Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Working Class Hero Is Something To Be…

(screen shot from Hulu's State of the Nation feed)

"And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma."
U.S. President Barack Obama, State of the Nation speech (Feb 24, 2009)

My first reaction is to agree. I think this is a great vision of the future of our country. But President Obama was wise to note the problem of increasing costs of tuition. When I started state college in California in 1989, I spent $198 on tuition per semester. It jacked up to almost $1000 per semester by the time I graduated four years later. The same school now charges over $2000 per semester to attend. This same school was free when I started elementary school.

But what does Obama’s vision of increased post-secondary school training really mean? Is this feasible? The realist in me is forced to think of what this means to actual day-to-day classroom teaching. Does this mean overcrowding post-secondary institutions with sub-par students? That's not good. Are we to expect post-secondary institutions to lower their standards to admit all these new applicants, or are we to "hope" that secondary schools manage to train their students for the post-secondary world?

I know of what I speak. I spent 12 years teaching at colleges and universities. I taught at a community college in California, two private colleges in New York state as well as two public universities on the East Coast. None of these were elite colleges. I had a few "rich" students whose parents were paying their full cost of college but the vast majority of students were working-class or poor students who were in-debt just to get to school every day. This experience gave me a very good sense of the skills and needs of the "average" college student in America. Most were poorly prepared and that affected my day-to-day lesson plans.

The sad truth is that there is an emerging class of private colleges whose business model is based on recruiting exactly the kinds of students Obama just reached out to: those unable to obtain "normal" admission to colleges. The average private college in America looks nothing like Harvard or Stanford. Far from it. They look like businesses.
  • They charge $10,000 to $20,000 per year for tuition.
  • They tend to focus on one or two vocational majors (like occupational therapy or veterinary technician).
  • They tend to have 1000-4000 students.
  • They tend to employ large numbers of part-time adjunct faculty (cheap labor and my bread and butter for 12 years).
  • They tend to skimp on “non-essential” courses.
I believe President Obama really wants to attain his dream of educational opportunities for all. I believe he genuinely wants to reform teacher training and incentives. But in order to make those dreams a reality, we’re going to have to look at what happened to college tuition between 1975 and 1995, because those were the dark days. In 1975, Obama’s vision would have been feasible. After 1995, his vision became a nightmare.

Can we really expect all Americans to attain post-secondary education under current circumstances? I suspect not.

UPDATE: the AP has published a story addressing this very issue and contains a variety of perspectives here.

UPDATE 2: the Chronicle of Higher Education has a related story on the increasing costs of college here (HT Daily Dish).

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