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Fighting the four-year myth

I’m in Providence, Rhode Island today speaking at BIF-5 – the Business Innovation Factory’s fifth annual storytelling conference. I’ll be doing my best to blog when not on stage.

Melissa Withers, the executive director of Business Innovation Factory, starts her talk thanking three men – our host Saul Kaplan; her husband; and our first speaker, Michael Samuelson. Her husband heard Samuelson’s talk about breast cancer and gave himself a testicular exam. It helped him find testicular cancer, which he sought treatment for and is now four years cancer-free.

Her talk is not on cancer, but on the future of college education. She shows us photos of five people desperately seeking a college education. She tells us that these students are facing barriers that are painful, sometimes funny, and incredibly important. Our country is falling behind in post-secondary education, she tells us.

The problem is that “the system (mostly) sucks”, that “the student experience (really) sucks” and that the student voice is almost invisible in the experience.

With support from the Lumina Foundation, she and BIF have been focused on looking for ways to put students and student voice at the center of the experience of finding a college. They’ve been surveying students at 40 schools across the country, trying to figure out why 50% of college students drop out, 33% in the first year. She uses the term “stopping out”, because she’s worried the other term suggests that students don’t care.

Her preliminary conclusions:
– Students are making bad decisions
– They’re maxed out on debt
– Schools are daisy-chained in a bad system, but are struggling to deal with it

Students make bad decisions in part because they’ve got very little support. There’s roughly eight hundred students for every college admission counselors. Only 23% of students have the math, reading, science skills to fully embrace higher education. They’re playing catch up, which is never fun.

The financial consequences are serious. 28% of college graduates delay having kids due to student loans, and more delay buying a house. She believes that lots aren’t getting much for their investment. Only 39% of college graduates felt they were doing more critical thinking after their four year college experience.

To conclude:
– Not enough get in
– Even fewer get out
– Those that do are broke and unsatisfied

We need to rethink the whole four year college experience – this isn’t working, and it may be setting us further back as a society.

3 thoughts on “Fighting the four-year myth”

  1. Pingback: H. E. R. P. & E. S. » Blog Archive » EDUCATION NEXT

  2. Unfortunately there’s no breakdown here of students by academic program. I wonder how many of the 39% who felt they were doing more critical thinking after college were liberal arts majors ? my guess is, most of them were.

    The explosion of pre-professional studies programs catering to people who want vocational training has been a boon to colleges wanting to make a quick buck, but it’s been an educational disaster. For many students, the draw of these programs is that they “don’t have to take” liberal arts courses which are “not relevant” to their professional field.

    The trouble is, liberal arts are the very essence of higher education. Those are the courses where one really learns to read, write, and think clearly and critically. It would be no wonder if someone who spends 4 years and thousands and thousands of dollars on what is, essentially, a vocational program, feels shortchanged at the end of it. These graduates are basically paying top dollar for mediocre educations and a (possibly) prestigious piece of paper.

    If you’re looking to study food & beverage management, that 4-year college is not a wise investment of time or money.

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