Monday, May 14, 2012

Is College Hard?

College used to be a ticket to a middle-class or upper-class lifestyle.   Today this is no longer the case.  Why?

I talked before about Sea Changes, and how that most people perceive superficial things like Twitter and Facebook to be Sea Changes, when in fact they are just window-dressing.   More profound changes take place in our society on a daily basis, and people fail to notice them, until decades later.

College is one of those Sea Changes, and many kids today are graduating, based on advice that was relevant in 1962, not in 2012.   And they are shocked to discover that there are no jobs for people with B.A. degrees in Art, Sociology, Anthropology, Religion, or other basically bullshit degrees.

And yet, their elders told them that a College Degree was the key to the city - the magic key that would unlock doors to the Board room and the executive washroom.   Were they lying?

Well, no.  They were just giving outdated advice.

From the early days of our republic, until about 30 years ago, a college degree was fairly hard to get.  Not only was it expensive, but only certain people were allowed in - people with money,  people from the right backgrounds - white people, mostly men.

College was about education, but it was also a filtering agent, to make sure that only people from the "right" backgrounds were admitted to those high-paying jobs later in life.   And what you studied, often made little difference.

The very wealthy went to college as a means of making social connections, parking themselves for a few years while they waited to inherit, and time well spent looking for a spouse from the same social strata as themselves.

And of course, you could make connections, through exclusive fraternities, that later in life, would help you get jobs, land contracts, get promotions, make advancements, get in on investment opportunities, and basically get really rich.

That was what college was all about - connections.

By the 1950's, you could expect to go to college, graduate in "whatever" and get a job in the mail room at some big company and "work your way up to the top!" as was parodied in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

So, advice from that era made sense.   If you could get into college and graduate, well, your future was bright, even if you studied English Literature.   You could get a "good job" by the very dint that you were a "college graduate" - which was a fairly rare thing.   The fact that you went to college meant that you were smarter than the average worker - and came from the right background.

In the 1960's, this started to change.   Barriers to college entry started to fall - which was a good thing - and suddenly, everyone could go to college if they wanted to.  The government got into the act with Pell grants, student loans, and other incentives, and more and more people started to go to college.  And of course, tuition costs started to rise - as more people wanted to go, and they had more money to spend.  Demand was up, so prices rose.

About that time, academic standards started to slip.  In addition to questioning the past wisdom of restricting college to rich white boys, people started to question the curriculum as well.  The "Old Dead White Men" authors of yesteryear were tossed out in favor of new voices.  Perhaps this was a good thing, but it meant that education changed - dramatically.

And what an education was, started to morph into Political Correctness.    You could now major in (and still can major in) things like "African-American Studies" and something called "Queer Studies" - although how either could be useful other than from an academic standpoint is questionable.

Academia became more and more isolated from mainstream society, and what made sense on campus, increasingly was being viewed as ridiculous in the real world.

Compounding this problem was the failure of our secondary schools to teach even reading and writing.  High School graduation rates have generally increased since the turn of the Century (1900, not 2000) and many schools are pressured to push kids through, even if they are failing.   As a result, colleges now have to teach kids to read and write, and how to do basic math.   Learning these skills at age 18 is very difficult, as the mind is already starting to "set" with age.

So college becomes the new high school.   And we have new, dumbed-down courses for this new generation of college kids.   More and more courses are "pass-fail" or graded on a curve, so that there is no absolute standard of passing.   You need only do as well as your peers, and if they are as dumb as stone, you pass, too - or even make the Dean's list.  And this has been going on for a long time, too.

In the 1980's, my brother attended Syracuse University, and for $10,000 a year of my Dad's money, he took courses called "Drugs in Perspective" or "World War I and World War II in Films" - both of which were "gut" courses that required little or no effort to pass.  Not surprisingly, his diploma in "Communications" did not do much for him.  Today, he would be an OWS protester.  Back then, he tried selling vacuum-cleaners, door-to-door.

The trend has accelerated since then.  Today, that degree would cost closer to $40,000 a year - and be just as worthless.  College tuition has skyrocketed - and yet students never protest these costs.  Rather, they borrow money to pay for school and then protest the banks that loaned them the money.   To me, this is Prima Facie evidence that our colleges are not teaching squat.  If you can't figure out "where the money went" then you are pretty dumb.  And here's the answer, for all those clueless "college grads":  It went to the bursar's office, not the bank.   Yes, you have to pay back the bank, but they don't have your money, your college does.

Like, duh.

Fewer and fewer native-born Americans are taking courses in Engineering, Law, Nursing, Chemistry, Medicine, or anything that smacks of being "hard to do".   Exxon-Mobil is running a set of ads about how we should encourage people to get into Chemistry - because they can't find any qualified candidates to run their cracking towers.   And if they went to dumb-down U., chances are, they don't even know what a cracking tower is, or how it works.   And yet they bitch about the price of gas.

Foreign students are filling the seats in Chemistry, Biology, Electromagnetics, Thermodynamics, Statics and Dynamics - and getting the jobs these lead to, after graduation.

American-born kids change majors after failing their first test - after having been out partying all night.  "I just don't have the aptitude for it," on moans, still hungover from the frat party.  High School was all about socializing and being with the "right crowd" - college should be the same way, right?  They are mystified why it isn't working out as planned.

But even a degree in a technical field - or any field that leads to a profession, job, or whatever (e.g., Psychology, Accounting) - doesn't guarantee a job at the end of the pipeline.  Without real experience, it is very hard to get that first job.

College teaches you how to think not what you need to know.   In Engineering school, we were told that we would be taught "How to Think Like an Engineer".  Similarly, in Law School, they taught us how to "Think Like a Lawyer."  In both cases, learning the mindset of solving problems - Engineering or Legal - was the key, not memorizing formulas or case law.

And yet many people dismiss a professional education on the grounds that it is just fact-memorizing.   Nothing could be further from the truth.   Rather, these "gut course" majors are more of that sort of thing - memorizing stuff, and the professor's personal opinions, to get an "A".

Today, you need experience as well as an education to get a job out of school.   And with the cost of college being so high, a job is really important.   Well, let's face it, unless you have inherited wealth, you need that job to make money to live on, fund your retirement, retire your student loans, and basically live a little.

And yet, people today still blather on about "education for education's sake" to make people "more well-rounded citizens."    A nice theory, but our well-rounded citizens can expect to spend the next 45 years working for a living.   It is part and parcel of life.

The old-school philosophies may have been relevant in Harvard Yard in 1900, or at Oxford, where young men from wealthy families could dally away four years learning Greek.   But today, education has to be a little more focused.

But alas, most graduates receive their diplomas and still cannot balance their checkbooks.  They have no concept of the seriousness of student loan debt.   They haven't a clue how to apply for and get a job.  And of course, it has to be someone else's fault - after all, they got straight-A's in philosophy, right?

So what is the answer to all of this?  Do we storm Wall Street and ask for our student loan money back?  Do we reform student loans and make them easier to duck out of?  If so, who pays for that?  Or do we occupy the Dean's office and demand he cut his multi-million dollar salary and cut tuition for students?    Do we overhaul the curriculum at colleges to teach things that are more relevant?  Or do we provide more internships and Co-Op programs to allow students to get real-world experience?  Do we counsel more students to avoid college and learn a useful trade instead?

Those are all probably good ideas in whole or part - but they require a huge change in how our system works.  And huge changes like this are not going to happen overnight.   If you are 18 and graduating from high school, you can't wait for student loan reform.

You can make choices in your own life, however.  If life hands you shit, you make and sell shit sandwiches.   (and Republicans will buy them - they bought Sarah Palin!).    And if you think about it, life in this country really isn't all that unfair, harsh, or even moderately difficult, compared to say, Somalia.  In fact, it is easy.

You can choose to:

1.  Take the hard courses and not get discouraged just because you flunk a test - or the course.   I took thermodynamics three times.  I got an "A" the last time and made the Dean's list.  Giving up is your choice.

2.  Try to get experience in the real world while still in school - internships, co-op programs, whatever.  If you are studying civil engineering, spending your summer running a steamroller on a road project isn't a bad idea.   Yes, such jobs are hard to find.  But you have to not give up just because the five places you applied to, turned you down (or the mass-mailed generic letter didn't do the trick).

3.  Work your way through school and cut costs.   Live at home.   Go to a cheaper school.  Go to a two-year school and then transfer to a four-year one.   Have a plan, work it.

4.  Consider not going to college, but learn a trade, instead.  If you really can't handle Calculus, then learn to weld or something.   There are jobs galore for skilled trades.  And there is nothing shameful about being employed.
5. Stop smoking pot, using drugs and drinking to excess:  Yes, college is a heck of a party.  And as a college dropout, I can say that with authority.   A lot of kids do a lot of drugs in college - and they are still smoking pot down at the OWS encampment, wondering why no one will hire them.  Two words:  Drug Test.  And yes, it is graded Pass/Fail.
But alas, your typical 20-something is more interested in getting beer, getting laid, and getting a fart-muffler for his Mom's old Honda, than in getting a real education.   They still believe that life is just like high school, and have yet to grow up.   In fact, why grow up at all?  Just go down to Wall Street, pitch a tent, smoke pot, and call Mom and Dad and ask them to put money in your bank account so you can to to the ATM at the bank you are protesting in front of.

These are choices not inevitable outcomes.   And it is hard to feel sorry for people who make poor choices in life.   If we bail them out, with government money, or parental money, they learn only that poor choices have little or no consequences in life.   And that is not a very good education to give a young person.