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The First Myth of College

By Professor Doom


It was a special day on campus. We were giving a fundraiser, and students could pay $5 or more for the privilege of smashing a pie into the face of a faculty member, or even an administrator.

I thought to raise some money for charity by offering my face as a target. One student, renowned on campus for not being exactly clever, paid his money, and approached me with a pie. He got excited at being the center of attention, shouted, and swung the pie, along with his fist, full force into my face, cracking a tooth and nearly knocking me to the floor.

Administration saw no need for disciplinary action, and I concurred: this student had real psychological issues, and there was no malice in his blow. Besides, it was his 7th year of going full time at the college, and he was close to graduating.

The college offers no degrees that require more than two years of full time attendance to achieve.

Something has changed has changed about college, and higher education is simply not what it was when I started teaching in higher education in the 80s.

Yes, it’s a cliché to say that “students these days are terrible”, but in no way do I blame students for what’s happened. It’s very clear that the last decade in particular has been very special, with standards falling fast, measureable-from-one-semester-to-the-next fast, too fast to simply blame a generation. This is no figment of my imagination, or local to my school, or even my state: my associates at other institutions across the country see it as well, but someone needs to speak up.

The Occupy Wall Street movement had many college-degreed protestors, unemployed and with heavy student loans, protesting that they were not getting the good life despite their degree. They don’t know what was done to them, and nobody answered their questions about why they have a college degree, but nothing to show for it but a large student loan. It’s a very fair question, and they deserve to be told an answer. I hope a few of them read these essays so they can know.

It’s easy enough to point fingers at faculty who don’t put any effort into their teaching, or students more interested in partying and drugs than learning, or in high schools that don’t teach students anything, but none of these excuses give the whole story, or even comprise more than a small percentage of an explanation for what has changed.

Throughout history, even mediocre minds have made discoveries and written fascinating books without hardworking teachers to train them. College students have been notorious for excessive partying for centuries, as long as there have been institutions of higher learning. The public school system, sometimes more accurately called the “government” school system, has been failing since it started a century ago. None of the standard excuses can explain the last ten to fifteen years, and there were no protests equivalent to Occupy Wall Street in prior economic downturns.

Something is far bigger to the story, a confluence of events and circumstances that have allowed the American college and university education system, once renowned as the greatest in the world, to begin sliding into an abyss. It’s been falling sharply for at least ten years, unnoticed both because it started so high, and because those who should have noticed are the ones that take much of the responsibility for the fall. Many of the things that used to be true about college are now merely myths.

Myth #1: “You need good grades to get into college.”

I hate math. I failed this course four times in school, why do I have to take it again?”

--typical complaint from my students.

Decades ago, college or university admission was not a certain thing, and high school graduates would eagerly await the mail, hoping to get an acceptance letter. Applying to college was nearly pointless unless the prospective student took “college preparatory” courses in high school—what educational institution would accept a student who had not already troubled to acquire the basic skills of higher learning? A student with good grades, and having the appropriate coursework in high school, still could not be certain of acceptance, and would almost certainly also need high scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. Even all these put together might not be enough to assure acceptance, and students wishing to improve their chances of acceptance still further would engage in extracurricular activities like charity, volunteer, and honor society work.

Those days are long gone. Administrators have instituted “open admission” policies at most public and many private institutions. Online, accredited graduate schools like Capella require nothing from their applicants besides that federal loan money. Grades and transcripts mean nothing in an era where grade inflation and widespread cheating scandals in high schools barely make the local news. Most students enter college unprepared on some level, requiring a semester, a year, or more of “developmental” courses before they can even take actual college courses. The amount of remedial coursework required by many students means the majority of incoming students won’t receive a four year degree within six years of admission. Standardized tests are no longer relevant to admission, instead serving to determine where in the remedial course sequence a student should go. Extracurricular activities are completely irrelevant.

Fill in this application form. Check this box if you’re a degree seeking student so that you can qualify for student loans.”

--the primary means of getting into many institutions of higher learning. There’s no penalty for checking the box if the student isn’t actually seeking a degree; he’ll get the loan money anyway. The student, of course, it never told that the debt cannot be cleared via bankruptcy, and that he’ll probably have it for the rest of his life.

Decades ago, having a child accepted into college was a point of pride for a family, since it served as validation of that child’s hard work. Today, getting into a college is about as significant an achievement as purchasing a refrigerator, and about as much effort. If the check clears, you’re in…and ultimately that’s all you need to get into college or buy a refrigerator. A far more accurate myth is “Any college will take your money, no matter what.” This hardly sounds better than those easy credit loan schemes by businesses of questionable integrity that are often advertised on TV, and for good reason.

A child raised on this myth will, without good grades, enter early adulthood believing college is beyond his reach. This makes him particularly vulnerable when a recruiter tells him the truth: his grades count for nothing, a college will take him no matter how poorly he did in school. And so another student enters the college system, thinking he’s getting a “lucky break” by getting to go to college…when the reality is his poor grades in school were an indicator that academia is a poor choice for him, and that he’ll probably not learn anything that will help him pay off the loans that are paying for his classes.

It’s little different than all the smiling customers P.T. Barnum fooled when he put up a beautiful sign, “This way to the Great Egress!” Ignorant of what an egress was, his customers cheerfully followed the sign to see the great thing. After exiting the circus, they were in no position to do anything about being tricked. If they really wanted to complain, they’d have to pay an entrance fee to get back in the tent. A few did so, to Barnum’s delight.

Students likewise are completely helpless, years later, when the loans start coming due and there is no way to escape the loans. A few students, unable to pay their loans, take out more loans to go back to college. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” to steal another line from Barnum, and this myth is the first to creating many of the suckers in the higher education system.

The American public believes getting into college is a special privilege, and thus thinks nothing of taking on suicidal debt for a “special privilege” that is, in fact, open to everyone.

And that’s also why a person with an IQ of 80 can be a college graduate now.

When educators controlled education, policies were enacted so that people didn’t waste years of their lives and destroy themselves with overwhelming debt. Those policies have been changed so that not only can people hurt themselves this way, but are encouraged to do so. These changes didn’t come from long disenfranchised faculty.

Think about it.





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