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An Open Letter to College Presidents

By Marty Nemko

(Chronicle of Higher Education, July 4, 2003)
Dear College Presidents:

I am a career counselor who works mainly with middle-class people in midlife. When I ask my clients about their education, I often hear complaints. They feel that their courses were useless --or at least not worth the investment. I suppose you could blame them for not having the ability or putting in the effort. But when so many of your former students dislike your offerings, only the most callous college president could take that view.

For example, a Cornell University graduate complained, "I know college is supposed to be for enlightenment, not just a career, but after graduating, I don't feel particularly enlightened, and I don't have a career." A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley said, "The main things I liked about college were playing intramural softball, the campus radio station, and the girls. ... At least I got a scholarship. I really would have felt ripped off if I had to pay for a lot of my classes. So many classes taught weird theories that only the professors cared about."

And, as you know, more than half the people enrolled in college don't graduate. Many students drop out with little to show for it after spending significant time, money, and emotion. Decades later, many of my clients still consider themselves to be losers because they didn't finish college. Others took 5, 6, and sometimes 10 years to complete a bachelor's degree only to find an oversupply of degree holders after they graduated. So they have been forced to sell plumbing supplies, drive airport shuttle vans, or perform various other jobs that clearly don't require a degree. Even sadder, many of those people went on to pursue graduate degrees and still have been unable to land jobs commensurate with their education. Now they have huge student loans to pay --and for an experience that consumed some of their most productive years. And most of them feel that the intrinsic benefits of a liberal-arts education don't begin to compensate.

In a 1995 study, the Stanford Institute of Higher Education and the RAND Corporation concluded that the number of doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering averages 25 percent above the number of appropriate employment opportunities. The study charged that colleges are oblivious to the job market. In The Jobless Future (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio projected that, over the long term, only 20 percent of all university graduates would find full-time, well-paying, challenging jobs for which they had been trained. And for the clients with whom I've worked --who number almost 2,000 --that prediction has certainly proved correct.

In fact, the situation is worse today because colleges and graduate schools are admitting even more students, while the poor economy has exacerbated the problem. That makes it all the more unconscionable that colleges continue to market heavily to boost enrollment. I wonder if you in higher education simply don't care, as long as your classroom seats are filled. As evidence, consider this: Despite studies documenting the oversupply of business graduates, more and more colleges are starting M.B.A. programs. Prestigious business schools like those at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania have opened up satellite or distance programs and taken out splashy newspaper ads to woo students. After all, those programs can be cash cows --such colleges charge over $100,000 for them.

Imagine if your physician prescribed a long, expensive treatment and failed to disclose that it probably would fail. What would you do? Right: You'd sue and win. Yet you college leaders routinely don't disclose the odds of your "treatment" working, and people not only don't sue, but they continue to support you richly with tax dollars and alumni donations.

You trumpet that degree holders earn more than those who don't graduate from college. True, but that doesn't mean colleges educate students well. Degree holders earn more in part because they're brighter and more motivated. You could lock them in a closet for four years, and they would earn more. In addition, degree holders earn more because employers screen out applicants without degrees. I've found, however, that job seekers can often compensate by adding just one paragraph like the following to their application letters:

"I believe I'm worth a look because I don't have an M.B.A. Having heard that most people use little of what they learned in graduate school, I decided to go outside the box and craft a more useful education." (Person inserts what he or she did to acquire relevant expertise: mentorships, workshops, reading, volunteer work.) "But now comes the moment of truth. I believe I valued substance over form, but will you interview (or promote) me?"

Wouldn't you consider that job applicant?

So, college presidents, if you truly care about your students and the education that your institution is offering, you should:

Admit only students with a reasonable chance of success. In the name of providing access, especially to students of color, colleges have pushed underprepared students down the primrose path. Too often they drop out, having invested far more and gained far less than they would have had they been in a career-focused vocational- or community-college program, or received on-the-job training. Review your graduation rates, disaggregated by high schools, GPA's, and SAT's, and, based on what you learn, don't admit students with a profile that suggests less than a 50 percent probability of graduation within five years.

Allow students to make informed decisions. If you insist on low admissions standards, at least publicize the percentage of freshmen with SAT scores in different ranges --under 900, 900 to 1,000, and so on --who graduate within four and five years. For each major, report the percentage of graduates who are professionally employed within a year of graduation. For each graduate program, describe the mean time to completion. It's obscene that the average student requires more than seven years to complete a Ph.D. It's even more obscene that they are routinely told the "expected time" of completion is usually four or five years.

Improve the quality of teaching at your institution. It is just plain wrong to hire a professor who's a bad teacher --no matter how good a researcher --and let him or her loose on tuition-paying students. You must value effective teaching more highly in hiring and promotion decisions. Also, you should require all faculty members to complete a boot camp in which master teachers train them to improve their teaching. If, after boot camp, they are still ineffective, do what you used to do before grade inflation: Flunk 'em. Deny them the right to teach until they pass. If those professors fail a second time --and you care about your students --you must take them out of the classroom, whether they have tenure or not.

Would we let a lawyer who didn't know basic laws keep arguing cases? Would we let an architect who didn't design safe structures continue to create buildings? Then why should we give a pass to professors who can't teach?

Liberalize your procedures for awarding transfer credit. Your college doesn't have a monopoly on good courses. You should accept credits from courses, whether traditional or distance learning, from accredited institutions. Also, don't disallow courses taken more than five years ago. Yes, in a fast-changing field such as molecular biology, you should require the student to pass an exam on the new material, but it's unfair to discredit the entire course.

Ensure high-quality advising. Students shouldn't find themselves, at the 11th hour, realizing that, to graduate, they need one more course that just happens not to be offered again until the following year. Why not spend less on administrators, landscaping, and sports facilities and use the money to hire more advisers instead?

Students shouldn't have to spend five, six, or more years to complete a bachelor's degree, especially in an era when a B.A. or B.S. far from guarantees middle-income employment. By only admitting qualified students, by offering more courses that are required for majors, and by accepting more transfer credits, you could deal with the problem without changing the number of units that students need to graduate.

When a small percentage of Firestone's tires were defective, the news media wouldn't relent in criticizing the company until it was brought to the brink of bankruptcy. Yet, every year, colleges turn out thousands of defective products --drop-outs and undereducated graduates --without consequence.

So far. Higher education must change greatly if it is to continue to avoid media scrutiny and, ultimately, public resistance. Only then will it rise from being one of America's most overrated products to the invaluable service it markets itself to be.


Marty Nemko

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