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Education? in America. September 27, 2009

While American high schools graduate 70 percent of their students in 4 years, American colleges graduate only a third of their students in 4 years and only half of their students in 6 years. Of the 2012 Title IV institutions that enrolled undergraduates with the intention of granting bachelor's degrees, 1796 reported overall graduation rates and 27 graduated not one student within 6 years.   "Graduating college in less than 6 years is like leaving a party at 10.30pm" quips one student. 

The 'failing' four-year bachelor's degree model, in existence since before the American Revolution, doesn't appear to compare favorably with the three-year bachelor's degree model in other parts of the world.  For example, the University of Cambridge and Oxford University in England have the three-year bachelors degree. As do universities in many other parts of the former British Empire.

So, does the 4, 5 and 6-year bachelors degree model work? Apparently not. The US spends more of its GDP (2.9% in 2003) on postsecondary education than any other country. Yet only 39 percent of US adults between the ages of 25 and 39, have attained a degree, ranking the US as #10 in the world.

Apparently, four-year degrees were designed in large part to provide a broad-based education that teaches young people to analyze and think critically, skills considered vital preparation to participate in the civic life of American democracy. There is however quite a lot of evidence that Americans aren’t terribly impressed with the results of our colleges and universities. In 2006 a survey of 431 American businesses, only 24 percent rated graduates of 4-year colleges as “excellent.”

The business respondents rated communications as the greatest area of deficiency. More than a quarter of graduates with 4-year degrees are rated as “deficient” in their ability to write and understand written material. That finding is not surprising, given the results of last year’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which concluded that literacy among college graduates was shockingly low – and falling.

When asked to name the most important skills for new workers to have, business leaders said that those same communication skills were the most important. Nearly 90 percent of the respondents said that those skills were “very important.” (Understanding math was said to be “very important” to 64 percent, science was “very important” to 33 percent, and smaller percentages listing foreign languages, government/economics, history/geography, and humanities/arts.)

Most jobs don’t call for deep academic background. Employers, for the most part, are looking for people who are readily trainable and can work with others. Good language skills are of the greatest importance in that respect, but many graduates entering the workforce are weak there.

How can it be that people who have gone through their K-12 years and then at least two to six years of college could be “deficient” in the use of English? The problem starts early in our educational system. Reading and writing have been degraded in many schools. Try asking a teacher how much time is spent on diagramming sentences and you’re apt to get a blank stare. Tests don’t often include essays because grading them takes much more time than running a True-False test through a scanner. Careful reading of books has been replaced to a great extent by videos; papers have been replaced with artsy projects. It’s little wonder that many incoming college students have an aversion to the sort of work that builds reading and writing skills.

Ask a student or teacher what his/her reading rate is, and you'll get a blank stare. Yet ask a student who has taken the ACT, SAT, LSAT, MSAT or GMAT test what their biggest challenge was, and they'll most likely tell you "having enough time to finish the test". Indeed, many students lose points on these tests, not because of incorrect answers, but because they didn't have time to answer all of the questions (thus 'guaranteeing' an incorrect mark).

So, if we've tried giving students twice as many years (as their overseas counterparts) to get a bachelors degree, and tried spending more money on these degrees than any other country, apparently with little success, is there a solution? With the tightening of the economy, a number of institutions are considering the 3-year bachelors degree model. Workable? I suppose only if you apply a very strict policy of "fail once and you're history", otherwise it will be a case of plan for 3 years and hope you do it in 6. Seems to me that we'd better look at the re-prioritization of reading and writing skills?


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