Knowledge is good.

I keep meaning to blog about Lower Ed, and it keeps not happening. But I have a few disjointed thoughts written down, so maybe I can make something of them.

I keep thinking back to my time working at a for-profit college. I knew something of what they were at the time. They had been in the news now and then for many years, usually due to lawsuits over misrepresentation. The colleges are accredited (usually, as far as I know), but not by accreditors that are respected by the so-called real colleges, so the degrees and credits do not transfer. People find this out after that fact and take matters to court or to attorneys general. I don’t know if that has changed. Several students in my classes said they expected to go on with their education elsewhere. When I brought up the transfer issue, they always said it wouldn’t be a problem. I told them to check with the other schools, and at least one student said she had, so maybe there were articulation agreements in place. Or maybe the students were mistaken.

The negativity in stories about for-profit colleges give the impression that they are all bad, but there are positive tales as well. One of my former co-workers went to the college where I later worked after she was laid off by my boss. That led her to working with a dentist, and shortly thereafter she was managing the office, and she loves her job. That being said, all the college really gave her was a credential that got her in the door, and I believe tuition assistance was part of her separation, so she didn’t incur a heavy debt on the way.

I did see credentialism at play in my time there. One of my students was only there because the new owners of her company decided she needed a degree to do the job she had successfully been doing for fifteen years. It would have been cheaper for her to get it through the local community college, but that would have taken more time and more effort. At the same time, some of my fellow instructors were working towards doctorates through online for-profits, because the colleges or the state decided that they needed an additional degree to do the jobs that they had been doing successfully for a long time. I doubt that any tuition assistance was involved in their cases.

I notice I’ve been using feminine pronouns. That’s because the demographics McMillan Cottom describes matches my experience. Most of the students were women. The white students were a minority. Many were not native speakers of English. My classes looked just like my neighborhood. That actually put me in good stead with much of the student body. Students told me they appreciated that I lived in “the hood” and had graduated from the same vocational high school as many of them.

One of the questions Bryan Alexander asked the other week was why other colleges haven’t drawn this demographic. I think there are a few reasons. In the area where I lived, they didn’t need to. The most direct competition was the local community college, which had all the students it could handle. They did some advertising and outreach, but they didn’t aggressively go after students. The other colleges in the area were very academically focused, which did not appeal to people specifically looking for career training. None of the “real” colleges offered any real help with navigating the bureaucracies of registration and financial aid. The community college could not afford the support staff they would need for the size of their population, and the other colleges were probably not interested in students who needed that level of support.

I don’t know if colleges intentionally make things difficult for students as a filtering mechanism, but my experience with graduate school suggests they might. I was required to take the GRE because I had been out of school for so long. I was concerned about my scores, so I asked the program director if they would be an issue, and she told me they don’t really matter. She said they want people to take the exam to demonstrate that they are serious about getting into grad school.

Reading Lower Ed led me to look into the “Education Gospel” referenced in the introduction. I found “The Education Gospel and the Role of Vocationalism in American Education” by Grubb and Lazerson. It kind of irks me, because I do believe in lifelong learning, that knowledge is good, always be learning, and all that. But I believe that because it’s good for the person and it’s good for society. Grubb and Lazerson’s Gospel shifts that benefit from society to the economy – education is about getting a job. And that immediately brings Ted Nelson to mind:

Is your motivation to get a degree and a dumb job? Or is your motivation to be a learned person? (YT)

Coming from my librarian perspective, I see lifelong learning, information literacy, and learning how to learn as all deeply connected, if not parts of the same whole. It’s something different from training though. Lifelong learning is about empowering individuals. Lifelong training is more about keep the cogs from rusting.

The most obvious consequence of the Education Gospel has been its role in transforming the purposes of schooling from civic and moral purposes (in grammar schools) or mental discipline and character development for potential leaders (in higher education) to occupational preparation. (Grubb & Lazerson)

The change is then from education as making a better country to education as making a better (or cheaper) workforce. It’s actually disempowering – training for indentured servitude – when the continual costs are taken into consideration.

I feel like I’m conflicted here. Knowledge is good. Jobs are good. There’s nothing wrong with learning for its own sake and there’s nothing wrong with getting a degree that gets you a job. But there is a problem with saying “we need more welders and less philosophers.” There is a problem with divesting from public education. That’s a societal problem and a problem with the stories we as a society tell. Critical takes like Lower Ed help to counter the trend.

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