Colleges scam the working class



I maintain that much of higher education today is a scam, fleecing the young in particular, but affecting all who have been raised from early childhood to believe that college is the only path to achieve a life of riches and respectability.

An article advances the case that colleges are particularly scamming the working class, and while it makes many valid points, I don’t buy that the points made necessarily only apply to victims in the working class.

In their new book, “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality,” professors Elizabeth Armstrong (U. Michigan) and Laura Hamilton (UC-Merced) present depressing results from a five-year study that tracked the women from one freshman dorm at a Midwestern flagship university: Not a single one of the working-class women they’d monitored had managed to graduate. –emphasis added.

While this does seem to target the “working class,” that’s a pretty broad group. Graduation rates in general at many institutions are abysmal. When a school has a 0.6% graduation rate, there will be plenty of sub-groups of students that have no graduates. The article, unfortunately, doesn’t do a thorough job of asking why graduation rates are so low. It at least makes a start:

Part of it is that colleges are regularly admitting students who aren’t ready for college-level work. In 2012, for instance, of the 250,000 who took the ACT (the main alternative to the SAT), only 52 percent scored as college-ready in reading, only a quarter as ready in reading, English, math and science. Yet many started school anyway.

Again, the article neglects to ask “why are these people allowed to get into schools?” 75% of incoming college students documented as “should not be in college” really begs the question of “what are they doing in college?” If 75% of players on your 100-player basketball team are short and obese, you should look to see how they got on the team and why the team has so many members, right?

Again, this isn’t a working class issue, it’s an issue affecting everyone paying for college. Since most college payment comes through tax dollars, that’s basically everyone.

College administrators are paid, not by education, not by graduates, but by putting butts in seats: they wish to achieve growth, and growth alone. This is why schools with 0.6% graduation rates are rewarded for growth, at the risk of repeating myself.

With growth the only measure of success, it’s no surprise that people who clearly are not interested in education are allowed to flood onto campus. Yes, it hurts the working class, but that’s just collateral damage.

The one working-class girl who did graduate in the Armstrong-Hamilton study was a young women who was put into a special program where she received “comprehensive advising.” The authors explained, “That’s crucial. Advising matters.”

More affluent students have parents who can help them figure out how to get through college — what courses to take, and when; how to manage time, get help or mercy from professors, etc. They can also use connections to get the kids jobs regardless of academic performance.

Two issues here, I’ll cover the last one first, quickly. Yes, the wealthy are more able to get jobs for the children; I just don’t see how higher education is responsible for this.

The advising issue, on the other hand, is critical. It used to be, and in some schools it still is, impossible to simply register for whatever classes you want. In schools with legitimate registration, students had to go to advisors, often faculty, that would see to it that the students registered for legitimate coursework, coursework that progressed the student towards the student goals (and, naturally, the faculty made certain the student had a goal!). A student literally could not register for classes without a faculty signature asserting that the schedule had been approved as progressing a student towards graduation.

The problem with this sort of advising was faculty would honestly tell students that they needed to either leave college or start taking serious courses, and wouldn’t approve schedules filled with bogus coursework that kept students on campus accomplishing nothing but deeper debts.

Administration, with the only goal of “butts in seats” has eliminated advising, especially mandatory advising, at many schools. Thus, many students have no chance of graduation in four years, due to mistakes they made their very first semester on campus.

Students today can choose courses on prostitutes or “queer gardens”; on brain science or ancient democracies. But how is a freshman supposed to figure out whether it’s better to take the class on women in the European Union or the one on the Korean War…

Administrators have approved a wide array of bogus courses for students to sign up for. These courses are great about putting butts in seats, but do nothing for the student.

Now, yes, students from wealthy families, families that know higher education isn’t about just signing up for a bare minimum of hours in courses that sound fun, do have an advantage…but administration still does what it can to trick the children of the wealthy as well as the working class.

The article then misses a mark:

It’s “a catastrophe,” says Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution. “On the one hand, colleges have abandoned any actual structure,” so kids need help figuring out how to put together a serious plan for graduating. “But the faculty aren’t there. They’re off studying ‘queer gardens…’”

Yes, the structure of higher education has faded quite a bit. It’s still possible for a student to follow a rigorous course of study, even in many bogus schools that flood the higher education landscape. The problem is, the student is left to his own devices in this regard.

I know I’ll be accused of conflict of interest when I say it, but I’ll say it all the same: don’t blame the faculty for this.

In times past, faculty were invested in the institutions of higher education; they were actual employees of the institution, and devoted their lives to it. In return, they had a steady job that paid enough to raise a family, and they held respected positions. Those days are long over.

Today, more than 75% of faculty are not tenure track, more than half are contingent, adjunct faculty, paid less than minimum wage. These faculty have teaching loads triple (or more) of the faculty of years ago, and have to teach on several campuses just to barely get by. They have no choice but to adhere to administrative butts-in-seats policies that do nothing for education.

When most of the coursework is presented by disposable faculty that care as much for the institution as the institution cares for them (i.e., nothing), how is that coursework supposed to be coherent, to lead to a real education? Instead, most students get a mishmash of topics thrown at them, with no more depth than a newspaper. With no guidance, a student emerges after 4 years of this with, at best, enough courses to add up to a “General Studies” degree (almost no job market value), and no chance of any focused coursework leading to any real world marketable skills.

But faculty, the people that might actually care about education, have been evicted from campus. All that’s left are administrators, whose only goal is putting butts in seats.

The article finishes off with another miss:

For all the lip service our colleges pay to giving the less-advantaged a leg up, the mission these schools seem more focused on is just raking the money in.

Yes, the schools are raking the money in. But the schools are also perpetually cash strapped. So…what, or more accurately, who, is raking the money out? The gentle reader is encouraged to review the pay of college administrators of just a few years ago, and note how many them make great 6 figure salaries, salaries that I suspect many of my readers would find quite enviable. Then the reader can make an informed guess as to where the money being raked in by higher education is going.

As an added bonus, while administration has no trouble adding courses on silly topics of no market or educational value, I’ve yet to see courses on “How to be a college administrator” offered on campus, rather striking considering just how many highly paid administrative positions are available. Hmm, wonder why that is…