|The Madison Convention Center|
Would you send your kid to a university that looks like this? To be clear, you are looking at a picture of the convention center in Madison, WI.
Before you answer, I ask you to consider a few macroeconomic and social factors.
A colleague in the educational publishing field recently told me that “point-in-time” certification is “dead”. That’s the word he used – dead! Education and the certifications or degrees that go along with it will be a lifelong endeavor, he contends. Here’s an easy example.
How valuable is your four-year degree in computer science if you earned it in 1975? How about 1985? Or 1995?
A technical degree whether in computer science, medicine or metallurgy requires constant updating to be relevant in the modern workplace. So, what is the value of a four-year degree?
I have written about the near obsolescence of a four-year degree before. In “Don’t Send Your Kid to College”, I advocated that parents and matriculating students demand they get an education that provides them with the skills that are essential to today’s job market.
Of course, there is a broader perspective. My four-year degree in Naval Engineering was quite relevant when I served as Chief Engineer of a US Navy ship. Since then? Not so much.
Is your education relevant to your work?
Does it need to be?
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker placed this issue front and center a few weeks ago when he proposed a $300 Million cut to the budget of the University of Wisconsin system. Not satisfied to leave it at that, he also proposed (and later withdrew) a change to the 110 year-old mission statement, replacing a phrase about the “search for truth” with language requiring that the system meet the “state’s workforce needs”. The governor is something of a lightening rod. So, I would ask you to set your political views aside for the moment and consider…
The college experience is more than a job-training program. When I studied engineering, I was also required to take courses in political science, history and literature. In those days, the ideal was expressed as producing a “well-rounded individual”.
Following Gov. Walker’s pronouncements, Christine Evans, a history professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote passionately about the “Wisconsin Idea” in the New York Times. “As my students understand,” she wrote, “the humanities train critical thinkers and citizens. That may be inconvenient for politicians who see their constituents as merely a ‘work force,’ but it is definitely good for our democracy…”
In my private correspondence with Professor Evans, she expresses concern that “Faculty control of universities has also increasingly given way to [a] ‘CEO’ model for higher education that means VERY highly paid administrators make decisions without concern for universities' core missions or much of a sense of what we do or why.” She goes on to bemoan “our legislature now demands vast reams of new paperwork so they can be sure we are ‘accountable.’”
These criticisms ring true to me. CEO’s drive revenue. Their training is well suited to improve the bottom line but not necessarily the best educational outcomes. And, I can’t see how the legislature adds any value by requiring more red tape.
In a larger context, however, I wonder how we as a society can sustain the system. Universities raise large endowments to build gyms, libraries and dormitories, the better to attract new students. And so the cost of a college education has increased by nearly 500% since 1985. And, we all know what student loan debt is doing to young graduates.
Meanwhile, kids who go away to college can attend courses online from their dorm rooms, all of the books in those expensive libraries are available online and 70% of classes are taught by adjunct professors, most of whom earn less than $50K per year. In other words, we are paying to maintain overhead -- facilities and faculty -- designed for a bygone era. Why not use a smaller platform like a convention center where students attend classes online and take turns being on campus for one or two weeks per semester?
There’s more to the college experience than classes, libraries and professors, of course. Many in my generation wax poetic when talking about their college years – the lasting relationships, the broadening of their perspectives, the chance to break away from Mom and Dad.
So, I’ll ask my opening question again, only slightly differently. Do we, as a society, need to maintain a system that is now so expensive that fewer middle class families can afford it? Or, can we gain the same advantage by replacing the high overhead infrastructure of our universities with a new model?
WHO WILL LEAD?