Just in time for the upcoming school year, a new book has hit the stores that launches a fierce attack against today’s college education in America. As a father of one recent college grad plus another daughter just beginning her sophomore year, The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child, by Craig Brandon (ISBN #ISBN-13: 978-1935251804) caught my eye.
Brandon is a former education reporter and college writing instructor. What’s his main beef? That college administrators have taken advantage of government loan largesse and other programs to create a campus environment that’s hardly conducive to the disciplined intellectual labor of learning. The way Brandon sees it, college administrators are more interested in students’ pocketbooks than their intellects.
Brandon trains most of his firepower on liberal arts colleges, many of which he characterizes as “education-free zones” where quaint traditional notions of learning – like attending classes and doing assigned homework – have gone by the boards. He cites statistics that only ~30% of students enrolled in liberal arts institutions graduate in four years … and that fully 60% take six years or more to get their undergraduate degrees.
The book outlines the conditions that contribute to these sorry statistics. Extensive student loan and grant programs mean that few if any students ever pay the “book rate” tuition at a private college or university. This has made it easier for institutions to raise tuition rates far in excess of the inflation rate.
Brandon claims it has also led school administrators to tolerate – even abet – the extra years students spend on campus. After all, it’s more money for them to pay officials their lucrative salaries … not to mention bankrolling the country-club like student centers and new athletic facilities that seem to be on every college’s wish list.
And during that extended time on campus, it’s “party on!” Never mind the lower educational standards … it’s easier and far more lucrative for colleges to give students what they want, rather than what they need, to build meaningful careers afterwards.
And what about the instructors? They may well lament the decline in educational standards. But they’ve found out the hard way that to enforce rigorous educational standards in the classroom invites a flurry of negative reviews on student evaluation forms (that are easily accessible online) – reviews that are often linked to tenure and promotion decisions. It’s easier to go with the flow, provide reasonably entertaining lectures … and give out decent grades to all but the worst performers.
But what does this mean for those students who decide to work hard during their college years and to graduate on time? They may end up with a degree that’s devalued in the eyes of employers.
Moreover, the general decline in the value of a college degree affects even those schools that have tried hardest to maintain the traditional rigors of education that once characterized nearly all liberal arts schools – practices such as requiring students to take extensive coursework in subjects that go beyond their chosen field of study.
Colleges like Davidson in North Carolina, Hillsdale in Michigan and Rhodes in Tennessee may make studying and achieving top grades a huge challenge for their students … but their regional reputations mean that those degrees don’t carry much cachet beyond a 300-mile radius of the school.
Meanwhile, students who attend some of the nation’s better-known ivy league universities or “near ivy” institutions sail on through, cafeteria-style, taking only coursework that is easiest or of greatest interest to them.
Who’s the bigger chump then?
It’s a bit painful to read The Five-Year Party … and hard to finish it without feeling pretty depressed about the state of liberal arts education in America. Besides, does anyone know of a liberal arts school or university that has actually gotten a good handle on controlling its spending? I can’t think of one.
This book makes it easier to recognize the merits of America’s community colleges, which help kids start out their higher education in ways that allow them to explore different areas of interest without the distractions of the “party hearty” campus atmosphere – or breaking the family bank for that matter. Institutions like Chesapeake College in my home area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are doing yeomen work in this regard, and they deserve better recognition for it.