The first attempt at higher education I experienced was a disaster. The school was Dodge City Community College and my first major was Music. I had been, intermittently, a fairly successful rock and roll musician for a few years and wanted to extend my musical knowledge to theory. DCCC wanted to teach me how to teach K-12 music, a career path that was dying in 1966. I learned quickly that my school’s music department had damn few actual musicians as instructors. After a wasted semester, I moved to Business and a few weeks later, left that school for good. My first attempt at college was a bust and I was convinced I’d never set a wasted foot in an institution of “higher learning” again.
A few years later, I was working part-time and getting paid full time in Dallas, Texas and with some spare afternoons available I reconsidered my education. Junior colleges were still cheap and so was my time. Right in downtown Dallas was a school several of my friends recommended, El Centro College. I signed up for a couple of the classes I’d flunked in Kansas by dropping out unannounced and stumbled into an unexpected bonus: high quality teachers who cared about their students. In my K-12 and partial college experience, I had no more than three instructors who gave a flying damn about providing value to their students. The overwhelming attitude of my first years’ instructors was that of a pissed off babysitter. At El Centro, I had excellent instructors who cared about their students, knew their subjects, and taught their classes like professionals.
Unfortunately, I went back to the Midwest and suffered the usual crap-for-brains characters who “teach” at a variety of institutions from western Kansas to Texas to Nebraska. Since I’d experience real instruction as an adult, I at least knew when I was in a mediocre situation. California took the whole education experience up several notches. Even in the state’s community colleges, the majority of instructors were not only PhD’s, they were brilliant. The only place I experienced less-than-excellent instructors was in my CSULB minor; technical writing. My Creative Writing and English instructors in that program were as excellent as I’d come to expect from California’s higher education system.
Where’s this all going? I’m glad you asked.
In my experience, the excellence I’ve enjoyed in my education has all been in practical, technical, and vocational training. I include Creative Writing in that group. When the education system is focused on providing value to students, it works. When it is misdirected toward theoretical educational philosophic goals, it becomes pointless and aimless. 50 years later, if you look at the schools I’ve mentioned (and linked) you’ll see some warning flags and some encouraging signs. My first school, DCCC, appears to believe it’s primary purpose is to entertain the local public. If the website is any indicator the school’s focus, sports and cheerleading are the primary activities of its students. El Centro has focused on a few practical vocational specialties and created programs that are economically practical and valuable to their students. The same applies to CSULB’s engineering, design, and even the more traditional programs.
For-profit institutions are getting their asses handed to them in the current economic environment. I recently visited with some of the administrative people at Southeast Technical Community College and they, too, are experiencing a slow-down in enrollment. Unlike other schools, they are not in a panic mode. They’ve been through this before and realize that college enrollment often goes down the when economy is strong. People are less likely to work on improving their skills if their skills are marketable. That’s not smart, but it is human nature. STCC makes a big deal, internally and externally, of their 80% graduate employment rate (a number for-profits only wish they could emulate). Their business model is to provide marketable skills to their graduates along with a reasonable dose of traditional liberal arts education. In my experience, that provides a much more focused goal for the teachers, which provides more value to students. In a decent economy, what we usually call “higher education” is nearly useless. It is an unfocused, disconnected-from-reality waste of time and money that provides value to such a tiny portion of students that intelligent parents should avoid any contribution to that sort of system. If kids want to flush their future into the toilet of general liberal arts, they should after being honestly counseled to the fact that any job they could get after that education could be obtained without it.