Friday, October 26, 2012

The High Cost of Higher Education

As both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney continue to battle over who will better serve students and workers in preparing for their future, TIME Magazine has an excellent feature on the rising costs and changing face of higher education in this country.  Of interest to me is the role that government plays in subsidizing education and research - much to the ignorance of the average American.  I went to the University of Illinois, and most people I know went to public universities.  Additionally, many people I know who attended private universities did so with the help of government subsidized student loans.  In the years 2012, the average tuition and fees for a private school is $28,000 per year, while the average tuition and fees for a public university is roughly $8,500 per year.  So, the question you have to ask yourself is this: if you went to a public university or if you have kids who are attending college or plan to attend college, why would you ever support political candidates who seek to cut government funding for education by up to 20%?


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Longer or Just Different School Year

My school generally starts school during the week of August 20, has a one-week fall break in October, a two-week winter break in December, a one-week spring break in March, and lets out for summer by June 7.  It's quite a nice schedule - especially the addition of the fall break.  When I first moved to Colorado and discovered "fall break," I thought it was the greatest invention in the history of school schedules.  After nine or ten weeks to kick off the year, a week around Halloween was the perfect time to recharge.  I can't imagine ever going back to a "shorter" school year that starts around Labor Day and gets out by the end of May, but has shorter breaks during the year.  Summer is long enough as it is, and the quarterly breaks are great.

Now, as more school districts consider changes to the traditional schedule, decisions about breaks are beginning to drive the discussion.  That said, I am no fan of year-round school, and I am opposed to blanket statements that we simply need a longer school year.  However, a shorter summer break with extended fall, winter, and spring breaks makes all the sense in the world.  Summer vacation is a time-honored tradition in American culture, and it is one that should remain.  Summer is a time for extended camps and summer employment, leisure time and more athletic opportunities.  While we currently have one-week breaks in the spring and fall, I would gladly lop three weeks off the summer on either side, and take two weeks in fall, two weeks in spring, and three in the winter.  That would still leave eight or more solid weeks in the summer.

Nothing wrong with that.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The College and Education Bubble

It's no mystery that too many people are going to college.  With 29% of the country currently holding bachelor degrees or better, and unemployment a significant problem for them, especially if they just graduated, the conventional wisdom is that we need to re-think this obsession with college degrees.  Certainly, at a time that millions are out of work while millions of jobs in skilled labor go unfilled, the economy's long reliance on the college degree as credibility is passing.

With that in mind, Virginia Heffernan of Yahoo News offers her insights on How to Burst the College Bubble.  Heffernan's point is similar to many earlier criticisms of the college-degree-as-screening device made by people such as Charles Murray who wrote Real Education, and developed further with the work of Anya Kamenetz who published Generation Debt and DIY-U (Do It Yourself University).  In essence, the obsessive focus on college degrees has actually diminished the focus and value of education.  Heffernan looks forward - albeit quite quixotically - to a time when "you'd study not to get a credential .. but to improve your mind or acquire a skills, [much like] the reason you go to karate ... or yoga class."

The college degree as screening device has its merits - but employers could "devise their own tests to find valuable hires."  And the idea that a credential qualified someone, as opposed to a real demonstration of skill, would be lessened.  Or perhaps, as new platforms like Coursera propose, employers would emphasize the seat time on campus less than the acquisition of skills and knowledge.  Granted, there is still a legitimate argument for a classical education as the foundation of culture.  And the more well rounded people are, the more they generally contribute to society.  That said, we may be long overdue for a bursting of the College Bubble.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don't Follow Your Passion - And Stop Telling Kids to Do That

Students come to school for more than just content knowledge - they are looking to figure themselves out and find their way in the world.  On a practical level, they are on a path to their career and future life.  However, some people lament the pressure on students to make "life decisions" at the age of seventeen or nineteen .... or twenty-six?  The problem for many kids is they don't know who they are or "what they want to do with their lives."  And, too many counselors and teachers and parents and friends offer the misleading advice to "follow your passion."

People like Discovery Channel's Mike Rowe and Georgetown professor Cal Newport disagree.

Years ago, I watched Mike Rowe's "Ted Talk" in which he said following his passion was "the worst advice I ever got.  Follow your passion and go broke, right?"  And I was always fascinated by his insight - especially because I did follow my passion.  In Rowe's opinion, some people should follow their passions, some people should follow their skills, and some people should just follow the market. Certainly, that is more practical than just telling all kids to "find something you love, and then find a job that pays you to do it."  That's actually pretty weak and useless advice.  And that sentiment has been furthered with a recent op-ed in the New York Times from a professor named Cal Newport and his new book called So Good They Can't Ignore You.  Cal writes about his decision to pursue a Ph.D. in his twenties instead of taking an exciting new job or taking an advance to publish his first book.

Cal Newport certainly has a lot of great insight about making life decisions, and his books and blog are certainly worth checking out.  I am impressed with the idea behind his book - though I haven't read it yet - because I was offering similar advice to my seniors today.  My thought today was Make Yourself Indispensable, and that has become a theme in much business writing these days.  People are going to need to adapt and become more multifaceted if they want to remain employable and successful.  And I will be recommending several of Newport's books to my students.  He published his first at the age of twenty-one about how to "do college."  And he has subsequently published other bits of academic advice:

How to Win At College: Surprising Secrets For Success from the Country's Top Students

How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Into College by Standing Out

How to Become a Straight A Student:  The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less 

Advice like Mike Rowe's and Cal Newport's cannot be emphasized enough - especially in the contemporary world of always changing technologies and markets.