bumper stickers that I’m stuck behind in the everyday traffic of my work as an educator. It’s a new year… let’s try again to make it a healthy, peaceful, and progressive one.

Closing with a song.. just because this is a great one by an underappreciated band…

Turning Purpose Into The Match Game

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           ..from the Bleeding Edgycator

If we’re heading in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking. (Bhuddist proverb)

Having an exchange with an attorney recently got me thinking about “purpose” — not so much in what drives my day or even the whole of my life.  Rather, I gathered a few thoughts about the convergence of purpose(s) when I seek out a professional of some sort who puts him or herself out in the world with both their own purpose(s) and a promise to meet mine, or at least an attempt to do so. In this sense, I’ve been thinking about the matching of purposes as some sort of agreement between me and someone else…a person or an institution.

My purpose in seeing a doctor is to seek a cure for an ailment… or find out if I even have one and he does what he can to match my intent.  I work with a psychologist for the purpose of managing or overcoming emotional.. and perhaps cognitive.. difficulties and she offers the same in return  (or just declares me a goofball and bills my insurance).  I attend the theatre for the purpose of being entertained or experiencing a mirror to my life.. and the theatre group and playwright set out to do their best to make laugh and cry.  I go to a bank to keep money safe and use their services to access it.. or even make a little (very little these days) on it… and the bank uses my money to make money for itself in one of a number of ways (safely, I hope, though with some doubt these days).  I go to a golf pro to improve my game.. and he works with me, to improve my game, maybe.  In meeting up with each of these professions, I have a pretty good sense of my purpose and it corresponds pretty closely to that of the practitioner or the institution.

And we – you and I – seek out or participate in education for the purpose of… ?

How much did I think about my purpose when I was an active student? … not a lot or at least not deeply.  And if you’re an adult thinking about, or already seeking more education, how much have you figured out your purpose(s) to match against that of the programs you’re looking at? I’m not all that sure I remember how well I considered if my purpose(s) jived with that of the institution or the programs I participated in except at some very broad ‘come get a quality education.. I want a quality education’ level.  How well do you think you know the match between your purpose for seeking education and the purpose of the institution that seeks you – and your tuition dollars — out?  How much of an active agreement did I… or you…  make with the universities we attended regarding the mutuality of our purposes?

Let’s try a Column A and Column B experiment… Column A is a list of the purposes I’ve heard from adult students over a number of years – and here I am focusing solely on adult students –  attending one or another program I’ve been associated with at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Column B, with no correspondence to its neighbor in Column A,  is a random selection of mission or purpose statements, edited for space (believe it or not), from both universities and programs or departments from several regions of the U.S. who are hawking their wares toward adult students.   (I don’t specify the names or programs here because my intent is not to single out any particular one… the small selection was pulled from a search of the internet and a pile on my desk.)

(Adults’) Purposes for Pursuing Education Institutional Statement of Mission and/or Purposes
To advance my career “The program allows working adults to return or enter college and study only one night a week. Groups, called “cohorts” are placed together in clusters of 15-20 students, who then study together throughout the entire program. These students graduate together and often form life-long friendships. (This university) provides non-traditional education to those who for varied reasons are not resident students.” (West Coast private university)
To broaden my horizons The (program) is specifically designed for adult students (at least 22 years of age) returning to college.  If you would like to complete your degree but feel you do not have enough time or money, we have the solutions that may make the difference. (West Coast private university)
To expand my knowledge in a variety of directions “A (graduate) program where graduate students are guided and supported in pursuing individualized journeys of graduate-level inqjiry and professional development; a program where each student’s idea.. vision to learn and contribute… gets translated into learning for action…” (Midwest private university)
To finish unfinished business in my life (The university) is committed to providing the best possible private education to a diverse and talented student body… (with a) continuous commitment to (opportunity that) must be retained, strengthened and, when necessary, redefined in an uncertain world where many are excluded from the full benefits of higher education due to economic and social factors beyond their control….. In addition, the… commitment to self-evaluation and civic engagement must remain as major goals. All of this must be accomplished during a time of considerable economic change and in the context of strengthening the (university’s) own financial base.…The university’s adult and continuing education) provides flexible programs to allow the adult student to pursue their educational goals. (East Coast private university)
To find personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment The mission of the (university system) to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses, and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training, and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the (university system) is the search for truth. (Midwest state university system with adult programming)
To get a credential (This university’s) Master of Liberal Arts and Science degree program is designed for the adult learner ready to return to the collegiate classroom and experience it in a new way. Whether returning to the university to learn what was missed the first time, to pursue a post-graduate degree for professional development or personal achievement, or to more fully explore an academic topic of great interest, …. (the) faculty, curriculum and schedule all have the discerning adult learner in mind. (Mid South private university)
To make me better at dealing with what life is throwing my way (This university) provides access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the productivity of their organizations and provide leadership and service to their communities.

  • To facilitate cognitive and affective student learning… and to promote their use in the work place.
    • To develop competence in communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and information utilization, together with a commitment to lifelong learning.
    • To bridge the gap between theory and practice…
    • To provide general education and foundational instruction and services that prepare students to progress to more advanced learning.
    • To use technology in instruction to expand access to learning resources and enhance collaboration and communication.
    • To assess student learning and use assessment data to improve the teaching/learning system, curriculum, instruction, learning resources, counseling and student services.
    • To be organized as a for-profit institution to foster a spirit of innovation that focuses on providing academic quality, service, excellence and convenience to the working adult.

(Online, globally distributed university)

To get smart(er) Adult education online is available to you through (this university’s adult focused program). At (this program), you can fit completing your college degree into your life and work by taking online college courses… get  help… (accelerating) earning your degree with stimulating adult education online college courses, a generous transfer credit policy, and the opportunity to earn credit for learning gained from your life, training, and work experience. You’ll emerge with your diploma in hand, more confident, more knowledgeable in your field, a better problem-solver, with renewed professional and personal goals. (East Coast state university)
To be accepted by my peers
To climb a social and/or economic ladder

Pretty clearly, the missions and purposes of this group of (wordy) universities set out promises of a challenging educational experiences that will benefit  many individuals and, perhaps, society if fulfilled.  But to a great extent, I find something missing in connecting one (or two or three or more) from Column A to a match-toward-an-agreement in Column B.  The purposes, represented by the phrases of adult students themselves, set out a variety of objectives that are hardly addressed or acknowledged by almost all of the institutional or program purposes.  Certainly, in between these two parties at the educational bargaining table lies commentaries by observers and writers of education, captured, for example, in this blog at Teacher’s Mind Resources. While these commentaries are considerably more loftyand incisive and perhaps closer to a basis for an agreement… well, see if one or two of them are ‘there’ for you.   But where’s the institution to match?  Isn’t one of our tasks as seekers of education to engage that negotiation of shared purpose before getting into the driver’s seat or taking a seat on the bus?

In his preface to In Over Our Heads, The Mental Demands of Modern Life , Robert Kegan refers to the contemporary world as a classroom. His interest is in the question of the capacities of the adult mind to navigate what he terms the “curriculum of modern life” which he characterizes by  multiple and often competing demands inherent in adults’ roles of parent, partner, professional, organizational member… you name it.  What adult hasn’t experienced the demands of this curriculum and the challenges of the ‘classroom’ of the contemporary world… and particularly experienced it with considerable stress if not disenchantment and disappointments?

And what stronger purpose for seeking  education and providing it… the basis for an agreement… than the meaningful understanding and expansion of adults’ capabilities and effectiveness to master ‘the curriculum of modern life?” Might this be the bridge between Columns A and B?

Perhaps.  But because I still have not filled in an answer to the question, “I seek out  the institution of education and the work of professional educators for the purpose of…”,  I feel the need to keep looking for yet one more angle — what better source for another take than from the creators of South Park… who bring us the words of  Alan Watts — philosopher, writer, observer …

In the end, if you’re not sure of your purpose, you’re likely to adopt someone else’s; higher education costs enough as it is.

Morry Fiddler

Stop… Hey…

..what is going down?

The Census Bureau recently told us that in 2009 were 43.6 million people in the U.S. living at or below the poverty level. 43,600,000. And that figure was up from 39.8 million the year before. We don’t know yet for 2010… any guesses which direction the number will go? $22,505 for a family of four, by the way, is what ‘defines’ poverty.  (22,050 divided by 4 = $5513/person/per year).

Before speculating on which direction the number will go, I decided to just check out the figures themselves and after searching down a half dozen reports and sites I landed on an analysis that suits my purpose here… David DeGraw’s blog at AmpedStatus  and while I haven’t validated all of his figures, he makes the point — actually the points:

  • A study done by the National Academy of Sciences found that in 2008 the number of people in the US living in poverty was 47.4 million, ~8 million more than the Census Bureau’s figure
  • An analysis of the difference between the two agency’s figures puts the 2009 figure at more like 52 million
  • In 2009, >20 million people were on unemployment benefits which, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (which conducts research and analysis to help shape public debates over proposed budget and tax policies)  temporarily kept 3.3 million people out of poverty
  • About 2.5 million people in prison were also not included in the census figure
  • So the figure of 43.6 million may really be 60 million.

Could it be even higher?  More people are moving in with family members.  More people are seeing their liabilities seriously exceed their assets.  More people describe themselves as living paycheck to paycheck with all the stresses that accompany that.

And, by the way, DeGraw points out… apparently a study done by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Capgemini found that ‘one percent of Americans are hoarding $13 trillion in ‘investible wealth.”

What does this all have to do with graduate education?  I’m asking myself what graduate education has to do with — and for – all this.

And I need a lot of help answering the question because it’s just not very clear…

M Fiddler

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