Saturday, February 22, 2014

Life Skills As College?




By Professor Doom

 

“…100 level lessons will help you find resources to pay for college, understand the steps required to apply for financial aid and prepare to repay your student loans…”

---I’m serious, this is a college course, from a supposedly non-profit institution. Not only are students being loaned money, they’re now being billed to learn how to get the loans? Professors can make assignments from the lessons provided, but I suspect many students are quickly directed to learn how to get more loan money for the institution. There are many lessons…

 

      Higher education isn’t just a business for for-profit institutions, all institutions are grubbing for money as much as possible. Perhaps that’s the way of the world, but higher education is supposed to be about, well, knowledge. Now, absolutely, it can be argued that the knowledge of higher education is worthless, questionable, useless for getting a real job…I readily admit that no Shakespearean sonnet has helped me in any direct way, and memorizing the Hamlet soliloquy has likewise produced no monetary benefit to me. Even much of my obscure mathematical lore hasn’t really mattered all that much when it comes time to write a check to the IRS. I like knowing it, however, and I’m grateful to learn it in an era when learning didn’t mean a lifetime of endless debt.

     But, at least it is knowledge that takes effort to learn. Administrators in higher education are so hard pressed to grab money, any money, that they’re naturally inclined to offer courses that will sell. Until now, I’ve focused on questionable courses like third grade math or courses based around TV shows and recent movies…but at least these courses have knowledge (of a sort) in them that I can suppose is not everyday knowledge. These courses sell, and sales are good for business.

 

“…600 level lessons will help you survive and pay for graduate school, manage debt during school and prepare for life after graduate school…”

--Isn’t there at least a tiny conflict of interest in colleges selling coursework like this? It’s like the diamond council recommending you spend 2 month’s salary on a wedding ring, or the ice cream council recommending the ideal human weight to be 400 pounds. None of the lessons are of the form “the world is full of scammers that are dedicated to separating you from you money.” Go figure. Did I mention this school is fully accredited?

 

     Now, it certainly is important that our young people get useful advice about debt. Call me cynical, but I have my doubts college administration is really interested in telling students what a bad idea a loan for college education can be.

 

  300 level lessons will help you search for a job, prepare for an interview and understand the details related to life after graduation

  400 level lessons will help you manage your credit card debt, understand credit scores and reports and protect yourself from identity theft

--to be fair, this is good advice to give, although I’m not exactly sure waiting until the students are 20 years old (the usual age of students in 300 and 400 level courses) makes sense. We’ll teach kids about sex, years before they’re interested in sex, but teach them about credit cards a full 2 years after they get their first card? Is anyone in higher education thinking this through?

 

     I don’t rule out the above coursework as useful, but it’s weird how much it’s been spread out. I took a course on personal finance as an elective (one of two electives I was allowed, unlike the near infinite amount granted students today—more sales!). The course I took basically covered every topic in all the above life skills lesson plans, and more. Now, of course, administrators determine what are useful life skills, and are inclined to think the things they know are important.

 

A former assistant dean–or perhaps deanlet or deanling might be a better title–at my university explained that students need to learn more than academic skills.12 They also must be taught, “the universal life skills that everyone needs to know.” And what might be an example of one of these all-important proficiencies? According to this deanling, a premier example is event planning. “For many students, the biggest event they’ve ever planned is a dinner at home.” But, planning an event on campus might require, “reserving the room, notifying Security, arranging transportation and lodging for out-of-town speakers, ordering food.” Armed with training in a subject as important and intellectually challenging as event planning, students would hardly need to know anything about physics or calculus or literature or any of those other inconsequential topics taught by the stodgy faculty.

--Ok, so a course on event planning. Hey, the deanling has to plan events on campus, so it seemed important to her. Just because everything you need to know can fit in one pamphlet doesn’t rule out it being higher education. Apparently.

     Now there are whole college degrees based around things that, frankly, used to be basic life skills, or at best job skills that one could learn in a long afternoon:

 

EVPL 240: Event Planning/Risk Management

Credits: 5.0

--I’m serious. Yes, 5 credit hours. There are serious, hard core courses on obscure topics in astrophysics that don’t get 4 hours of college credit. A look at the course objectives doesn’t explain why so much credit for this life skill. Sticking “risk management” in the title really just makes this course sound like quite a bit more than it is, or even possibly could be.

 

     The above course looks like they at least tried to make it as challenging as actual college courses, but other “life skills” courses look to be as accessible as a stack of feel-good brochures. There’s nothing wrong with brochures, mind you, they’re a great way to give “need to know” information about fairly thin topics. But why make courses out of brochures? The whole point of brochures is to put all the key information into the tiny packet it belongs, not spread it out over months.

 

The Life Skills Tool Box is a… accredited program…The Life Skills course is built around the practices of resilience, emotional wellbeing and suicide prevention.

---Seriously. Ok, I grant that “don’t down a bottle of sleeping pills” is a useful life skill…but how do you spend four or more hours learning how to not kill yourself?

 

     Back when educators controlled education, getting a new course approved for the course catalogue was not an easy thing. You had to convince your department head that there was a need for the course, and that, more importantly, the course would actually prepare students to learn more (recall, old accreditation mandated that education was about preparation). The validity and usefulness of the course is what allowed it to exist. Students could not be given the option to take worthless courses that didn’t do anything.

     Now, if you want a new course, you don’t have to talk to other experts in your field. Instead, you go to admin, say “hey, this will sell” and you’re set. It no longer matters if the course has any actual material in it. Students don’t just get the option to take bogus courses, catalogues are now minefields of uselessness.

     If higher education is going to stop being a joke, we’ll need to flush out those courses that are just money soaks. Higher education might well be a business, but there still needs to be integrity. McDonald’s is a business, too, and the stuff they sell is at least arguably food…too much of what is being peddled by higher education isn’t even arguably higher education.

       So that’s my two-pronged fix: trim down the bogus courses that don’t lead to degrees, and go back to the “old way” of creating college courses, where the justification for the course was more than “it will sell.”

 

     “Write down how you would write $17.49 on a personal check.”

--actual test question from a “College Algebra” course at an accredited institution, by a teacher that admin claims is far superior to me. Yes, the answer was “Seventeen and forty-nine/100.” Such coursework really helps with retention, but…this is not higher education.

 

     Should students go into debt to learn how to make an entry in a check? Should course catalogues be filled with dreck that offers no real education, and, often, no job skills? Why are the answers to these questions obvious to the reader, but not to administrators in higher education?