Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads: Christopher Beha’s “Leveling the Field”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

After two and a half years in the Balkans I sometimes catch myself comparing the American and Albanian/Macedonian education systems. There’s no point in me getting into the problems with the education systems here – you can read about teaching in a Macedonian school at my other blog – but I wanted to mention that experience to explain my skewed perspective on the American education system. Comparing my experiences at elementary school, high school, and university, with those of my students and friends, it became easy for me to think of the American system as a great success.

As much as we may want to think of American education – American universities in particular – as being a sort of great leveler, though, there are huge inequities in the system. In his piece on Phoenix University, “Leveling the Field”, Christoper R. Beha considers some of these inequalities and basic problems with our current focus on college education for everyone. Beha goes “undercover” as a student at Phoenix, a for-profit university with outposts scattered around the States. Phoenix, like other for-profit universities, benefits from government subsidies (Beha writes that Phoenix receives 88% of its revenue from the federal government) and from Obama’s recent push for increased college education. Though enrollment at for-profit universities has skyrocketed in recent years, this isn’t a good deal, either for the students or for the government.

All this government funding is notable because enrolling at for-profit colleges turns out to be a terrible deal for most students. Almost three fifths drop out without a degree within a year, and virtually all take on debt to help pay for their education. They default on their loans at about twice the rate of students at public colleges and universities and three times the rate of students at private ones. Those who graduate often wind up in low-paying jobs, doing tasks with minimal connection to their degrees.

Beha takes us on a painful trip through the freshman year intro courses at Phoenix (which, as he writes, can’t even qualify as “remedial” classes). There’s something horrifying about Beha’s discussions with classmates, and the degree to which schools like Phoenix are taking advantage of people seeking to better themselves in some way, offering them useless and dull classes and degrees that are nearly worthless. This is an image of education gone horribly wrong, and of a for-profit university system that preys on people who often can’t afford the loss of wasted tuition.

Beha offers a few examples of other countries that are, maybe, doing it better, in part through a determination that a college degree is not “necessary.” There’s Germany, which early on sets its students on tracks either to university or trade schools, and other countries that offer students some more choice in the matter. What’s key, though, is the sense that obtaining a college degree is not the only way to live a fulfilled life or to contribute to society.

On a different end of the spectrum, the New York Times has recently been running some good pieces on internships. Another look at the ways in which our current system of education and of “job training” punishes anyone without the advantages necessary to attend a public or private university, or to work forty hours a week without a salary.

Read Christopher Beha’s “Leveling the Field”


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