Bright College Days

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the marketing tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire used on the sit-com “Modern Family” last season to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of mindless partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, mindless pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are by-and-large miseducated, spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better and more successful human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working, at least for those kids whose parents can afford it. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my teaching days, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. Except for the honors students, I don’t think I ever heard the students generally talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful any more that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, of course, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow — like selling them toothpaste. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist and the colleges will not only promise them fun but do their level best to turn the colleges themselves into country clubs. They might change slightly, but they will lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that so many of America’s colleges that promise their students a “liberal education,” even the most “prestigious” of those colleges, have lost their way and have forgotten their fundamental purpose, which is to free young minds. As a recent book published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out, of the twenty-five most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States — as identified by that oracle of  Truth, U.S. News and World Reports — twenty are “falling short” of their express purpose. They all have a weak general education program (which is where the liberal arts are housed these days, if they can be found anywhere), at a time when students come out of high school with little or no real preparation for college work. They need those core courses now more than ever before. Of the seven core subjects that the ACTA has identified as central to any meaningful education “twenty [ of the prestigious] schools required three or fewer. . . five required none at all.” The irony is that the colleges make the assumption that the students no longer need these basic subjects at a time when the students’ needs couldn’t be any greater. The truth of the matter is, as noted above, the colleges seek to attract and retain students and tough subjects only get in the way.

At the same time the presidents of these small colleges, some with enrolments as low as 2000, are making close to half a million dollars in annual salaries, with houses and cars thrown in for good measure. And they have gathered around themselves a coterie of highly priced, like-minded administrators and “support personnel” whose goal is to make sure the institution operates in the black, no matter what the cost to the students in dollars and real achievement. As a result, tuition rates are out of control and in order to keep students in school the quality of what they are paying for is on the decline.

The good news is that the A.C.T.A. is slowly but surely putting pressure on the colleges and universities around the country to get their act in gear by going public with the embarrassing data their research continues to turn up. They understand fully the difference between what the students want and what they need, and they also realize that only by bringing the cost of tuition down (by, among other things, lowering the high salaries of overpaid administrators) can the colleges hope to make education more affordable for more students, thereby taking some of the pressure off the faculties to further dumb down the curriculum in order to attract and retain students. These are good things, to be sure, and it does offer a glimmer of hope. In the meantime, parents of college-bound students would be well advised to check the A.C.T.A. website to see whether the college their children might be considering is worth the thousands of dollars it is sure to cost.

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5 thoughts on “Bright College Days

  1. Thanks, Hugh! As you mention the 1950s and 1960s, I think about a speech George McGovern gave at SMSU in the mid-2000s, calling for a restoration of the GI BIll. Along with some of the reasons you mention here, the GI BIll was hugely responsible for the growth in college enrollment after World War II and Korea. (My dad used the GI Bill to pay for his degree). No doubt, universities have to go back to teaching a more thorough liberal arts education. The country, as well as students, will benefit from that. But the country also will benefit economically if there was something like the GI Bill.

    Kids are coming out now saddled with $60,000 to $100,000 in debt just for a four-year degree. (One of my son’s closest friends finished with something like $94,000 in debt, hoping for a career in a bigger city. Landed back in their hometown.) That’s a house worth of debt, and it can be crippling for a demographic group that in previous generations was one of the nation’s biggest economic drivers.

    So, lots of reform is needed, and, yep, getting rid of those god-awful things on Saturdays would be another place to start.

  2. Hugh, very interesting post. Thanks for sharing. As you know, I am currently touring with my daughter colleges that interest her. She wants to stay in North Carolina and we are blessed with a number of private colleges and a good state university system. I was very impressed at UNC Asheville, which is a small, liberal arts state university. My daughter had several conversations with professors on her major and minor interests and we listened to two professors in breakout sessions. Each one walked the talk of where do you see yourself with this major and what do you want it to accomplish for you. I was very impressed how they asked good questions and offered good counsel to my daughter and responded to my questions as well.

    Whether she chooses to go here or not (it is in her top three), I was impressed by what they asked and how they embraced education. This is how it should be. Now, with that said, not every college embraces that mission with equal fervor. I have been to big and small campuses with all of my children and have been a consultant to some colleges over the years. What I want them to tell me and my children – How can help them grow as an informed citizen, plus in a specific area of study or studies? How do you stay fresh in this changing world, especially in a discipline that is changing constantly? How do you help the kids collaborate with others? How do you provide intern opportunities with your former students? And, if they have trouble, how can you help them?

    I have been fortunate that my children are not prone to consider a school for its social scene or football games. Not ironically, all three of my kids are interested in schools or went to schools that don’t have football programs. But, as you and Dana point out, it has to be about growing into adult with some educational discipline as it costs so much money. There are number of schools that will not exist in the next few years. I can name a few top of mind that will be bought by a for-profit or close their doors. They overbuilt for the children of baby boomers and are saddled with debt. They have added too many Administrative VPs rather than professors. They have had very high benefit costs and need to curtail them.

    Sorry to wax on, but your post is so timely. Great work, professor. BTG

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