Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rethinking Tertiary Education

I couldn't get to sleep the other night.  All I could think about were the astonishingly informative websites out there that are devoted to offering college-level lectures, online classes, and entire textbooks for free or at reasonable costs. 
Listen, I have a very costly masters degree.  My husband is highly educated.  I have lived for many years believing in the "American Dream":  how a good education is a key to opening up all of the possibilities out there! that I am in another country and seeing how different the education/work systems are down here, I'm rethinking the "truths" that I have held dear for these many years. 

In the States, our undergraduate degree programs begin with a lengthy, costly, and exclusionary "General Studies" program.  The first two years of undergrad are those courses that are there to make a student "well-rounded".  And, in all honestly, I learned so much from some of them... not much from others.  It seemed though, in retrospect, that those General Studies requirements did not contribute to my career.  They did contribute to me as a person.  I did gain a great deal of cultural knowledge and depth of study.  But it would have been possible to pursue my career without them.  

Down here in Australia, I have learned that students do not have those two years of study.  They go straight from high school straight into uni where they begin work in their chosen field of study, including having mentoring and apprenticeship programs.  Then they go straight into the work force.  

Young adults "fly the coop" and  become independent earlier here in Australia.  My experience has been that many Aussies tend to think that Americans coddle their kids at this age, even calling them Kids is frowned upon; they are adults moving into adulthood by the age of eighteen, twenty at the latest.

For these Australian young adults in uni, they take none of the general studies.  There is no Art Appreciation, Literature, Weather, Biology 101, Algebra, Physics, Calculus, Logic, English 101, Western Civ, Sociology, Psychology, etc...

On one hand, I would not have wanted to have miss these classes.  I enjoyed them.  They taught me a great deal about civilization and about things that I didn't know that I didn't know.  I absolutely see their value and I am grateful for the work that I did during those years.  But, at times, I almost quit school due to the financial burden of taking two full years of courses unrelated to my major.  At times, I had to drop out of classes that were difficult for me.  (I registered for Logic three times.  I finally got an "A" the third time, but twice I couldn't make sense of it.)  At times it seemed that the entire purpose of those first two years was to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Those General Studies years are a huge hurdle for many students.  So many people don't even get past the giant wall that is the first two years of college in order to get to the meat of their educational goal.  Is that an unspoken point of the General Studies years, to exclude all but the cream of the crop?  Or maybe, are those years designed to keep new students out of the work force for a while as they incubate?

I have been rethinking the real need for those first two years of college.  Are they essential?  Wouldn't more people be able to create and meet successful career goals if the education and knowledge was more accessible?

Some would say that I am suggesting making college EASIER.  But I disagree.  I am suggesting we make college more USEFUL and PRACTICAL.  

There will always be those motivated students out there who are committed to a classical education and who are willing to put their noses to the grindstone while they persistently and earnestly carry themselves to their highest potential.  There will also be students who seriously want to get a job and to earn a living.  Why not make that second option more feasible and possible by opting out of the General Studies?  

Does this take away the snobbery and exclusionary nature of  the term higher education?  Well, maybe it would, but it would also give more people the opportunity to get a degree and to get a better-paying job.  Oh oh.  Maybe the increased competition in the work force doesn't sound appealing...

Listen, the fact is, if a person has access to a computer, a library, and some financial support, being uneducated, poorly educated, or uninformed is a total choice.  If a person has the basic resources of internet access and time, almost anyone can put together a decent education on paper.  Self learning students are great students and their dedication and drive really mean something in the world.  

When I went to college the first time, I went because it was just what you did.  It was what was expected of me.  When I got there I wasn't the slightest bit motivated to learn.  I partied alot.  I didn't put my mind in my classes.  I made quite a mess of it.  I guess I wasn't "college ready."  

When I went to college for the second time several years later, I was ready to learn and I was a self-starter who sought out educational opportunities and did whatever it took to get educated.  I worked hard to get that education.  Because I wanted it.  I want my children to struggle and to earn their education as well.

There is a long and dearly-held belief that the institutions of higher learning should be an exclusive cultivating ground for the best and the brightest and a place where classical education can take place.  A self-contained community where students can nurture their minds and their skills.  A place where students can try their wings at independence, debate, new ideas, and expanding their world view.  And that's all well and good and admirable and laudable.

In the real world, most people are simply looking for an education to get themselves a well-paying job.  And I can't help but wonder how the world is changing into a place where a higher-education can be obtained far from the incubating college campus and right in one's own home.  I think more and more students will eschew the college campus for self-study and life experience opportunities.

Sure, the trade offs are there.  Some of the trade offs are quite significant.  As we figure out these new resources and ways of preparing out young adults for the work force, I am willing to consider the possibility that COLLEGE isn't the only way to prepare one's self for independence.  ...What do you think?

I mean, I don't know everything and I'm just one amateur sociologist thinking aloud...

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  1. My husband (who teaches statistics in a local college) and I have been having some pretty intense discussions about online courses and the importance of a general education component to college. I cannot convince him of any redeeming value to online classes. I can't decide if he just disagrees with the concept, or if he's feeling threatened as a professor/college. Of course, he can't convince me they're a terrible thing like he thinks, so we're at a bit of an impasse.

    1. The thing is, I get his side. I loved my cocoon of a college experience. It's lovely and intense and wonderful if you can swing it.
      But it isn't ESSENTIAL.
      I realize it sounds like I'm arguing both sides of the argument because I am happy to have had the "well-rounded education" that I did. To have been introduced to so many different fields of knowledge changed me, enriched me, made my mind open and fertile to ideas. I wouldn't have changed it.

      But it still isn't essential.

  2. I think those general studies should be the focus of jr/sr years of high school, since all young people could benefit from them but not all young people have the option of college. Then those who want to pursue a college degree can just focus their time and money on their career field and not on classes that are generally irrelevant to their future job. The financial burden for those general courses are the very reason I stopped school. It became too much for our family to take on, especially once we decided to homeschool-meaning I wouldn't be joining the workforce anytime soon even if I did spend the money to finish my degree-. I think more people would go the college degree route if they didn't have to spend money on general studies and could just focus on what they want to study/need to study for their future job.

  3. In some parts of Australia, such as Tasmania or the ACT (where I grew up) we finish High School at year 10 (around 16 years old), then go to College (year 11 and 12) which includes a lot of this preparation.

    It's included in the public system, so costs nothing, and is more like university in the way the students are autonomous and given freedom to choose majors (there are no compulsory subjects).

    I had great fun at College!

  4. I'm so torn on this very issue! I've admired the American system for its broad approach for a long time, but at the same time, if I had needed to take a maths test to get into uni I would never have been able to go. In Australia I think it is quite common for a degree to have a major (or two in humanities) and a minor, so you can study something completely unrelated to your main degree, but only one thing (ie, major in computer science and minor in French). It's not a bad system. On the other hand, I am really interested in how early kids in Japan chose their specialities. JHS is standardised but high school is insanely specific. For example, there is a high school for Japan's space program. There's a dental high school. These high schools have close industry links and they virtually guarantee employment for graduates. On the one hand 15 is very young to be making a big choice like that; on the other hand, there really isn't much you need to learn in an institutional setting past that age, so why not just focus on what will be relevant for your career?


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