Saturday, November 18, 2006

Universities becoming more exclusionary.

According to today's Washington Post, universities are now looking for kids with 'a passion,' in other words eschewing the traditional 'well-rounded' education for a kid who has excelled in a particular field of study.

Of course it will be too late for kids who are seniors this year to suddenly shift gears and go in a radically different direction, but in fact I see it as a symptom of a far greater problem.

Colleges have become far too exclusionary. Note I did not say 'exclusive,' (though they are often that as well) but 'exclusionary.'

And I'm not just talking about Ivy league schools, or those which have traditionally been very exclusive. Even state universities are becoming very picky about which students they will take. And certainly ability to pay is a factor here as well-- recall the post I wrote last year about Paige Laurie, the Wal-Mart heiress who hired a student who had to leave the University of Southern California because she couldn't afford to stay, to write all her papers for her.

When combined with skyrocketing tuition costs and the cuts in financial aid made by the Bush administration, for a child (and a high school student is a child) to be able to get into most colleges, (s)he must excel academically, be able to afford it (this already excludes millions of kids) and now must in effect be already an adult. Already have decided what (s)he wants to do with life and then do it, and already be good at it before applying to college.

And that is unrealistic. When I was seventeen, I was sure I wanted to be a chemist. A lot of struggling and at least one major lab explosion later, I had changed my major (though I did in fact double-major and finish earning a degree in chemistry, mostly as a career back-up). However, even that is unusual-- most seventeen year olds aren't sure yet what they want to be. What this achieves is in effect either guaranteeing many students a lifetime of misery if they stick with their course of study in spite of the likelihood that their early decision will be the wrong one, or more likely that they will simply fail because they in the end don't have an interest in or aptitude for what they are supposed to be studying.

The root of the problem is actually quite simple. With an increasing population, combined with less and less state funding for higher education, there are simply less places for students.

Now, it is true that the students in question can take the first two years of their study at a community college. But then they may very well reach the end of the line--there is no guarantee of admission to a university even then (though Arizona is much ahead of the rest of the country due to the AGEC), and even if they do get in, scholarships and financial assistance for people not entering as freshmen may be very limited.

Further there are severe societal consequences that have resulted. The shortage of doctors (especially in rural communities and inner cities) is directly related to the limiting number of spaces in medical schools. Many high tech companies and other companies have justified moving their operations overseas, especially to countries like India because of a shortage of Americans who have the qualifications. Now, this may be only an excuse for something they are doing for economic reasons, but it is also true that this shortage does exist and certainly is a contributing factor (and of course when they move their operations, other employees of the company also lose their jobs.) As another measure, every year America produces about 100,000 new engineers. China produces eight times as many-- partly because they are opening new universities at about the rate of a 50,000 student university every two weeks.

We should not only fund universities fully, but we should greatly increase both student aid and the number of places for students. Community colleges can be a part of this, but we should do a better job then of helping community college students who want to go to a four year university get there.


shrimplate said...

There is nothing better we can do for our country and its citizens than to provide our young people with a strong education.

Everything follows from that.

O Ceallaigh said...

I actually am sympathetic with the "exclusionary" model of tertiary education. After all, before the 1960s, this was the basic idea: that colleges were for the "best" 5-10% of the population, and they were in training for the professions.

I would like to see a return to that model. Everybody needs an education. Not everybody needs a college education.

Or ... they didn't when the primary and secondary systems were doing their jobs. Now, in my opinion, the colleges are mostly doing what the high schools used to do: (try to) teach the three Rs. You yourself have alluded to the catastrophic decline in basic maths skills among high school graduates, just in the last three years. We now pay $40grand a year so that Meaghan can get the same level of competence that Marilyn got from a public high school in 1950. To me, this is a national crime of greater scope and significance than Guantanamo.

I would:

1) Eliminate all private-school options in these United States, at all levels of the educational system.

2) Nationalize schools up to grade 12, equipping them with consistent educational standards and consistent levels of equipment and personnel support, and paid for out of Federal taxes.

3) Completely remove "age categorization" of grade levels, so that persons may progress at their own intellectual paces, without being improperly shoved along or held back.

4) Restrict places in "traditional" universities to those who have indeed found their putative vocations, and show aptitude for them. Entry can be at any age where these conditions are met. Tuition should be paid for, again, out of the public purse.

My prime purpose here is to remove, from college classrooms, the dead weight of those who have neither found, nor are truly exploring, a vocation. Seek ye the meaning of life outside the college classroom. When you have found it, you may apply. Whenever that should be. (I'm all but convinced that a two-year period of public service should be compulsory for every American who attains the age of 18.)

5) Expand options for post-secondary education, outside of the "traditional" college setting, whose needs and/or desire for "knowledge" lies outside the "training for the professions" model - to which I would return the "traditional" universities. This is the only domain in which I would permit significant unregulated participation by the private sector - though I would make many publicly-funded options available so that it is not entirely given over to the playboys and corporate extortionists.

O Ceallaigh said...

About item (2), above.

If We the People, especially the wealthier segments, are unwilling to see education funds spread equivalently (not equally, so long as living in New York City costs three times as much as living in Fargo) across all districts and population groups of Our Nation, because "we are one people" ...

Then I for one am willing to close ALL the schools PERMANENTLY.

I am willing to go into the Library of Congress, take out the master copy of the Declaration of Independence and publicly BURN it in the vestibule of the Jefferson Memorial.

I am likewise willing to burn the master copy of the US Constitution, and with the burning prepare and submit a writ of apology to the English Crown, together with a petition for restoration to Her Majesty's British Empire.

Because We the People will have acknowledged that the Great Experiment has failed.

We the People are no longer fit for Self-Government.

Elizabeth branford said...

pretty interesting comments.

I think that college funding is within reach if a person is willing to use student loans, which are pretty easy to get now. No credit, no job- nothing required. I know many that use a little extra to go to spring break! The trouble is that in some cases they are TOO easy to get. I know people who have over a hundred thousand in debt, for college and graduate school.

I think that these loans are given pretty freely and because of that and the very low interest, or subsidized interest,people take the money (sometimes far more than they need) and worry about it later. There is no pressure then for colleges to lower tuition or offer help/scholarships. People have a way, they know it, and so its a problem people can solve.

Of course some will pay for thirty years, and realize they dont even want the major they chose back at nineteen!

There are many problems, but there is no incentive for costs to come down since people just sign those papers. I think that has helped the skyrocketing tuition, made it all worse.

shrimplate said...

I pretty much agree with everything O'Kelly said. High school has basically become a place for kids to park their butts and hone a college application, either via sports or academics. Sometimes an artistic talent.

And further, college itself has basically become an institution that keeps young people out of the job market until they either reach a certain age or have gained a level of expertise that companies themselves are not willing to train people to attain.

The Middle Age European system of guilds was likely a better model for the education of our young people. At least in those days the professions themselves, not the "education system," educated people into useful professions.

Today there exists an "undergorund" of such a model. Auto mechanics, jazz musicians, various small business retailers, and construction tradesmen all basically learn their way of living via a sort of apprenticeship rather than a formal college education.

Mozart and Beethoven never went to college. Bill Gates left college in his junior year. I'm surprised he lasted that long.

Franl Lloyd Wright likewise left school before obtaining a degree.

Steve Jobs is a college dropout also.

I guess it all boils down to this question: Do you really need your degree requirements to perform your current job? Was organic chemistry really worth all that trouble?

I know docotrs who say "No." Especially about Organic Chem. Effing carbon molecule binding angles. Damn them.

Eli Blake said...


"Was organic chemistry really worth it?"

Then this story should blow your mind, because it is right in your line of work:

About twenty-five years ago I knew a guy who was a respiratory therapist (or whatever they were called back then.) He had to administer a drug mixture in a patient's oxygen while on duty at at a hospital at 2:00 AM. He was supposed to use a very expensive machine to calibrate the dosage. The machine broke down. This machine, there were probably about three people in the country who were qualified to repair it, and none of them were around. So he had to figure out how much to give by hand, USING GAS LAWS FROM FRESHMAN CHEMISTRY.

Luckily he got it right (I don't know if he could get away with it today, with all the lawsuits-- I'm sure they have a procedure that you would know better than I would, in which helping the patient became secondary to avoiding a lawsuit.)

Eli Blake said...

I would agree that we need to change the model, but I see too few, not too many people in college. They may not be the right people, is the problem (in fact half don't finish).

My advice to a seventeen year old who isn't sure what (s)he wants to do is to go to a community college and study something like construction, auto mechanics or plumbing. When they eventually figure out what they want to do they can pursue it starting at the community college without having to take time off while they apply to universities, they have wasted a whole lot less money than it would be at a university, and they may have learned something that will come in handy a few times over the course of their lives.