Race to the Bottom: College Edition

I have somewhere between three and six degrees, depending on
how the universities I attended are attempting to count them.

And, no matter how you slice it, none of those degrees make
me smarter, better, more intelligent or anything else when compared to people
who don’t have them.

If I am better or smarter or anything else, it comes from
what I actually LEARNED in doing the degrees.

This is whythe recent moves by governors Larry, Moe and
Curly to create “McYugo” degrees
has me wondering if I’ll eventually just wear
a paper hat to class and ask, “Welcome to the university! How may I help you

Florida’s Rick Scott announced earlier this week his plan to
create four-year degrees at institutions of higher learning that could be had
for $10,000
. By the end of his call to action, seven institutions, including
educational powerhouses like Valencia College, Daytona State College and
Broward College all said they were up for the challenge.

If this attempt to create a cheap alternative to actual
learning sounds familiar, it’s because Texas braintrust Rick Perry thought of
it first.
During a statewide address, Perry called for colleges and
universities to keep the costs down, even pitching the idea of a $10,000
degree. Other awesome ideas these two Ricks agree on include collecting data on
faculty to see how many students they are teaching and how much grant money
they are raising, limiting state appropriation increases and providing
funding-based incentives based on how many kids a college can graduate.

Nothing says quality education quite like the “charge ‘em
cheap, stack ‘em like cordwood and shove ‘em out the door quick” model.

If it’s a bad idea about higher education that is being
poorly executed by Republican idiots, it’s a safe bet that my governor, “Scotty
Doesn’t Know” Walker, will be quickly following suit in a more disconcerting
and less compelling fashion.

Instead of pitching a “We’ll paint your car for $99” degree,
Walker helped push out the “Flexible Option” degree this week. This will allow
people who think they already have a pretty good handle on book learnin’ to
show those skills to other people who will be incentivized to make this program work so
they can get a jumpstart toward an “almost bachelor’s” degree at various

The bonus? Although the people involved don’t know how much
this will cost, it will be cheaper than going to school for a traditional
four-year degree.

At some point, we, as a society, must start to figure out
what it is we are valuing here: Is it the degree or is it the knowledge?

It used to be theorized that one begat the other and the
other reflected positively upon the one. Now, it’s a “Git Er Dun!” approach
that makes educators become “providers” and students become “customers.” People
want degrees faster, cheaper and easier.

As the proud holder of more degrees than most, I can tell
you with absolute certainty that degrees don’t matter worth a crap.

The doctorate was cool for about five minutes. I passed my
defense, called a restaurant and ordered reservations for “Doctor” me. After
that, it really didn’t do much. However, that stats class I killed myself in to
learn how the hell to do research mattered. The assistantship I took that
forced me to teach really smart kids how to be smarter and encourage really
weak kids to apply themselves and learn something mattered.

If you want to dial it back even more to my master’s and
bachelor’s degrees, I can’t say I learned a whole hell of a lot from the tests
and quizzes, but rather the experiences.

Being “forced” at the time to take courses in ethnic
studies, sociology and other areas helped me figure out who I was and how I fit
into a puzzle of many other pieces.

Taking speech, even though I’d been speaking competitively
for four or five years, helped me see what other bad speakers did that I needed
to avoid and what other good speakers did to help me want to better myself.

Being on campus didn’t hurt either, as I got to meet people
from other races, ethnicities and sexual orientations and realize they ran the
gamut of “full of shit” to “really fucking awesome” just like everyone else. I
got to ask questions and give answers regarding who we all were and why people
could or couldn’t get along.

(Speaking of questions and college, here’s my best one ever:

I’m in a room at age 19 with my journalism TA and four other guys who were also
gay and we were all drunk as shit on margaritas.

One guy asks, “So you’re straight?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Him: “I gotta know. What’s a woman’s … y’know… like?”

Before I can answer, Stereotype Gay Guy chimes in with
“Honey, I’ve been there. It’s like a wet, loose handshake.”)

Not one of those things (not even the “handshake”
discussion) led to a degree. As the years went on, I realized that the degree
was pretty much a by-product of the learning.

My father would probably lose his damned mind if he heard me
talking about this, and not just because he’d figure out that his 19-year-old
son was shithammered on tequila in some guy’s apartment watching “Priscilla,
Queen of the Desert” on VHS.

Dad was a big believer in the power of the degree. He spent
his whole life in one factory and he was often passed over for improved
positions due to his lack of a sheepskin. He was a foot smarter than anyone
around, but that four-year degree held an almost mythical power over those who
doled out promotions.

If he said it once, he said it a million times: “Your mother
and I have done pretty well for ourselves, but let me tell you…” he’d pause and
a wistful look would creep across his face. “If I only had that damned degree,
we would be a lot better off.”

On more than one occasion, he referred to my degree as “your
generation’s union card.” When he found out that I kept the actual diploma in a
box of crap under my bed, he looked at me like I’d used it for toilet paper.

The sheepskin didn’t matter. The stuff in my head did.

I try my best to pass that along to my students each day I
teach. If you’re here for a grade, I explain, you’re cheating yourself. Some
nod, others don’t, but I think a lot of them figure it out. It’s my hope that
they figure this out a lot faster than I did and that they vote for people who
understand it as well.

Still, every semester, including this one, I have a painful
email conversation with at least one kid that usually starts like this:

“I’m supposed to graduate next week and I just noticed I’m
failing your class. Can I get some extra credit or something? My mom and dad
are coming out for graduation and we’ve got a party planned, so I need those

4 thoughts on “Race to the Bottom: College Edition

  1. As a multiple degree holding/former professor who ran away from higher ed because of exactly the situation you describe all too clearly, I salute you.
    It was somewhere in my second semester in front of a class that I realized that I had to instruct the students in the purpose of college, to stop them thinking it was all about the credentials and the grades. After another couple of years of consciously designing classes that rewarded learning I just burned out and realized that there is no reward for being a good teacher in higher ed (aside from knowing you have changed people’s lives, but changing people’s lives is not a metric used in evaluating you for tenure).
    I admire anyone who remains committed to the real mission of education in this environment. I just want to say thanks for keeping up the fight.

  2. There’s a name for taking just classes in your major in order to get a degree to perform a skill. It is called Associate’s. Likewise there are research Masters vs professional Masters with the later being narrowly focused and more for the purpose of building job credentials.
    What is odd is how the colleges smell money in it and are falling all over themselves to turn themselves into Walmart. (Ironically, the right side of the web page is showing an ad for APU Online.)
    Some are laughable (such as I seem to be getting a lot of web ads of Sarah Pallin endorsing an online degree for College of the Ozarks ). Don’t know where I visited to get the ads, but there is a school with a top level domain of .me offering fully online programs for (surely you want either one to have some hands on don’t you?) Also saw where a school offers a certified Midwife online.
    From the students’ standpoint, I hope the people applying have verified that their degree is both eligible via Department of Education (me suspects that a lot of these are simply scams to get folks to owe them a lot of money) and also certified by their professional association (I met many a librarian who first got a degree not approved by the American Library Asssociation and therefore not even worth the cost of burning the paper. I know a person who got an online Bachelor of Social Work not knowing that you really need the Masters to do anything in the field and preferably the doctorate – although don’t get me talking about degree inflation requiring everyone to get the doctorate and essentially making a new creature of a doctorate degree that isn’t research but more a professional credential).

  3. Even the reputable schools are jumping on the online degree bandwagon as a new kind of Walmart.
    Worked for the D. O. school here. Last time I looked (a couple of years ago), their online M. Health Admin worked by paying adjunct faculty $ 1,500 for teaching a 3 credit hour course (traditional formula would be 3 hours a week class for 12 weeks plus study at least 6 hours a week outside of class). Being online, students would contact the prof who apparently was on a 24/7 schedule.
    Really odd is that they didn’t develop their own class. The classes were already outlined / scripted. The prof just presented the class (didn’t you just love listening to the lectures from a disinterested prof who felt no ownership).
    Financially, think of the associate prof trying to pay off the cost of their doctorate – even if they could teach on a quarter system at 12 hours per quarter (a massively heavy load that I doubt anyone could do without it negatively impacting their performance) they would get 24 k a year. Fortunately, there are often folks accomplished in their field looking to pick up a little spare cash in a slack period in their calendar which sometimes allows getting higher tier profs.
    Oddly, on many occaisions I heard the higher ups talk about how wonderful it is to copy Grand Canyon. I never dared point out that Grand Canyon had some problems with the powers that be.

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