No “A for Effort:” How Colleges Fail Generation Y

Originally wait-listed for acceptance at UW-Madison, I remember very clearly the night I finally received my large envelope from the school, with the Badger-red “Yes!” emboldened on the back flap. I was in.

And while the University of Wisconsin may have had doubts about letting a neighboring born-and-bred Illinois resident into their borders, I quickly forgave their hesitation, becoming a dedicated student to the school and its culture. I garnered a 4.0 GPA or darn-near close to it every semester, religiously “studied” at the Terrace, partied at State Street bars, and worked as the school’s top student fundraiser at the UW Foundation. Plus, I actually graduated in four years.

Little did I know, I was an anomaly.

A couple years later, the Lt. Governor of Wisconsin invited me to be part of a special retreat pondering the question, “What really matters in college?” with a specific focus on liberal arts programs.

Nearing the end of the retreat, we set goals and plans for the future. As the token Gen Yer, I was obviously eager, but our next meeting didn’t convene until a full seven months after the original weekend, and the following meeting was scheduled for four months after, and was subsequently postponed. Indefinitely.

“I’ve gone, I’ve done it, and I have serious concerns about my actual level of preparedness to contribute anything meaningful to my fellow humans,” one young blogger writes about her educational experiences.

And it’s no wonder. Education is failing a startling rate. Universities have declining assets, growing liabilities. An Ohio State economics professor reports that “students study, attend class and write papers fewer than 30 hours a week, for only about 30 weeks a year. While the typical American employee works 1,800 hours a year, the typical college student works half that amount on academics.”

Only 33 percent of University of Massachusetts freshmen graduate within six years (not even four), which economist Mark Schneider refers to as a ‘failure factory,’ and those colleges are the norm.

Only half of teenagers who enroll in college end up with a Bachelor’s degree. This is such a failure to society’s economic potential that we could easily list public universities alongside the Wall Street firms and regulatory agencies that have irreparably damaged the American economy. But we don’t. Somehow, the failure of education is not as worthy of our ire.

Colleges, in the meantime, are scrambling to stay on top of the pace of innovation and the ever-changing job-market by eliminating majors like philosophy (University of Louisiana) and American studies and classics (Michigan State) after declining enrollments in those areas.

But even as colleges and universities rush to prove their relevance, everyone agrees (colleges and employers alike) that students are specializing too early. “There’s this linear notion that what you major in equals your career,” reports Katherine Brooks, director of the liberal arts career center at the University of Texas. “I’m sure it works for some majors. The truth is students think too much about majors. The major isn’t nearly as important as the toolbox of skills you come out with and the experiences you have.”

If majors aren’t all that important anymore, then why are colleges and universities still set up that way? Why aren’t students prepared for the real world? And why are educational institutions scrambling to protect traditional hierarchies and predict the next big thing instead of restructuring the educational system to run in parallel with innovation?

“There isn’t anything wrong with the teacher/student relationship. It’s only been around for two or three millennia,” says Dean Edward Snyder of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. A comment so arrogant that we have to assume Dean Snyder isn’t intentionally asinine, but rather simply doesn’t want to abdicate his throne of being “in the “last [and] best position to influence [student’s] overall academic, ethical, and professional development.”

Nevertheless, the gross inadequacies of the current educational system should excite you. They should excite you as a changemaker, entrepreneur, parent or future parent, capitalist or socialist, as an optimist, and as a person who wants to learn and succeed.

The educational system is committing travesties against Gen Y. Ready to throw the book at ‘em?

Roll Call.

What are your experiences with education? Did college prepare you for the real world? Your profession? What do you think?

Are online degrees an option? 

(PS – Tune in tomorrow (Thu) for Part 2 of this post, in which I’ll offer some ideas for solutions.)