Misunderstanding Higher Education

It seems to me….

The value of a collage education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” ~ Albert Einstein[1].

Students, and some parents, question why they should go to college when very little of what they learn will ever be of use later in life. Much of the math, history, science, literature, and other material seems totally irrelevant in the real world and very few people ever use even a small portion of what they learned while the rest is quickly forgotten. Those without a college education are frequently unable to appreciate the intent or fundamental reason for an education as those without normally do not understand, or even miss, what they do not have.

Why do the majority of students continue to attend a physical college or university when as much could be learned at a virtual on-line university? Socialization – it is the first prolonged opportunity for most students to be on their own away from home and parents. To collectively participate in extracurricular activities. To form new friendships and acquaintances with others sharing similar or complimentary interests. To try or explore what is new or different. In some disciplines, to have access to equipment or resources not otherwise available. Living with other students can be as valuable an experience as the subject material itself.

The vast majority of Americans see value in higher education – whether they graduated from college or not. Most say a college degree is important, if not essential, in helping a young person succeed in the world; college graduates themselves say their degree helped them grow and develop the skills they needed for the workplace. 31 percent of adults say a college education is essential and an additional 60 percent say it is important but not essential. However, a far higher percent says a good work ethic (89 percent), the ability to get along with people (85 percent), and work skills learned on the job (75 percent) are essential for a young person to succeed.

Between 2015 and 2018, the share of Americans saying they had either a great or considerable amount of confidence in higher education dropped from 57 percent to 48 percent, and the falloff was greater among Republicans (from 56 percent to 39 percent) than among Democrats (68 percent to 62 percent). Majorities of Republicans (77 percent) and Democrats (92 percent) say high tuition costs are a major reason why they believe colleges and universities are headed in the wrong direction. Roughly eight-in-ten Republicans (79 percent) say professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom is a major reason why the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction (only 17 percent of Democrats say the same).

Only 16 percent say a four-year degree from a college or university prepares someone very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy, while 51 percent say it prepares them somewhat well. Community colleges get even fewer positive marks: 12 percent say a two-year degree from these colleges prepares someone very well for a job, and 46 percent say it prepares them somewhat well.

A majority of Republicans (58 percent) say colleges should teach specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace, while only 28 percent say it should be to help an individual grow personally and intellectually. Democrats are more evenly divided on this: 43 percent say the main purpose of college should be developing skills and knowledge, while roughly the same share (42 percent) point to personal and intellectual growth.

Relative to predicting a student’s future success, a college degree serves as an indication of ability. The more prestigious the school, the greater the indication of relative capability. Granted much of this is predicated on the more prominent school’s ability to be more selective in enrolling the most qualified students.

There traditionally have been three tiers of colleges/universities. The top tier is comprised of the “elite” schools: the MITs, Stanfords, Harvards…. The second-tier is the vast majority of schools. The third tier, the Devries…, are essentially little more than trade/vocational schools. Where the third-tier prepared students for specific job categories, the top tier attempts to provide a general education with specific areas of specialization but the primary emphasis is teaching students how to think. The middle tier falls somewhere between the other two. Regardless of general opinion, it is very obvious which tier hiring managers believe provides the greatest value.

No one can foresee how employment will change in the future. The primary justification for the stature bestowed on top tier institutions is that they prepare their graduates for tomorrow’s world rather than today’s. An education should prepare students for any eventuality.

Traditional students when just initially beginning college are often too immature to fully appreciate potential advantages of various majors frequently preferring the seemingly less difficult to what might be their better option. It always can be difficult to tell an 18-19-year-old anything. They frequently do not see the benefit of delayed gratification trading harder work necessary to obtain a more difficult undergraduate degree today for a career that will be more rewarding and beneficial later in life.

Now, additional specialty programs seem to be appearing at some institutions: the online, the certification, and other degrees with non-traditional emphasis. The primary focus is now on the expanding universe of micro-credentials that are primarily online and significantly lower in cost than standard degrees. The various certificates, micro-degrees and other assorted digital badges are far narrower in focus, either around specific skills or content objectives, and are designed to give a more granular view of learner competencies.

Colleges are not necessarily helpful in providing students adequate guidance frequently only emphasizing what percent of students complete their degree within six years. At some institutions, the matriculation rate is seemingly of more importance that subject mastery.

College curriculums have changed over the recent past with students today spending significantly less time on their academics, about ⅓ less, than students even 50-60 years ago. Additionally, grade inflation has reduced course standards creating opportunities for greater numbers of students. Admission standards at most colleges also are lower – and it shows.

College/university professors and lecturers are more highly educated in their specific discipling than most K-12 teachers but rarely have taken any classes specifically on how to teach – and it frequently is apparent. While a teaching certificate requirement for professors would be beneficial, it would severely limit the number of potential instructors. Since many professors could substantially increase their income by working in the corporate world, they teach as a personal preference and dedication, and their numbers would decline if also required to have a teaching certification. Unfortunately, all of us have had faculty who while perhaps excellent researchers, should never be permitted in the classroom.

While many professors are knowledgeable and very competent, others unfortunately are not. Many do not have any idea what is useful or needed in the “real” world outside of academia. Probably all professors, especially in science or engineering disciplines, should be required to have 3-5 years of actual work experience in their field prior to being permitted to teach.

Additionally, there are significant differences in how classes are taught. The most cost effective – but least beneficial – method of instruction yet developed is to pack possibly several hundred students into an auditorium for about 50 minutes to listen to a professor orate on some subject while the students supposedly take notes and teaching assistants grade assignments and exams. Many college/university level classes, especially lower level classes, are taught in large lecture halls where professors rarely know the names of more than a few of their students.

Many of the approximately 70 percent of Americans with only a limited education fail to understand the difference between political liberalism and what is considered a liberal education. There is considerable confusion among parents, students, the general public, and even board members about what the liberal arts are or what a liberal education means. Some policy makers consider a liberal education as unrelated to the workplace and therefore undeserving of public funding in times of tight state budgets.

To them, any reference to “liberal” suggests a political sense of liberal versus conservative[2]. The word “liberal” in “liberal arts” and “liberal education” does not refer to the opposite of conservative; it refers to “free”, the opposite of constrained, imprisoned, incarcerated, and subjugated. Derived from the Latin “liberalis”, a liberal education is a curriculum intended for free citizens.

Liberal arts therefore refers to a general education curriculum in multiple disciplines such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences; a liberal arts education can refer to overall studies in a general degree program along with more in-depth study in a specific major. Neither term generally refers to the professional, vocational, or technical curriculum. It is intended to provide broad knowledge and develop intellectual ability.

Those starting their first job today will likely change careers at least three to five times during their working years. The intent of higher education is to prepare someone for many fields in not only today’s workplace, but also that of the future. By emphasizing rational thought, the intent is to develop robust critical thinking and analytical skills, problem solving abilities, and a strong moral compass. A more integrated curriculum that combines the foundational concepts and habits of mind of the liberal arts and sciences with the skill sets more traditionally thought of as preprofessional or vocational will better prepare students for a more dynamic future.

Regardless of generally unfounded suspicion and attempts to constrain personal freedoms, university professors are equally entitled to their own personal beliefs and are selected based on their teaching ability rather than political orientation[3]. The vast majority are preoccupied attempting to cover course requisites rather than ever attempting to inject personal political beliefs into the curriculum and, nevertheless, would never consider doing so. Still, irrespective of these constraints, many faculty members bring talent, passion, imagination, humor, and empathy into their classrooms. Though many are also researchers creating knowledge, they bring changes to student’s lives.

A college or university education is extremely important but never can be appropriate for everyone. Other options, such as vocational schools need to become competitive academies that combine work-based training with rigorous coursework directly responding to employers’ needs.

Higher education faces a host of challenges in the future – controlling costs amid increased fiscal pressures, ensuring that graduates are prepared for the jobs of the future, adapting to changing technology and responding to the country’s changing demographics. The future of our country depends on them doing so.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics.

[2] Strauss, Valerie. What The ‘Liberal’ In ‘Liberal Arts’ Actually Means, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/02/what-the-liberal-in-liberal-arts-actually-means/, 2 April 2015.

[3] Parker, Kim. The Growing Partisan Divide In Views Of Higher Education, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/the-growing-partisan-divide-in-views-of-higher-education/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=efde61748d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_08_23_03_44&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-efde61748d-400092341, 19 August 2019.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in College, College, College, Cost, Curriculum, Debt, Degree, Degrees, Devries, Education, Education, Education, Faculty, Funding, Graduates, Harvard, K-12, K-16, Liberal Arts, Liberal Education, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, Professor, Stanford, Student, Teach, Teach, Teachers, Teaching, Tuition and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Misunderstanding Higher Education

  1. Siobhan Wilde says:

    I like.

    Sent from my iPhone



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