Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Meaning of a College Education

Today's reading: A college degree is worth less if you are raised poor. 

My friend Debra, a sociologist dedicated to "doing the work" of social good, would often talk with me about what was broken and what was beautiful in a college education. In this knowledge age where industry jobs are disappearing, the American dream now includes the expectation that college is available to all. Which means higher education is being asked to rethink what we do and who we do it to. 

Many campuses must now change their mission from one of exclusion to something greater where every American who wants to go to college can find a way. The challenge is not to simply expand and admit, but to CHANGE (ouch) and adapt ourselves to the needs of the post-traditional / new traditional learner. 

Debra and I used to talk about what that might look like and what it would take not just to teach history and math and science and lit...but to teach that "je ne sais crois" that allow first generation and socio-economically disadvantaged students to demonstrate what used to present as old-school educated.

The topic, fraught with land mines, was really about class and culture. Which college never taught us. Wealthy students came to college with the trappings of class: how they spoke, ate, dressed, their manners, their confidence with peers and deference to those above them by age, expertise, power.

Coming from an inner city lower middle class, but having traveled all around the world, earned a PhD, lived in France and spent most of my life working at universities, I asked my very-privileged class friend if I had adapted and passed? "Sometimes," she replied. 

Wait, I live a life of privilege and still sometimes I don't pass? WTF?? Debra would say using that acronym is an example of 'where one comes from'. But it's my choice: an acronym I'll use on this blog with you, dear reader, but not in the Board room, classroom, stiff social settings I'm now often and unhappily placed. They are settings still outside my class and comfort zone but I know how to put on class airs to please, to disappear, to pass. Sometimes. 

So what about our students that are now $30,000 in debt for a bachelor's degree? Who have not traveled and tried? Who never realized that their instructors did not dare approach the difficult topic of how to behave in a way that will make student debt a return on investment? 

Not our job, we lofty historians, mathematicians, scientists, scholars. It is a hard topic, easily shunted aside as impolitic as we do what we've always done. But sometime soon when the longitudinal studies show us that we took the money and didn't deliver what the new traditionals needed? When we read that they are no longer young, in debt and not getting out? Will we still be saying "not our job?"

If so, I hope we have the class to show shame and remorse. So, a start at conversation from the Brookings Institution and how next to "do the work" -
A college degree is worth less if you are raised poor.