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An Interview With the Author of "The Five-Year Party"

It won't be long before the parents of high school seniors who have been accepted at college will have to write a check for tuition, housing and associated costs. In a way, it will be the moment of truth because of the huge financial commitment involved. In light of the importance of their decision, I thought it would be a propitious time to interview Craig Brandon, author of The Five-Year Party (BenBella Books, 2010). His unvarnished but balanced approach to the once sacrosanct issue of the value of a college education makes the book indispensable reading.

Q: Why didn't you title the book "The Four-Year Party" since that is the usual time taken to earn a degree?
A: That's just the point I was trying to make. An increasing number of students are actually taking five or even six years to graduate. Although this trend is due to caps placed on enrollment in classes needed to satisfy graduation requirements and/or to the need to take fewer classes in order to work part time to pay tuition, it is also because students are allowed to drop classes without a penalty late in the semester. As a result, they have to wait until the next semester to take a different course.

Q: When did the trend of cruising through college begin and what caused it?
A: In the early 90's, colleges and universities began to feel pressure to retain students in the belief that dropping out posed a threat to the nation's future. In response, administrators became convinced that applying the business model to higher education was the solution.

Q: Can you be more specific?
A: Businesses that satisfy the demands of their customers are successful. So by giving students what they say they want, administrators felt they would be able to hold on to their students. The trouble is that what too many students wanted was high grades without commensurate standards. For the record, administrators would never admit that a conflict would unavoidably develop between quality and quantity, but that's what happened. Don't forget that students who pay full tuition and take six years to graduate constitute additional income for schools.

Q: How complicit are professors in this sham?
A: Unfortunately, professors who are vocal in the faculty lounge about the trend I wrote about are mute in open faculty meetings. Even though they have tenure, they are reluctant to express their true feelings for the record. I'm not sure why, but I think it may be because they don't want to be seen as going against the tide.

Q: Do the views in your book apply to all tertiary education?
A: No. They are directed almost entirely to four-year residential schools. Community colleges are different because their mission is different. Many of them offer a curriculum leading to a certificate or associate degree in non-academic fields, as well as academic credit for transfer students who want to earn a bachelor's degree. They also are a bargain because of their relatively low cost.

Q: What advice would you give parents who have children in high school about further education?
A: The most important thing is to understand what their children want to do with their lives and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I grant that most young people in high school do not know themselves well enough to make a realistic choice. It's possible that even the most anti-intellectual teen can profit greatly from a four-year academic course of study. But this outcome has to be weighed against the huge debt load that will be incurred.

Q: Are you discouraging students from earning a bachelor's degree?
A: Absolutely not. Those who are serious about learning should apply. But too many students who lack the necessary discipline and aptitude are being counseled to apply.

Q: Do you intend to write another book about college?
A: Perhaps, but I'm probably persona non grata on most campuses because of what I've already written.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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