There is an interesting conversation going on right now about college education. Skyrocketing tuition costs and a serious economic depression have combined to create a large group of highly educated but unemployed people saddled with serious college debt. As a result, many people are beginning to question what just a decade ago was a self-evident fact: that everyone needs a college education.
When I taught freshmen English at a university many years ago, my high-minded idealism ran smack into the business end of higher education. Right away I learned that I was forbidden to recommend to any student that he not pursue a college education. We needed those students writing those tuition checks. What those students needed was not my concern. I was a teacher, not a counselor, I was told.
This command bothered me greatly. Relationship is at the heart of education, and the relationship I had with my students was essential to my ability to teach them. They needed to trust me, to believe that I cared about them. And because most of my students balked at having to take an English class, I needed to convince them that I was offering them something truly useful, both in their future professions and in their lives. I tried to get past the pragmatic technical training that they desired and offer them instead Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. As a result of the class discussions we’d have and the growing relationship between me and my students, I could see that some students would be better served pursuing some other career path. In fact, some of students confessed to me that they didn’t even want to be in college, but were pressured by well-meaning parents hoping to better the lives of their children. I watched these kids suffer and fail and I was forbidden to offer them the advice that they most needed to hear. Sure, the university wanted me to care about my students, but not in such a way as to inhibit our economic intake.
Once I was even called into the office of the Department Head to discuss my high failure rate. I defended my high educational standards and argued that it was better for a freshman to fail my class, take it again and improve his performance, than to barely pass and then struggle the rest of his academic career. After all, one of the graduation requirements of the university was taking an exit exam that required mastery of essay writing. I had previously worked as a tutor to help students who had completed all of their credits but could not graduate because they couldn’t write a competent essay. By forcing these students (who came into college with no writing skills of any kind) to repeat the class, I was helping them in the long run.
My boss looked on me kindly and no doubt thought I was very naïve (did I mention I was full of high-minded idealism?). She explained that most of the students in a state university were the beneficiaries of government grants. These kids are never going to graduate, she confided. They are going to flunk out or quit. Our job as freshmen instructors is to keep them in school for as many semesters as we can so that we can get an extra grant check or two.
I honestly could not believe my ears. That’s probably the day all my idealism was beaten right out of me. I discovered that the state university is not a haven of higher learning. It’s a business. And it makes decisions not based on what is best for the students, but what is best for the university budget.
Ironically, viewing an education through the lens of dollars and cents is precisely what is causing people to rethink this entire paradigm. It no longer makes good business sense to accrue massive debt for a college degree. If the university is a business, then it’s a business that is no longer providing its promised value (economically or otherwise).