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Debt-Free Education

Debt-Free Education



Great article in the Times today about Berea College in Kentucky, which educates only dirt-poor students by giving them free tuition. Berea has a huge endowment of $1.1 billion, which puts in the top ranks with the Ivies. Now if only the Ivies would focus on their real job, which is educating people, not driving research.

I've heard the argument made that this is the purpose of large, well-endowed universities, but I can't agree. It's one of a university's functions, but it should not be the over-riding one. This is a function that should be taken up primarily by business and the government, perhaps shared three ways between them, but business has notably largely abandoned anything that does not have an immediate profit in sight, which was not always the case.

It should be obvious that the primary job of a university, of any educational institution, is to educate. But one of the reasons for the change to a research-driven model is the idea that education is a business, not a public service or a right or even a necessity. Business models now predominate in the higher education sector, models that treat education as a for-profit business, whose assets can be "invested" in new facilities like sports stadia and highly specialized science labs at the cost of affordable tuition and decent salaries for faculty who are not researchers. The mistake is treating education as a commodity or product that can be marketed and sold to students. This is the wrong approach on at least a couple of levels.

First and most obviously, it sets up the wrong model for the educational experience. Under the commodity model, the grades and degree are the product, not the knowledge and learning experience. Students expect to "get their money's worth" in the classroom, receiving a high grade in return for a monetary investment. I don't think most of them realize that this kind of thinking is akin to buying a degree or a grade rather than earning it, or how that devalues what they get. I don't think most of them realize that those grades only matter within the context of school. Once you're out, nobody cares about your GPA and your GPA won't save you if you haven't actually learned anything.

Secondly, it leads to overspecialization in the kinds of degrees awarded. It's more difficult to see the value of a degree in, say, English or history or philosophy if all you're thinking of is skill sets that can be bullet-pointed on a resume. Many colleges have added "practical" or technical majors like our favorite object of ridicule at MSU: packaging. Believe me, I understand the complexities of packaging, that it involves, design, psychology, engineering, an understanding of the the manufacturing process and a basic grasp of infectious agents, but it is fundamentally a skill set, not an academic subject. The requirements for the degree include courses in the above areas, but when you get that degree, you're not a designer, a psychologist, pathologist, or an engineer. You know how to package, and frankly that has a limited application. It speaks to the old adage that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

There's nothing wrong with a degree like this, but it used to be a technical degree, like engineering. The real problem is that it has started to replace the pedagogical paradigm of teaching problem solving, research (and by this I mean the ability to sort the bogus from the legitimate, not just find what you want to know), synthesis, analysis, extrapolation with teaching a collection of facts and technical methods—in short, what to think, not how to think.

One of the beauties of the non-skills based degree is that it opens many worlds and gives one skills that can transfer from field to field. A degree in English has become a "you want fries with that?" joke in part because business often fails to recognize the value of the ability to think (or doesn't really want it, especially not in its cube workers) and in part because our schools have failed to point out the value of that kind of a degree. With an English degree, especially an advanced one (an MA, not an MFA), you've learned how to research, analyze, communicate in writing clearly and succinctly, and learn complex ideas with a degree of facility. I'm convinced that I've been able to learn the complex software programs I have by reading the manuals because I was an English major, and that taught me how to pick out the salient facts in the worst and most convoluted pieces of prose. I've edited and/or written legalese, advertisements, marketing brochures, history, sociology, biology, engineering, and environmental science prose. My science writing friend Jen, also an English major, now writes elegantly and cogently about one of the most complex and difficult hard sciences, physics, having never had a physics class. Her next book is about learning calculus.

But I digress. Neither Jen nor I would have gotten the educations we did if our schooling hadn't been affordable. One of the (many) reasons I dropped out of the Ph.D. program at NYU was because I realized I was going to be $20,000 in debt by the time I was through, with no guarantee of any kind of job, let alone one what would allow me to recoup my losses in a reasonable amount of time. The cost now is putting even bachelor's degrees out of reach of more and more students, including middle class students, who will come out of their education saddled with crushing debt from student loans, even from state schools. As Judith Warner points out in a recent column, the difficulty of paying for an education is making students less charitable, less empathetic, and more competitive, but not in a good way. And when they get one, it's not what it should be. Business should do its job of funding research and let educational institutions prepare the next generation of researchers.

Source: leekottner.typepad.com

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