Higher Education is Broken; Here’s a Way to Fix It

Wouldn’t it be cool to get an apprenticeship with Stephan King, where you spend the night camping with him in the deep forest?

Well, okay, maybe it’s best to spend time with him near his desk seeing how he became successful, walking in his shoes.

Or, you quit school but met a woman whose father is a bank executive. He likes you and says, “Don’t worry about school. We will train you to be a bank teller. Just give me five years of your life and you can work up through the ranks.”

Maybe you always liked building things and want to make real furniture, not the crap we all buy from a factory that is all the same. No, you want to make a piece of furniture that is a piece of art that is original like we used to make. You find a person that is an expert woodworker and learn the skills.

When I was young, I wanted to become a girls’ gymnastics coach. The only way one becomes a girls’ gymnastics coach, the ones that train elite athletes at the national and Olympic levels, was through apprenticeship. A degree in physical education was nice, a byproduct, but not necessary. I went to a big school and begged them. They were willing to train me with a few caveats.

The point is that colleges and universities have gotten away from what they really should be doing because there are too many add-ons, what we call general studies. Students end up spending most of their time doing work that they will never use and will forget before they graduate. For example, most of us don’t need much math, but math is pushed on us.

While driving my high school students to school, they were talking about English and how “yet again” had to learn about logos, pathos, ethos. I told them, “Don’t worry, you will get the same exact stuff over again in freshman year at college. They will have to pay for an education they already got twice before. As a former college professor, I could never understand why we teach the composition studies we do. No one uses it beyond college. Do any of you? Has any employer said, “Hey, instead of operating on that patient, why don’t you write an argumentative essay on “My life in the ER and why being squeamish about blood matters.” I have yet to find any use for the three Algebra classes I took.

Though writing does matter, and doctors do plenty of it, little of what they learn in school actually prepares them for medical notation and medical writing. That is something handled at the graduate level during residency. Though math might have its use in medical school, I bet that most of the math required of students is way too overrated.

My simple solution: eliminate undergraduate education. That is what high school is for. There is no reason why any high school student should be incapable of writing a good, sound 8-12 page academic, research-based essay. My high school students do just that. Courses should be usable and practical. Lack of education—a poorly written essay–is more of an issue about equity and equality across school systems.

Higher education has become the equivalent of our prison system. Because of the severe lack of good mental health care and the mental illnesses many inmates have, prisons must also serve as psychiatric pharmacies and mental health clinics. Prisons are very good at one thing: locking up dangerous people. They were not designed to do what they are currently doing. The same is true for colleges and universities. They were never designed to close a lifetime of the educational deficit while handing the student an enormous student debt bill.  I worked in prisons and higher education. I was also a volunteer evaluator for the Middles States Commission on Higher Education.

Graduate Should be the Undergraduate

When you are 18, you are old enough. At this point, colleges should offer courses that are hands-on and make sense. And that is exactly what graduate education is. Even with some of my concerns about a Doctor of Social Work or a Doctorate in Educational Community College Leadership, which seem to be degrees created more to keep colleges alive than their students alive, these degrees still focus on the student’s interest or field of study. The problem with undergraduate work is that it’s built on this idealistic, even elitist, notion that a good student must know XYZ, but what is clear is that most students graduate not knowing XYZ but have enough debt to know ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.

Yes, it is true that higher education was never meant for everyone. It was meant for the supermodels of brain power, or if their daddy and mommy have a lot of money to address their child’s brain power issues. There is a reason why rich colleges and universities get huge endowments. Part of it is to get their kids and loved ones legacy admission.

Undergraduate education is almost completely useless, though an argument can be made that the courses one takes in junior and senior year help. I’d still say that is what a master’s degree is for. Many professions like social work take any undergraduate degree because you learn what you need to at the graduate level. An internship is a kind of apprenticeship. Many graduate programs have these.

So, if you want to become a writer and go into a Master of Fine Arts program for creative writing, you’d get to work with someone like Stephan King, one on one. No, MFA’s are not useless; rather, we are in a society that sees much of art as useless in part because of how higher education is structured: the goal is to get out and get a job. You don’t need college to get a job. Learn to drive a big rig or commercial vehicle, even a school bus. Most are young enough that they can always go to school later if they are not sure what career they want.

Even in such cases where most at 18 don’t know what they want to do, colleges and universities could offer an exploratory year where students take whatever the heck they want. They would audit classes at a much lower cost, sit in and experience different professions. Spend the day with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the frontlines of politics, or they could go with a resident to an ER. They can camp with Stephan King overnight on Halloween, or hang out with Elon Musk though preferably not when he’s on Twitter texting but actually working.

Though I throw out big names, we all have local versions of such people in our communities. Every community has a writer, a politician, and a business person.

Roles of High Schools and Community Colleges

My point of contention with high schools is that students are not children. I go by development and book genre. Emotion aside, young adults are 14-19. They are young adults without much adult experience. Yes, they are legally minors until 18 in most states, but this is the time to provide undergraduate education without silly restrictions. When high school students take college classes, they are adults. We do not alter the curriculum because of student age. That’s the way it should be.

Many schools are letting students take two years of college at the local community college. This should be mandatory and count for undergraduate with some adjustments. Undergraduate programs at colleges and universities would be absorbed into graduate programs.

So, for example, pre-med courses would be what graduating high school students would take after high school graduation without having to take unrelated courses, essentially trimming the expensive pork fat off a program. They may even be able to take such “pre-med” courses in high school through a community college partnership. These “pre-med” courses would be put into graduate-level programs.

After meeting those rigorous requirements, they would go on to the doctoral program. For English they’d start in the Master of English program (which is two years at least, some take three) and on completion, they can go into a profession or go for a doctorate.

Better Focus, Better Education for Much Less Money

The result would be that when one is 21- or 22 years old, they would be a graduate with a thorough education. They may only have to pay for two years of education, not 6 years. They may be a medical doctor at 26 or 27. We would close the serious impending gap in needing educated professionals by cutting out needless courses that can be covered during high school.  We could do so by utilizing the local community colleges and restructuring them to offer more focused and rigorous courses.  Any gaps in education that disadvantaged students are facing need programs developed for them through high schools and community colleges.

All of these paths would involve internships and service learning, which puts the student on the front lines of the work. Even in my current job, we can sit in class and say what makes a good school bus driver, but when moving down a highway with 61 kids in the back, such is a totally different experience. Talking about lions is cool. Standing in front of one is another matter completely.

Making money is cool. Having a lot of debt is not cool. Restructuring high school and higher education that focuses more specifically on student interests, exploration, and costs, would do a lot for younger generations. Even encouraging them to learn trades like plumbing, truck driving, and auto mechanics is good because many of these pay well. Also, one can always go back to college. Community colleges often offer these alternative programs. I found that having a commercial driver’s license is invaluable,  even though I have an MSW and a PhD.D.

After experiencing how general education programs are designed and regulated by the states, it becomes more of a numbers game for the sake of numbers. Let’s cut this class because it will make the program over 120 credits. Let’s junk this because it’s art. But there is one thing missing in that room across all of the United States, the students and their need to work directly in the field of their potential interest.