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John Wayne's Holster: Diplomas For Sale
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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Diplomas For Sale

The American system of higher education is on a rapid decline. The ongoing fall from grace is as tragic as it is unnecessary. Once the standard by which other international universities were measured by, it is now becoming the example of inadequacy and institutional underachievement. Only our superior financial and infrastructural resources are helping to inflate our academic values, but that is changing as well.

How did this descent occur? What is holding our higher education system back – preventing it from taking up residence on its once lofty perch? In a nutshell, the system is eroding from the inside out. It is imploding. The foundation upon which our education system was founded has been slowly and methodically chipped away by a relaxation of standards and a wholesale sell-out to market forces.

The intended purpose of the university system is not to fill one’s mind with facts to be regurgitated on command. Rather, it is to teach one how to think, as well as how to learn. In addition, an education should contribute to the development of both intellectual and moral excellence.

One need not look far to see that the modern university education leaves much to be desired. Although individual professors teaching at one school or another may hold high educational standards for their students, they are few and far between. Most university employees sent forth as professors are merely masquerading as such.

Ostensibly, a professor’s primary purpose of is to educate his or her students. This is written into the mission statements of the universities, and its part of the propaganda one hears from the university ambassador’s during college visits. However, one only needs to look at how the universities actually operate to see that it’s all just a hollow sales pitch. The “education” that a student actually receives is an over-hyped and diluted facsimile.

A major reason for the watering-down of education is the tenure system. To a wanna-be-professor, tenure is the goal – it means job security! To be granted tenure, a junior faculty member typically is put through a three tier review process whereby he/she is judged on their performance, over a period of five or so years, in three main areas: teaching, research and service. First, a candidate must be approved by his academic department. The department then recommends (or not) the candidate to a faculty review committee composed of senior faculty and college administrators. The final step in the process requires the approval of a high-ranking university official, typically a college dean, the university president or the board of trustees.

On paper, it looks like a thorough and well balanced system designed to separate the wheat from the chaff. In practice, it works quite differently. At most universities, especially those with research programs, junior faculty are saddled with heavy burdens. They are often assigned the most difficult teaching assignments – usually the large, introductory level classes that the senior faculty members don’t want. They must develop syllabi for these classes, prepare lectures, hold office hours, and grade large numbers of exams and reports. In addition, they can expect to be “asked” to serve on numerous academic and administrative committees. On top of that, they are required to establish a competitive research program, obtain extra-mural research funding, and train graduate students. With such an overwhelming work load, it is almost impossible to put one’s best effort into teaching. So they don’t.

Actually, they don’t have to.

Why don’t they have to devote themselves to teaching? To begin with, most senior faculty members won’t hold them to such a high standard. To do so would require that they meet the same standard themselves. Well surely the dean or board of trustees would intervene here to uphold academic standards, right? Ah…wrong. The university brass isn’t primarily interested in teaching quality. Their main interest lies in research. Actually, that is not true either. What they are really interested in is research money.

Top-notch research programs get extra-mural funding. The university itself skims money from this pot. Maybe skims is too delicate a word, shovels more be more appropriate. Universities “tax” these extramural funds at a rate of 40% to 60% on all purchases that exceed a stated nominal value. When one considers that granting agencies like the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) are awarding multi-million dollar grants, this turns out to be a nice chunk of change going into the university's pockets. Big research also attracts corporate sponsorship. This amounts to vast improvements in research infrastructure and lots of capital flowing into the university coffers.

The next time the university president claims that teaching is the priority at his college, ask him why professors with poor teaching records and lots of research dollars are being granted tenure, while those with outstanding teaching records and struggling research programs are routinely denied.

How does the university sell this piss-weak version of education to the public? That is the easy part. They give the public – in this case the students – what they want. The mantra is, “go to college, get good grades, and get a high paying job”. So that is exactly what the university gives them. And they are not shy about it either.

Whether or not a professor is actually an effective teacher or not is insignificant. The professor’s only has to look so on paper. That is, they need good teaching evaluations. In order to assure that occurs, professors have intentionally made tests easier to pass. It is quite common for a professor to hold a review session the evening before the exam, wherein he/she essentially tells the students exactly what they will be tested on. Grade inflation is also a tried and true method for assuring good evaluations. Students who take courses as non-majors are frequently graded on a different scale than majors, or they are taught a dumbed-down version of the course. Curving grades on the skew is also popular among the students.

If college education has become such a joke, why do students continue to go? The reason is that a college diploma still has some weight in the market place (probably due to the fact that high school diplomas are bigger jokes – but that is another issue). In other words, a college diploma has become a commodity. Students treat them as such, and universities sell them as such. Students flock to majors like medicine, engineering or business, not because they have a genuine interest in these subjects, but because careers in these fields have high salaries. Other majors like Philopsophy or English are deemed useless because they pay low salaries - assuming one can find a job in the first place. As such, a student is encouraged by his/her peers to shy away from these majors, unless of course one wants to become a professor and teach others to become Philosophy or English professors.

Penn State’s Smeal College of Business recently ran a public promotion campaign under the slogan, “The Next CEO: Smeal Today. Corner Office Tomorrow”. Banners bearing the slogan were draped all over campus. What message are they sending to prospective students? I think it is quite clear. A Smeal education will land you a high paying job.

It would seem to me that a supposedly well-respected institution of higher learning like Penn State would be more interested in promoting itself by touting the quality of it education or the virtues of its graduates, rather than boasting about the market value of its diplomas.

I guess that is how they set the sale price!


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