Will push to boost college enrollment lower standards?

The Insight Now online debate last week on college enrollment and standards raises some interesting questions: Are there really viable alternatives to the classic four-year degree? Has the cost of college made the liberal arts degree a luxury? Has high school put too many students too far behind?

The road less traveled?

The team from the National Association of Scholars, Ashley Thorne and Peter Wood, took one side of our debate, and argued that herding more students into four-year schools won’t improve the falling performance of higher education in the United States.

They said students need alternatives to the four-year college and pointed to an unusual example in the news, the offer by PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel to pay young people $100,000 to chase a business dream instead of going to college. They gave other examples of young people who didn’t pursue a college diploma, like Wisconsin’s Brian Crave.

But the PayPal CEO’s offer goes to just 24 students. And how many students would be willing to seek an apprenticeship as Crave has?

Few alternatives to a bachelor’s degree

Well there is the two-year degree. But Brad Horras, a Brooklyn Park musician with a Master’s Degree, says there’s a stigma attached to two-year schools that needs to be removed.

There are for-profit schools. And while that’s a growing education sector – it’s largely for the older, returning student. And news on how the Obama adminstration will require more accountability (read, jobs after graduation) from these schools hasn’t helped their reputation.

Instead of looking at alternatives to the four-year track, the United States should improve the performance of the prevailing system, said Kevin Carey policy director for EducationSector, an independent think tank. He differs with Thorne and Wood. The current U.S. college approach is still strong, Carey argued, so strong that it is being replicated by nations around the world.

Improving that system, rather than “a rollback of our nation’s historic commitment to college access,” is Carey’s answer. Is it yours?

Liberal Arts – A wasted degree?

“I believe most people who go to college do so with vocational intent,” said Jon Blumenthal, director of education for the Minneapolis Business College, a for-profit institution.Some might dismiss Blumenthal’s comment as just a way to sell the for-profit college approach.

But students and parents who weighed in on the debate also supported the idea that college must primarily prepare young people for a career.

Wolfe Molitor, who works at the Minnesota Medical Foundation at the University of Minnesota, said he’s been saving money for years to put his daughter, now 11, through college. Molitor wrote:

“I am going to push her toward getting a degree that will certify her in a profession. I will do everything in my power to make sure she doesn’t waste her life – and our money – on a liberal arts degree.”

Another participant said the bigger financial burden of a college degree has “made a liberal arts education a true luxury.”

So has the liberal arts degree become a relic, a pursuit of the past?

Carol Ford of Milan, who has worked in the University of Minnesota system for 20 years, , said the trend away from the liberal arts degree worries her. She sees the liberal arts path as one that produces adults who can “sort through the info-muck … to analyze the political issues of the day.” In other words, a liberal arts degree makes students complete citizens.

Ford concluded: “I am ashamed at our growing disinterest and disrespect for liberal arts education.”

These are strong views on the worth of the liberal arts degree. Maybe a new line of pursuit should be: “What is the liberal arts degree good for?”

A word on motivation

Both debaters wrote about the growing need for remedial education. Thorne and Wood decried the national cost of remedial education, estimated at $2.3 billion annually. Carey said the nation can’t turn a blind eye to the preparation needs of students as 34 percent of students at public colleges enrolled in at least one remedial course, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Underlying the remedial education issue is a serious problem: More high school students don’t seem prepared for higher education.

Nicole Erickson, who works at Capella University in Minneapolis talked about being a teaching assistant at a “large public university”. What struck her was the sense of entitlement that students had in the class:

“I got the distinct impression that they were only there because they had to be there. Many of those students acted as though college was a pay-for-service kind of set-up. Almost as though once they paid for tuition, they then expected the product — a degree — to be given to them with only a basic level of hoop-jumping the their part.”

Erickson said that instilling discipline and motivation must come before college, in high school.

That prompted Kim Farris-Berg to add in a word about student motivation. She’s part of the Citizens League’s Student Speak Out project, which is exploring what motivate young people to excel. Farris-Berg wondered if the solution to higher education preparation should be “rooted in what motivates them” to achieve.

Look over the debate and find your own questions to pursue.

THE DEBATE IN FULL – The Assertion: Expanding college admissions will downgrade college standards.

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