Friday, February 1, 2019

Into the Wild

She's Baaaaack!  Small liberal arts colleges are struggling today and many may go bankrupt.

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a blog entry opining that the next wave of bankruptcies might encompass some Colleges and Universities.  At the time, we were living near Aurora, New York - not the one near Buffalo - and a small College there - Wells College - was struggling.  Fewer and fewer students were willing to go to an all-girls institution to get a liberal arts degree, it seemed.

So far, the school has managed to stay in business.  One of the more famous alumni, Pleasant Rowland, who sold the "American Girl" line of dolls to Mattel for nearly a billion dollars, has donated large sums of money to keep the school afloat.  The school also went co-ed in order to attract more students - a decision that was met with some controversy.  As you may recall, Sweet Briar went through a similar problem, as their endowment stipulated that the school remain all-women.

Wells also partnered with nearby Cornell to allow students to take classes at that institution.  Small colleges are like small prep schools in that they can only offer limited numbers of courses and oftentimes this results in a more meager education or fewer educational opportunities for the students.

In a recent piece in the New York Times by Jon Krakauer, documents how the small and unorthodox Hampshire College in New England is facing bankruptcy - along with a number of other small liberal arts colleges.  Krakauer is famous for writing a book called "Into the Wild," which has  been somewhat controversial.

The book was supposed to be a nonfiction tome which described how a crazy guy went to Alaska totally unprepared for the wilderness and then marched off into the middle of nowhere, found an abandoned bus, lived in it, and then died from exposure and starvation - The End.  He left behind a journal with some quizzical entries in it, and from those few words, Mr Krakauer crafted an entire book.  It was later made into a trendy movie.  But many critics have accused Mr Krakauer of elaborately embroidering what little source material there was,  to make this crazy guy, who went out into the woods and died, seem like some sort of folk hero.

Hampshire college is one of these crazy new schools that was founded in the 1970s, with no classes, no grades, and no real courses. The students are expected to pick their own course of study and propose their own exams that they must pass in order to graduate.  I would have enjoyed that school as a young man, majoring in bong studies 101, with a minor in beer.

Mr. Krakauer, as his senior project, spent five weeks going to Alaska and attempting to climb Mount Denali. It sounds like my summer vacation, which was an interesting educational experience, although I didn't get a grade for it.

Such "alternative" educational institutions were very trendy back in the 70s, but in today's job market, it's not quite clear whether a degree from such a school would be worthwhile.  The article goes on to profile one student whose senior project was to build and live in a tiny house.  I'm not sure that living in a small trailer is really an educational opportunity, or that much could be gleaned from it.  Indeed, many people are doing this today, or living in park models, trailer homes or RVs and not getting college credit for doing this, because they're doing it out of necessity.

If I was a hiring manager, I'm not sure I would want to hire that person, unless I was in the business of making tiny homes or RVs or trailers of some sort.  But I imagine the person doing that as her senior thesis was probably looking for a more high-minded career than that.

As I noted in my earlier posting, the colleges and universities today are sort of like General Motors back in the 1970s.  GM started making more and more irrelevant products and then wondered why their customers were flocking to cheap, well-made Japanese Imports.  Toyota was selling Corollas and Coronas and Honda was producing the Civic and Accord.  Meanwhile General Motors brings out the Monte Carlo with padded landau roofs and opera windows, with an engine that sounded like a bucket of bolts when you stepped on the gas.  What's not to love?

It took years - decades - for people to figure out that those cars were overpriced and underbuilt.  And once they realized there were cheaper and more effective alternatives, they flocked to them.   There were other choices besides putting up with crap, or going bankrupt buying a Mercedes.   Economical Japanese imports were laughed at, initially.   Today, they dominate the market.   Could a similar thing happen to Colleges and Universities?   Yes, if they continue to sell overpriced and under-performing educations.

Conservatives love to harp on how schools are now teaching things like "sensitivity studies" or "queer studies" or "African-American studies" or whatnot - things which may be interesting in the abstract, but really not leading to any sort of useful education in the long run.  Moreover, the grading of these sorts of courses is somewhat ambiguous and it's not clear that students are really learning anything from these courses, other than what they could learn by reading the newspaper.

One such teacher is Melissa Click.  Remember her?  She was the one who, during the Ferguson protest, tried to expel a student journalist by asking for "more muscle" to physically eject him.  Every time I look at her picture, I am reminded why I am indeed a homosexual.   Ugh.

And yes, she's back in business and teaching young students all sorts of useful information.  And if you read her review on Rate My Professor it's rather scary.  Apparently everybody in the course receives a "B" no matter what they do - communism at it's finest.  And most of the course seems to comprise students sitting around listening to her opinions on the world.  Maybe she should just start a Blog.

It seems that our colleges and universities are turning more into institutes of indoctrination than education.  A lot of majors these days are little more than basic bullshit and teaching students about political theories and values.   And if you don't agree with the professor, you're likely to get a failing grade.

I think a lot of these touchy-feely courses offered at many of the liberal arts schools today are not really preparing young people for the real world.  As a result, when they graduate, they are shocked to discover that their sensitivities are not respected by their employers or indeed, any other people.  As I noted in another posting, degrees from such institutions could even be considered toxic.  Do you really want to take on a student from a far-left university who has a diploma in labor agitation?  You might as well take a viper to your breast.

Mr. Crackers Krakauer's article does bring up a number of good points.  Colleges and Universities in America are chasing a smaller and smaller pool of high school graduates.  And with the staggering cost of a college education today, more and more high school graduates are having to make informed decisions as student consumers as to which college education will give the most bang for the buck.  That's a tough decision for an 18-year-old to make - a potentially life-changing decision as well!   The fallout from $100,000 party degrees paid for by student loan debt is well-documented.

Granted, there will always be those students who want to go to the Party University and will look for the school that looks like it'll be the most fun.  But a host of other students don't have that kind of money to throw around, as evidenced by a proposal to allow homeless students to sleep in their cars at  one California school.  Not everyone is signing up for luxury student housing.

Like anything else, it's taken a decade or more for the chickens to come home to roost.  But I think my prediction of almost a decade ago was prescient.  A lot of these smaller schools really can't compete in this day and age, unless the number of college-age children increases dramatically.

Foreign students have always been a good source of warm butts to put in the lecture hall seats. However, most foreign students are very astute student-consumers, and want the most bang for their dollar.  They tend to pick more hard courses of study, and are not interested in touchy-feely majors. That, and recent restrictions on immigration and student visas would appear to dampen enthusiasm for American Colleges and Universities.

The real problems are yet to be realized, however.  I think with a coming recession and the eventual realization that a college education is worth an awful lot less these days may force a lot of the remaining few students to reconsider whether college is worthwhile at all.  Angry young millennials who majored in foolish studies and are paying back tens of thousands of dollars of student loans are setting an example for young high school students today.  Maybe 18-year-olds aren't the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, but some of them will eventually catch on to what's going down.  And they may decide that a vocational education is a more cost-effective use of their money then going to some party school for four years.

Or maybe something else entirely.   Like I said, college was the best 14 years of my life - working your way through college and experiencing life at the same time has its advantages.   And one of those advantages is, I learned a helluva lot more than some kid writing papers and studying for exams for four short years.

College needs to re-invent itself.  It needs to be more relevant to the world outside of campus.  It needs to be more affordable.  It needs to expose students to what a real working life will be like.  It needs to be more about academics and less about NCAA sports.  And it needs to be less about indoctrination to any political view - right or left.   In short, it needs to teach life.

And that is the ultimate irony of Mr. Krakauer's article.  Hampshire College was a re-invention of college when it was founded in 1970.   Yet it seems locked in a form of stasis, unable to reinvent itself again for a new Millennium.   And a host of other colleges and universities seemed caught into the same trap.

Sort of like Sears, I guess.....