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Our Love/Hate Relationship with Higher Education August 10, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Perhaps I should call this “my” love/hate relationship. Like most adults, I am a big proponent of higher education. More knowledge is better than less. I have several degrees. I taught college for a decade and a half.

At the same time, I think the higher education establishment is stupid and clueless about their markets; in other words, students and their parents. I was present for an almost 20 percent increase in tuition at one of my colleges in the 1990s, which occurred not because of a significant increase in spending (college spending and tuition are not correlated), but because the powers-that-be presumed that in order to be considered a prestigious institution, they needed a price tag to match. Seriously.

I was in one faculty meeting where the topic of the school’s customers came up. The resulting cry was loud and nearly unanimous: “We don’t have customers! We have students!”

Yet we as a society continue to give (not-for-profit) higher education a pass. No matter how much higher learning raises tuition, we continue to believe that our children have a fundamental right to the higher education of their choice, no matter what the cost (disclosure: I am childless).

Some of this is due to the entitled attitude of the higher education establishment. More than 20 years ago, I had a department chair who was absolutely convinced that we had perfected higher education, and desperately fought any changes to the residential, in-class model.

But a big part of the problem is, I think, the parents. Successful middle and upper class parents want desperately for their children to have the same foundational experiences as they did, thirty years earlier. Never mind that today’s world in no way resembles the one in which they grew up.

Some of that may well be due to the drastic changes in growing up over the last two or three decades. Our last chance to share a common youth with our children is through a shared college experience. I don’t know; I’m not a psychologist (hold on; yes, I am). I fear that both parents and their children will be doomed to disappointment (perhaps not so much the children). The experience will in all likelihood not be common, and certainly not shared.

I believe that traditional higher education has a good purpose, though not the central purpose it had one or two generations ago. Today, there are so many ways to learn – residential universities, community colleges, MOOCs, and (yes) YouTube – and young adults have a rich array of choices that meet their career needs, curiosities, and budgets. At this point, it is their parents’ expectations, and societies’ preconceptions that are holding them back. I, for one, hope for fundamental change soon.

The problem is not ability to pay; it is that colleges don’t care if they are affordable.

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