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Monday, November 29, 2010

Reading List: The Five-Year Party

Brandon, Craig. The Five-Year Party. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-935251-80-4.
I suspect that many readers of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons (October 2010) whose own bright college days are three or four decades behind them will conclude that Wolfe embroidered quite a bit upon the contemporary campus scene in the interest of telling an entertaining tale. In this book, based upon the author's twelve years of experience teaching journalism at Keene State College in New Hampshire and extensive research, you'll get a factual look at what goes on at “party schools”, which have de-emphasised education in favour of “retention”—in other words, extracting the maximum amount of money from students and their families, and burdening them with crushing loans which make it impossible for graduates to accumulate capital in those early years which, due to compounding, are so crucial. In fact, Charlotte Simmons actually paints a better picture of college life than that which awaits most freshmen arriving on campus: Charlotte's fictional Dupont University was an élite school, with at least one Nobel Prize winner on the faculty, and although corrupted by its high-profile athletic program, enforced genuine academic standards for the non-athlete student body and had real consequences for failure to perform.

Not so at party schools. First of all, let's examine what these “party schools” are. What they're not is the kind of small, private, liberal arts college parodied in Animal House. Instead, the lists of top party schools compiled annually by Playboy and the Princeton Review are overwhelmingly dominated by huge, taxpayer-supported, state universities. In the most recent set of lists, out of a total of twenty top party schools, only two were private institutions. Because of their massive size, state party schools account for a large fraction of the entire U.S. college enrollment, and hence are representative of college life for most students who do not enter the small number of élite schools which are feeders for the ruling class.

As with most “public services” operated by governments, things at these state institutions of “higher education” are not what they appear to be on the surface, and certainly not what parents expect when they send their son or daughter off on what they have been led to believe is the first step toward a promising career. The first lie is in the very concept of a “four-year college”: with today's absurd relaxation of standards for dropping classes, lighter class loads, and “retention” taking priority over selecting out those unsuited to instruction at the college level, only a minority of students finish in four years, and around half take more than five years to graduate, with only about 54% graduating even in six years. Apart from the wasted years of these students' lives, this means the price tag, and corresponding debt burden of a college education is 25%, 50%, or even more above the advertised sticker price, with the additional revenue going into the college's coffers and providing no incentive whatsoever to move students through the system more rapidly.

But the greatest scandal and fraud is not the binge drinking, widespread drug use, casual sex, high rates of serious crime covered up by a campus disciplinary system more interested in preserving the reputation of the institution than weeding out predators among the student body, although all of these are discussed in depth here, but rather the fact that at these gold-plated diploma mill feedlots, education has been de-emphasised to the extent of being entirely optional. Indeed, only about one fifth of university budgets goes to instruction; all the rest disappears into the fat salaries of endlessly proliferating legions of administrators, country club like student amenities, and ambitious building programs. Classes have been dumbed down to the extent that it is possible to navigate a “slacker track” to a bachelor's degree without ever taking a single course more intellectually demanding than what was once considered junior high level, or without being able to read, comprehend, and write the English language with high school proficiency. Grade inflation has resulted in more than 90% of all grades being either A or B, with a B expected by students as their reward simply for showing up, with the consequence that grade reports to parents and transcripts for prospective employers have become meaningless and impossible to evaluate.

The National Survey of Student Engagement finds that only about 10% of U.S. university students are “fully engaged”—actually behaving as college students were once expected to in order to make the most of the educational resources available to them. Twice that percent were “fully disengaged”: just there to party or passing time, while the remainder weren't full time slackers but not really interested in learning things.

Now these are very interesting numbers, and they lead me to a conclusion which the author never explores. Prior to the 1960s, it was assumed that only a minority of highest-ranking secondary school students would go on to college. With the mean IQ of bachelor's degree holders ranging from 110 to 120, this means that they necessarily make up around the top 10 to 15 percent of the population by intelligence. But now, the idea seems to be that everybody should get a “college education”, and indeed today in the U.S. around 70% of high school graduates go on to some kind of college program (although a far smaller fraction ever graduate). Now clearly, a college education which was once suited to the most intelligent 10% of the population is simply not going to work for the fat middle of the bell curve, which characterises the present-day college population. Looked at this way, the party school seems to be an inevitable consequence. If society has deemed it valuable that all shall receive a “college education”, then it is necessary to redefine “college education” as something the average citizen can accomplish and receive the requisite credential. Hence the elimination, or optional status, of actual learning, evaluation of performance, and useful grades. With universities forced to compete on their attractiveness to “the customer”—the students—they concentrate on amenities and lax enforcement of codes of conduct in order to keep those tuition dollars coming in for four, five, six, or however many years it takes.

A number of observers have wondered whether the next bubble to pop will be higher education. Certainly, the parallels are obvious: an overbuilt industry, funded by unsustainable debt, delivering a shoddy product, at a cost which has been growing much faster than inflation or the incomes of those who foot the bills. This look inside the ugly mass education business only reinforces that impression, since another consequence of a bubble is the normalisation and acceptance of absurdity by those inside it. Certainly one indication the bubble may be about to pop is that employers have twigged to the fact that a college diploma and glowing transcript from one of these rackets the author calls “subprime colleges” is no evidence whatsoever of a job applicant's literacy, knowledge, or work ethic, which explains why so many alumni of these programs are living in their parents' basements today, getting along by waiting tables or delivering pizza, while they wait for that lucky break they believe they're entitled to. This population is only likely to increase as employers in need of knowledge workers discover they can outsource those functions to Asia, where university degrees are much more rare but actually mean something.

Elite universities, of course, continue to provide excellent educational opportunities for the small number of students who make it through the rigorous selection process to get there. It's also possible for a dedicated and fully engaged student to get a pretty good education at a party school, as long as they manage to avoid the distractions, select challenging courses and dedicated professors, and don't have the bad fortune to suffer assault, rape, arson, or murder by the inebriated animals that outnumber them ten to one. But then it's up to them, after graduating, to convince employers that their degree isn't just a fancy credential, but rather something they've genuinely worked for.

Allan Bloom observed that “every age is blind to its own worst madness”, an eternal truth to which anybody who has been inside a bubble becomes painfully aware, usually after it unexpectedly pops. For those outside the U.S. education scene, this book provides a look into a bizarre mirror universe which is the daily reality for many undergraduates today. Parents planning to send their progeny off to college need to know this information, and take to heart the author's recommendations of how to look under the glossy surface and discover the reality of the institution to which their son or daughter's future will be entrusted.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are linked in the text, but the index contains just a list of terms with no links to where they appear and is consequently completely useless.

Posted at November 29, 2010 22:03