David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Step Right Up: It's the Only Product You Will Ever Need*

February 4, 2011:  Step Right Up: It's the Only Product You Will Ever Need*

A recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education emphasizes something that many of us in the trenches have known for years:  4-year degrees are not necessarily for everybody.  I've harped on this theme before in my blogs, so I'll try to map out some new and fresh territory here.

Those of us who teach in the second tier (and below) of universities and colleges see students ill-fitted with college work everyday.  After all, who wants to deny a person a chance to shine and gain a four-year (or even more) credential that can lead to more money, prestige and perhaps a "safer" lifestyle? 

As a result at institutions with open admission standards, or even ones with minimum assessment standards, faculty deal with way too many students who are ill-equipped for the work needed to get the four-year degree.  They change the dynamic of the classroom for all students, can make group work a real challenge, may lead to grade inflation (often faculty "forward" these students along the degree path with barely passing grades), hurt the institution's retention and graduation rates, and incur debt that they may not be able to pay off.

Society still has a tremendous need for talented carpenters, electricians, masons, and so forth, jobs that require a set of skills and knowledge that can be achieved through shorter-term programs.  

The problem is that colleges and universities can't envision themselves turning away people who have a dream (or whose parents have a dream for them); thus, even if a high school counselor might encourage a kid to pursue an honorable profession like carpentry, if that kid is trotted out in front of the average college representative, there will be a likely push for a degree that can be added to the carpentry skills (perhaps a business degree) to increase that student's chances of being more (in society's views) than "just a carpenter."  A university would be better served to encourage that student to return to college later in life as that desire to "be more" develops.

By the way, this overselling of a product to people doesn't occur just at the undergraduate level.  Look at this recent essay from Inside Higher Ed that justifies taking in more Ph.D. candidates than the potential job market can absorb.  I was one of over a hundred (if I remember correctly) new graduate students in English when I went to Indiana University in the mid 1980's, and even then I wondered how most of us would find jobs. I know many of my colleagues did not even go into professions where the Ph.D. was a prerequisite for the position.  And many of them may be happy with that.  

In defense of both this essay and the underlying theory behind undergraduate admissions, it may not be a university's place to tell someone he or she can't pursue a dream.  However, more open dialogue with potential students about barriers to achieving that dream, and discussion of other non-degree (or at least four-year degrees) options have to occur.

* Apologies to Tom Waits