Bookbyte Blog

Posts tagged ‘liberal arts’

Are Easier Graduation Requirements Dumbing Down College?

iStock_000005373213XSmallA recent article by the independent education journal The Hechinger Report discussed the troubling trend of cutting back on credits and removing core requirements by many major universities. Sometimes it’s because students graduating from those programs are “low-productive.” Sometimes it’s because politicians want to cut back on the tax dollars going to public universities. Sometimes it’s because university administrations want better graduation rates.

The trend has naturally led to some harsh words from the academics whose programs are threatened. Boston College’s Karen Arnold calls colleges of the near future “Walmarts of higher education.” Western Connecticut State University’s Steven Ward calls it “McDonaldization.” Same idea.

The main conceit of the article is that colleges and universities are trying to look for short-term fixes to increase graduation rates by decreasing the quality of education. While that’s definitely a problem, I’d argue that the real problem is with the motivation (increasing graduation rates) not with the means (removing core requirements, speeding up time until graduation, and allowing more classes to be taken online).

Maybe the problem isn’t the administrations trying to make their institution look good. Maybe it’s a deeper problem with the world having an increasingly non-sustainable idea of what college should be like. Not everybody can afford to commit four full-time years to being a student. Not everybody needs to study physics or history or art after the age of 18. Higher education isn’t, and shouldn’t be, standardized the same as K-12.

People absolutely should pursue some form of higher education, but we as a society need to accept the fact that this will (and should) look different for different people. That won’t always include a bachelor’s degree, or in some cases, any kind of degree. As we’ve pointed out on this blog before, it’s better to drop out than to never try. Maybe graduation rates just aren’t a very good indicator of the overall quality of education.

STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too

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It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

Should Some Majors Cost Less Than Others?

"Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."

Unfortunately, as we’ve mentioned here before, this isn’t exactly true.

A report thrown together by a Florida task force on education has proposed that more in-demand and higher paid majors (science, engineering, math, and tech) should pay less for tuition than the less in-demand majors (art, history, English, etc.).

You can read the whole proposal here, and marvel at the delightfully cheesy stock photography included for no reason.

Now before anyone in the comments turns this into a science vs. humanities spitting contest, please remember that we are not anti-science. Far from it. We’re not anti-anything, other than really bad ideas. And this is one of those really bad ideas.

Now, loyal readers will remember that I’ve used this blog to object to the misguided good intentions of a Florida educational task force once before. This post is going to read a bit like that one again. Once again, the state has a problem, in this case, not enough people entering fields that really boost the state’s economy. Once again, a short-sighted solution doesn’t seem to take into account the way people actually think.

The proposal would institute a tuition freeze for the fields the Florida government decided are the most valuable. So while studio art degrees go up and up year after year, engineering degrees would stay where they are. “Most valuable” here means “will lead to jobs that make the most money.” This is valuable to the state, of course, because higher earners will pay more in taxes.

Now before you claim there’s some sort of anti-right brain bias, know that the task force chair suggested Florida State could theoretically lobby to freeze the tuition for creative writing and film as well, since there’s been some success getting people into the entertainment industry so far. So if your school has celebrity alumni, than congratulations, you can pay less for taking the same classes they did.

The proposal seems to operate on this assumption: if certain degrees are cheaper, more people will get those degrees. But this makes no sense. These degrees are for higher paying jobs. If a higher salary for life doesn’t convince someone to work in a certain field, why would paying slightly less for four years make any difference at all? (more…)

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