Friday, March 1, 2013

Universities as "fast-food"

The Fear Factor
There are several recent stories, such as this one, that show that college graduates are often earning less than those without such degrees. And other stories (such as this one) show there is an increasing fraction of new PhDs who cannot get jobs that require what they've spent so much time and effort training for.  And while some stories say that over all more education means more lifetime earning, it isn't clear (to us, at least) if this factors in the cost of paying back student loans plus their interest, or the wages lost during the many years that higher education requires.

From The Atlantic, Weissmann, Feb 20, 2013
Going to college or university has long had a status component, that provided some respect for those who had survived the ordeal.  Indeed, we used to think that those who had manged to run the demanding gauntlet to obtain college degrees actually knew more and could think more deeply than those without!  However, it's long been the case that a PhD didn't provide much that companies were looking for, over a solid Master's degree (true, at least, when meaningful MAs and MSs were being given); the reason is that because PhD dissertations represented original research, but this was usually unrelated to companies' particular projects and goals, so PhDs had to be paid more but still had to be retrained.

If these things are true, why do so many still go to college or university?  One reason is the so-called 'business model', by which universities have substantial PR budgets, often hiring external PR companies to do their spinning for them in a professional way.  Highly paid advisors and spin doctors have found that non-education-related perks are a big attraction, so universities have been building and then heavily advertising their luxury gyms and student housing, their fine food services, and the fun, fun, fun that will occupy their charges' time during their 4-year 'education'.

Universities and their PR arms aren't stupid.  They know how to create want; after all, half of the US population seems to be employed to do that (it's called the advertising industry).  And one way to build an irresistible craving is to make people fear that they will lose something if they don't attend.  They'll lose their status, their 4 years of play, and lifetime earnings!  If you don't get a degree here at Playwell University, somebody else will, and they'll get ahead of you!

Once lured to campus, colleges and universities have 'retention' programs to keep the little dears from dropping out (and, though we don't say it out loud, not paying any more tuition).  And then, the drumbeat continues: you had better prepare for graduate school, or someone will get ahead of you!  Even if it costs you more money, and even if there aren't enough jobs (you're not really told that very often), if you stay out you stay behind.

The fast food industry is being lambasted left, right, and center (e.g., the recent story in the NYT) for manipulating addictive tastes, and desires for them, through assembling deliciously addictive ingredients, as well as marketing.  A little salt, a lot of sugar, and you can't stay away!  Similarly, in universities the 'ingredients' are watered-down course standards, course notes posted on the web so the annoyance of class attendance isn't required, gyms, many days off, weekends starting on Wednesdays, no 8AM or Saturday classes, and on and on.  The student-customer is always right. Indeed, why not extend your education an additional year, go another $20 grand into debt for the chance to have another football season and all the partying that goes with it?

Professors are supposed to be the smart ones in society and it's true: we're smart enough to see where our bread is buttered.  Or, our hamburger rolls.  Even though we know that more people are attending, to lowered standards and bigger class sizes and less qualified instructors for higher tuition, we are not about to do the honorable thing and size down to something more socially responsible.   That unthinkable thought would, in the process, raise the standards and expectations of those who do come, should come, and will gain skills that truly are needed by society.

But doing that would be about the same as McFood voluntarily refusing to SuperSize.  Unthinkable.

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