Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The College Identity Crisis

Higher education -- Remember young man, your f...
Your first step in the REAL WORLD is 8 feet ahead (marsmet471)
by Sam Ross-Brown, UTNE Reader: http://www.utne.com

Going to college is getting complicated. With higher ed becoming both more essential and less of a guarantee of future success, many young people today face a kind of impossible choice.

At the same time, for many kids higher education has become an expectation, a social obligation, less an accomplishment than a prerequisite to something more difficult and less certain. It’s also becoming much less attainable.

It wasn’t always like this. For generations, college offered a romanticized leap into the middle class - practically a guarantee of future prosperity, or at least, a good chance of avoiding the job market’s worst pitfalls.

All through American history, it’s impossible to separate education from the idea of social mobility, and by extension, the possibility of equality. Access to higher education formed a big part of the early women’s rights movement, and later, antislavery and civil rights.

Federal aid to education was at the center of Washington’s desegregation effort under the Johnson and Nixon administrations. From a student’s perspective, higher education can instill self-direction and lifelong learning, and can teach us to discover new ideas in a collaborative, community-based way.

But more recently, when people talk about education in America, they mostly talk about crisis. And not just the student debt crisis that movements like Occupy recently propelled into the national consciousness.

And not just the crisis in higher education that’s impoverishing instructors and grad students and underfunding the liberal arts. The other crisis - the one that’s been at the center of our education policy for two administrations - is about competitiveness.

It’s this idea that has spurred the Gates Foundation to pump hundreds of millions into struggling schools. It’s also the subject of a popular and fascinating 2010 documentary (Waiting for “Superman) on why schools must address changes in the global economy.

We’ve all heard the argument. Students in Europe and Asia are outperforming Americans on standardized tests, especially in math and science. We have lower graduation rates than other countries (college and high school), and those that do graduate don’t study the right things.

On average, class sizes have gone down and education spending has gone up since the 1960s, and we’re still at the back of the rich country pack. And this is an information age, with an information-based global marketplace, and we’d better be ready to compete with the tech schools in China that are churning out millions of engineers a year.

The U.S. job market is still hurting, but the real growth areas will be in - you guessed it - math and science. We need more chemical engineers now than novelists. More computer technicians than historians.

Beyond the anti-union rhetoric and reductive view of social inequality that usually comes out of a discussion like this, it’s a really interesting argument. After World War II, higher education was available to more people than ever before through programs like the GI bill. That availability reshaped the American economy, supporting a large middle class and low inequality.

But today, the prevailing wisdom is that schools must “provide an education that is relevant to the needs of business,” in the words of Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation has become a major player in the ongoing debate.

So rather than take an active role in creating the society of the future, schools should instead react to whatever incentives and deterrents already exist in the global marketplace. Moreover, they should tailor the student experience to the future requirements of private enterprise.

“Computer science employment is growing by nearly 100,000 jobs annually,” Gates wrote in 2007. “But at the same time studies show that there is a dramatic decline in the number of students graduating with computer science degrees.” The key to our America’s future prosperity, Gates says, is to correct this imbalance.

To read further, go to: http://www.utne.com/politics/college-identity-crisis.aspx?newsletter=1&utm_content=06.18.12+Politics&utm_campaign=2012+ENEWS&utm_source=iPost&utm_medium=email
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