Reactions to the College Mania

If you only paiid attention to the higher education establishment and the elite writers of the East and West Coasts, you might think that the most important issue in higher education today is how to provide access to college for more students.

The Pope Center has frequently questioned that view (indeed, that is something of an understatement), and George Leef did so recently for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service. His article, “Time to End the Degree Mania,” was reprinted on the Pope Center website Friday.

The article has been published across the country, in big cities and modest ones. To the coastal elite, some of its cities (Cleveland, Tallahassee, and Roanoke) are the hinterland, or maybe “fly-over” country. Tellingly, the response to Leef’s argument from those quarters was almost entirely positive.

I’ve selected quotations from those responses (and am republishing them with permission).

Dear Mr. Leef:

As someone who has taught college for the last 35 years, the last 28 at Kent State University, I can attest that everything you wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer is true. We already have too many students in college who don’t belong there and don’t learn anything there. To get them through, at least some of them, we are eternally pressured by our administrators to lower standards, so that many of those who do graduate have in fact learned very little. Many of those who graduate can’t find work in the field in which they studied. They may, in fact, actually have gotten more that was “useful” out of their general education humanities courses, though those, too, are often very watered down.

I suspect that the only thing that will change this is the rapidly increasing student debt. When more and more Americans find themselves buried in such debt and discover that what it paid for will not earn them enough to repay it, we may finally start to make changes.

The Plain Dealer is constantly running articles about students who have run up $50,000 and more in student debt while in college, and I am invariably depressed to learn that they have pursued a degree in a field that won’t pay anything. Banks and such will continue to make such loans as long as the government promises to back them even when the student finally goes broke.

That all needs to be changed. No one should be able to borrow $50,000 to get aneducation degree to be a kindergarten teacher. So thank you for a very well-argued essay on a very important topic.

That all needs to be changed. No one should be able to borrow $50,000 to get aneducation degree to be a kindergarten teacher. So thank you for a very well-argued essay on a very important topic.

Richard M. Berrong

Professor of French

Kent State University

Kent, Ohio

Dear Mr. Leef:

Thank you for your article in the Tallahassee Democrat. Your well-articulated points saved me time and energy, because I was planning to write my own essay that you have now rendered redundant.

I recently spent five years as an adjunct instructor in the religion department at Florida State University. The scholastic aptitude of the students in my undergraduate classes was mostly disappointing and occasionally shocking. Indeed, the reading comprehension and writing skills of about 20 percent of my students were below what I would expect from competent students in middle-school. Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.

I taught for seven years in the humanities department at Tallahassee Community College (TCC), where (not surprisingly) the academic quality of the students is much worse. During my first semester of teaching at TCC, I discovered that about 30 percent of my students were functionally illiterate! I had the class respond to a written essay question projected on a screen, and I made the mistake of not reading it aloud and explaining the question. The papers I received—some of them helplessly left blank—made me realize that about a third of my class could not read and comprehend simple English.

During my fifth year of teaching at TCC, I commented on a student’s unintelligible essay, written in “broken” English: “I understand English is not your first language; nevertheless you must take remedial reading and writing courses offered free here at the Learning Center, because your writing is well below college standards.” He hastened to inform me that English was his first language! (How did such students graduate from high school?)

Part of the problem with the state university system in Florida is a ruling that requires all graduates from Florida’s community colleges to be accepted automatically into the upper undergraduate level in a four-year state university. Even though the graduation rate at the community college level is only about 30 percent, a large number of significantly ill-prepared students are continuing on to the university level to earn a bachelor’s degree. Importantly, most of these students do not want to be in college, but today’s hiring practices demand of them that they earn at least a bachelor’s degree. Reluctantly, they trudge to class and muster through with uninspired scholarship (if I can apply the word “scholarship” loosely).  

Mark Canter
Tallahassee, Florida

Dear Mr. Leef:

Thanks for voicing the reality of college education in the paper today. 

There is a stigma associated with vocational training and apprenticeships that needs to be changed. In my own profession, nurse-midwifery, there is a strong push in the academic world to require doctorate degrees for advanced nursing practice. Some states already require master’s. In my opinion, this is crazy! I have been a successful midwife for over thirty years and I began with a two-year RN program, then a BSN and only a certificate in midwifery. I considered a master’s in public health, but only because I was interested in international health. I think that advanced degrees should be for those who are interested in research, not a requirement for basic practice. I help train family practice residents in normal deliveries. Some of our students are foreign-trained. Many of those foreign trained physicians attended medical school right out of high school. They are equally competent as those American trained doctors who first attended four years of undergraduate university. 

My academically gifted children have been frustrated by the academic system. They have longed for more hands on learning to balance the classroom experience. For those students who don’t enjoy reading, writing and research how much happier they would be in programs learning real life skills.  They might even study the theory behind their practice more vigorously, knowing that it has a real application to what they want to accomplish. 

Yes, more isn’t always better. Not in medicine, not in the academic world. and not in most aspects of life. I wish you much success in stimulating change in our education system.

Margaret Canter
Tallahassee, Florida

Dear Mr. Leef:

That was a fantastic op-ed piece in today’s Roanoke Times. The article addresses not only what is wrong with our education system today, but also a very big reason our economy is in trouble.

Everyone should NOT go to college. We need good tradesmen and craftsmen and they can have as high if not higher incomes than most college graduates. Many of the people I hire to do plumbing or electrical or even tree work make a lot more by the hour than I ever made as a computer engineer working for THE major corporation in my field and with a degree in economics from one of the best colleges in the country at the time.

To start with, someone needs to educate this U.S. president in how our education system really should work. Thanks for the article.

A. Vass.
Roanoke, Virginia 

Dear Mr. Leef:

Thank you for your much-needed advice. As a retired executive in both the public and private sectors, I have maintained for years that we need to change the American obsession for sending to every kid to college. We need highly skilled mechanics, plumbers, and all of the other existing and upcoming trades. Yet we as a people continue to look down on the trades as a means of earning a living.

Germany has for years invested in apprenticeship programs that produce such skilled (and educated) workers. And its workforce is more balanced and better off for the effort. More people in positions such as yours need to push this point to the general public. My friends who are college professors certainly agree that we have too many mediocre, or just plain lousy, college students.
Stephen J. Fox
Tallahassee, FL