Thursday, September 9, 2010

Education is the only place where students try so hard not to get what they pay for.

It's a bit long for a title, but Teddi Fishman nailed it with that comment during her recent presentation to our faculty.  Though her topic was academic integrity, she broadened the discourse (as any English professor would, by the way) to inquire whether "cheating" is the problem or a symptom.  And somewhere in the time she spent with us, she made the comment in the subject line.

I've seen steaks returned to kitchens, products returned to stores, service bills disputed, and a host of other examples that demonstrate the expectation of getting what we ordered, purchased, or otherwise paid to receive.  We don't even have to think about the concept of receiving full value for payment.  So, why would it be any different in education?

Once I started thinking about spending thousands of dollars for an education, then thwarting the process at every turn (which, of course, makes no sense...Teddi's point), I realized that we may not all be talking about the same students.  I want to teach students who want to learn.  And some of them do.  But what about the students who are getting exactly what they paid for--a degree?

Somewhere, we--educators, parents, legislators, business leaders, and administrators--have treated education and a college degree as fungible.  It's another variation of means versus ends and it's creating all sorts of unhealthy behavior.  And misinformed decisions. 

Part of our discussion of academic integrity touched on the reality of cheating.  Implicit in the behavior of many students is "Degree now; integrity later."  It becomes a far more interesting discussion when you remind students that the people who may hire them, recommend them, or be their coworkers are the same students with whom they are in classes...the ones watching the cheating.  I'm not sure most students believe that professional communities are virtual small ponds, shrinking daily with technology.  And while fellow students may have limited recourse now, that tends to change dramatically when the classroom becomes the workplace or the community.

If students are paying for education, the alarming declines in academic integrity (increased cheating, plagiarism, free riding) make little sense.  If students are paying for degrees, those same behaviors make much more sense.   But the more difficult question to face is who created the degree-for-pay market...and why.


  1. You ask a difficult question. And I have one for you.

    If students aren't paying for their education or degrees but instead receiving one or the other or both on someone else's dime (Mom and Dad's, the government's, U of A's), what impact does being obligated to persons or entities who only want to see an end result as evidence of money well spent have on the college experience? If students are essentially being paid to get the degree without consideration and measure of how they do so, how do we teach them to see beyond the end result?

  2. For the record, I think you ask harder questions.

    There are several questions deftly embedded when talking about second-party payment (for lack of a better term) and education. One is whether students should receive an all-expenses-paid college experience. If we decide that there are compelling reasons (and I can think of some), then how do we ensure that responsibility for the learning remains with the student?

    But before we can talk about any of those, I think, we have to look at some much more politically sensitive issues, including the assumption that every student citizen should get a college degree. And the implicit assumption that it should be the same college degree. Throwing more degrees at many of our problems (cyber terrorism, fiscal accountability) is one approach; finding the best and brightest to address those problems (which may--or may not--include a college eduction) is another.

    Some of the brightest people I know did not finish college (or took the multi-year-squared approach) because they weren't learning anything. So, who are we educating? And are our smartest people the ones with the degrees?

    Complex problems tend to require complex solutions and the problems in our educational system are complex. The temptation is to give in or give up, which I'm trying very hard not to do...the stakes are too high.

  3. I don't think brilliant people need degrees.

    It's only average people, like me, who need degrees. People who can't create anything with their hands, people that don't have the gift to sit down and write a novel, people that aren't technically or artistically inclined to build or paint.

    I need a degree because I know I'm smart enough to be taught something, but if I were brilliant I would not waste my time getting a degree (this is the people that get bored/distracted and drop out).

    I'm at the very middle of a normally distributed bell curve. Those to my right don't need degrees because they are already smarter or more talented than I, with or without a degree, will ever be. Those to my left don't need degrees because, unlike me, they don't want to be taught but want to learn (on the job, through apprenticeships, through backpacking in Europe, through trial and error).

    It's very expensive to be mediocre in this country.

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  5. It's a bit long for a comment....

    Not every person regardless of their brilliance has the interest, aptitude, and academic preparation for college let alone the tenacity and desire to move beyond academia with their degree into the workforce. I am an example. By some estimates, 1/3 of those admitted to college drop out freshman year. Of those who go to community college, less than 15% go on to 4 year colleges. Some 60% of college graduates find employment in their field of study; for technical degrees like accounting, that falls to 50%. Those numbers don't reflect our current economy. And yes, there are some socioeconomic correlations worthy of a meandering diatribe on a porch someplace.

    Our communities continue to indicate that there is a need to prepare students in high school for a career providing them with concrete transferable skills including simply how to work. The majority of jobs being created in this country are not "professional" but service and technical, neither of which necessarily require a 4 year degree. Are we as a society doing our young people a disservice by not providing or at least allowing them to weigh alternative means of education? It points to our egocentric short sightedness that we focus so narrowly on a 4 year college education for our kids, even though evidence points out that graduates of vocational tech programs have higher placement rates and tend to make more money over their lifetimes, (and have less debt starting off), especially those who have work experience in high school, than those who go into and finish a four year college degree. Are we sending our kids to college for us or for them?

    It seems that our attempt to provide everyone with equal opportunity for equal education has also created something of a commodity, an education. And in the process we have diminished the opportunity to differentiate equally valuable avenues to an education for equally brilliant individuals who simply may need a different kind of credential/degree at the end of it and want to make different and informed choices for their lives.

    For all of the statistics involved in normal distributions, none of us falls there unless we are tested to and for a particular outcome. Each of us is brilliant; it is merely a matter of when and how we get do demonstrate it. Education in whatever form can and should aid in our discovery of what we know and of what we don't, both components of brilliance. We often seem to confuse learned folk for smart folk, information for knowledge, being knowledgeable for being intelligent. It is a fallacy of composition, of language. "It is expensive to be mediocre in this country," It is even more costly to assume that you or anyone else is and especially to gear our educational system to that middle ground.

    The best questions have far more embedded in them than that that is readily apparent. The same is true of people, including student citizens.

  6. Yana, I love the way you express yourself. The only thing to which I have to take exception is that you are in the middle of any academic bell curve. You are one of the most "teachable" people I know; that alone makes you pretty exceptional.

    To the last comment, all I can say is: Amen and having those discussions at home. It's a bit hypocritical to assume my own child should go to college. Even being willing to have the discussion is hard, though, as it forces me to re-examine a number of social messages...and flies in the face of many.


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