Is the Future of Traditional College ‘Dim’?

Update: (Related to this posting) Philadelphia Inquirer 09/18/2011  Debt soaring with tuition

Lebanon, NH – The former surgeon general (of the United States), C. Everett Koop, gave $50,000 to Lebanon College, but the donation itself is almost less important than why he made it.

 “I think there’s a great future for places like Lebanon College, and a dim future for traditional liberal arts colleges,” Koop said in a brief interview at a reception in his honor at the school last night.

 The economy makes a pricey liberal arts education a difficult proposition, and “colleges are getting out of control” with their spending, Koop said.

As written by Alex Hanson Valley News Staff Writer, July 21, 2011

Dr. Koop was our Surgeon General under the Reagan administration. Dr. Koop’s academic and professional experience prior to his service as Surgeon General include, a Dartmouth College undergraduate education, Cornell Medical School and 40 years as a pioneering surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He’s still interesting, current and (some might say) controversial as a 95 year old. He lives in Hanover, NH.

Shortly after I read the Valley News article, my daughter tweeted a Forbes article titled Turn Your Kids into Millionaires. The very first suggestion the article offered was “Beat College Debt.” Here is the argument: The average grad gets out of school with $20,000 of debt. That’s a crushing burden for someone getting—or just hoping to get—an entry-level job. If you can lead your kids to a cheaper university degree you give them a healthy push forward in their financial lives. One strategy: Have your child start at a community college, then transfer to the more prestigious state university. To read the entire Forbes article go here.

As we return to school, I want to remind teachers and school counselors that students do have choices when they leave high school. It’s important to begin this dialogue when high school begins and continue the discussion all four years. As Dr. Ken Gray (Penn State University) says, there are “other ways to win.”

Here are the Gateways students can use as they transition from high school to continued learning experiences after high school:

Post-Secondary Education

Community College

 Business/Technical College

4 Year College or University

 

Military

Air Force

Army

Coast Guard

Marines

Navy

Workforce

Full time permanent jobs

Combination of two or more part-time jobs

Contract services on short term basis

Apprenticeship & Internship

On-the-job training in trades and skilled occupations

Carefully monitored work experiences with intentional learning goals

 

Self-Employment & Entrepreneurship

Start a business

 Buy a business

 Take on a franchise

 Consult or freelance

The suggested discussion with students should not be restricted to Gateways but also include goal setting (based on skills, ability, interests), and connecting goals for the future to a plan that has a high probability of success.

Continued from the Valley News article:

Still sharp at 95, Koop told the crowd of around 50 people, “I think Lebanon College has a bright future.  I’d like to be involved with you because I think what I do here … is a lot more important than a lot of the other things I can do,” he said. “When you’re 95, you can’t make a lot of plans very far into the future. So use me while you have me.”

When surgeon general under President Reagan, Koop made a similar donation and has served as honorary chairman of a capital campaign for the college. He pledged continued support.

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I feel a rant coming on…

Today did not start out as a good day. This morning I woke up to the news that the Department of Education is withdrawing support to school libraries. We say we want our schools to be the best–like Finland. Is this how you do it? Then, the information that threw me over the edge was announced as I ate my breakfast.

Matt O’Donnell (6ABC-pictured above), announced that of college graduates over the past several years, only 50% are employed full-time and of that working 50% the average salary is $30,000.

The idea that college is the only route to success is one of my issues.

“Among recent college graduates, a growing number each year leave college with student loan debt, a degree, and no job. Many ultimately join the ranks of “gray collar” workers–workers who are employed in jobs that are not commensurate for their education and pay too little when compared to the cost of these degrees. It is estimated from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (1993) Baccalaureate and Beyond study that as many as half of all baccalaureate graduates find themselves in this situation.” Getting Real: Helping Teens Find Their Future  -Ken Gray, Penn State University

Dr. Gray wrote this in 2009–before the “great recession.” This is not new information, it’s “just” getting worse. Why are so few educators and school counselors talking to kids and their parents about alternative avenues to success? And of those who are, why is no one listening?

Disclosure (why I know what I’m talking about):

1. I work in a high school.

  1. Too many students have no idea why they are going to college. For some it has become “13th” grade.
  2. Teachers and school counselor’s are well-intentioned but are still pushing college as the only way to succeed.
  3. College’s protect their dirty little secrets: (1) only 20% of students who begin a four-year degree program will graduate within 5 years and (2) only 11% of students who begin at a community college will have a four-year degree ever. (National stats)

 2. I have two children.

  1. Child #1: 2007 graduate of a prestigious New England Liberal Arts college; magna cum laude; Pi Beta Kappa and now a Fulbright Scholar; interned every summer during college at prestigious institutions related to field, etc., etc…
  2. Child #2: 2010 graduate of a prestigious North Eastern private comprehensive university (because Penn State, our “public ivy” did not offer her major-I know, strange but true); summa cum laude; won best in major award three out of four years, studied abroad (in one of the few rigorous study abroad programs); interned every summer during college at prestigious institutions related to field, etc., etc… 

Both children left college with promising jobs only to be down-sized, laid off, or whatever you want to call it. Both children are now cobbling together a living working several jobs and volunteering in their fields. It isn’t easy to work long hours at various places and continue searching for full-time work but somehow they are “doing it all.” There is no doubt about it, times are tough for the “20 somethings.”

The point of bringing up my own children’s experience is this: they did everything right. Studied hard in high school, discovered a passion for their field of study, worked hard in college and graduated in four years. They had what Dr. Gray calls “career maturity” when they graduated from high school. Educators know that few students graduate from high school with career maturity. In fact, it’s relatively rare (at least in the Philadelphia suburbs).

What happens to kids who don’t have career maturity when, in today’s world, even driven students struggle? (Remember I work in a high school.) As educators who care about student success after high school, what can we do?

  1. Encourage students to determine their goals. Do they want college or college and a career?
  2. Expose students to all career gateways: postsecondary education (community college, business/tech college, 4 year college or university), military, workforce (full and part-time jobs, contract work), internships and entrepreneurship.
  3. Explain to students that there are many avenues to the same goal. They need to be flexible and resilient.
  4. Teach students and their families to view post-secondary education as a costly business decision. Ask them to approach it in the same way they would in buying an expensive car. Buyer beware-most colleges are in a buyers market. Use this as an advantage.
  5. Inform parents about remedial education in college. They deserve to know that colleges admit students who cannot do academic work at college level. Parents should also know that remedial education may be a second chance for some teens; but for most teens right out of high school it is a strong predictor of dropping out.
  6. Help students develop a plan B-the one they will pursue if plan A doesn’t work out.
  7. Students (and their parents) need to understand the importance of a career focus. Most teens drop out of college in the sophomore year when a college academic major must be selected. (Gray)
  8. Explaining high priority professions in your region is also helpful to students and parents when they are trying to focus on a field of study. Introduce the ideas of career clusters , related occupations and career ladders.
  9. Get students out! Informational interviews, shadowing, interning, working, invite professionals into your classroom to help teach a particular topic and explain how and why it is important-ask your community to help students connect to their passions and learning.
  10. Send your teachers out to shadow. If a teacher has been in education their whole working life, they may not know how their subject matter is used outside of school. I have seen a teacher shadow day reconnect teachers to their academic passions. When this happens great things happen in the classroom.

For teens, developing career maturity does not mean forcing them to make a decision about the one perfect career or locking them into a decision by age 18. The hope is that there will be a narrowing down process based on personal interests, passions, skills and aptitudes, during high school and not at great financial cost in college or with enduring disappointments in the labor market.

Your students may change their mind later, but if they make good decisions now, the next time their new interests should relate to current interests leading them to even better decisions.

“Career maturity is as important as academic maturity. Both predict post-high-school success.” Thanks Dr. Gray for your research and wisdom.

And for my own children? Does anyone need a passionate arts administer or talented interior designer?