Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Higher Education

This has been a busy stretch for Mary and I. With the college baseball season continuing and a pending trip to Wisconsin, for the College World Series, plus Monday’s special graduation ceremony for Mark and his baseball teammates, we’ve been riding life’s rollercoaster to the top. Yesterday, I had a busy day planned for my part-time employer and then, I rushed home to mow my lawn that has begun its transition to pasture land.

As parents, we feel very fortunate that Mark had the opportunity to attend an academically rigorous college like Wheaton. When he first began looking at colleges, Mary and I were concerned about whether or not we could afford some of the better schools that Mark was visiting. Since he was a top recruit for baseball, as well as having the kind of high school transcript and SAT scores that an academically-oriented school such as Wheaton looks for, this helped him to qualify for financial assistance that made his four years possible. While it wasn’t a cakewalk by any means for us, it quickly became apparent that Wheaton didn’t want a student body made up entirely of children of the privileged and the well-heeled.

Monday’s graduation ceremony for the baseball team was really special for several reasons. Since these eight young men were unable to march with their classmates on Saturday, due to playing in the regional championship game against USM, the school scheduled a private ceremony on Monday afternoon, in Wheaton’s historic chapel. This was more personal and much shorter than the regular one and with the rest of the baseball team and coaches in attendance, plus parents and family members, it was an intimate and very nice touch provided by the school. In addition, all the officials of the school—the dean of students, the president, the provost and others—all donned Wheaton baseball caps.

Interestingly, I just watched a documentary pertaining to the problems attending higher education in America. Declining by Degrees is a PBS film that follows 30 students and their teachers along the path of higher education. This well-written and well-produced documentary exposed many areas of concern that unless addressed, could result in some negative outcomes for future students.

I have sensed that higher education, even at some of the more prestigious schools, wasn’t as rigorous as it might have been in the past. A college degree today, particularly at some of the “cookie-cutter” state schools, unleashes graduates that are not serious scholars and not very sophisticated as thinkers. Grade inflation has a lot to do with this. Also, many classes at larger universities and colleges are not taught by professors, but are conducted by teaching assistants, often graduate students. This all contributes to the incremental “dumbing down” of our country.

While we knew that Mark’s high school, Greely High School in Cumberland was a strong public school, we didn’t know how well it had prepared him, until he went to college. Greely had instilled good study habits, to go along with an intellectual curiosity that was aided by parents who cared about the world and spoke openly about issues. As a result, Mark made the most of his four years at Wheaton.

While the film exposed many problems, especially at many larger public institutions, it also showed positive examples of schools that still do things the right way and provide an academic environment and has high expectations of its students. Highlighting Amherst College (a school with a similar focus and academic reputation as Wheaton), the documentary emphasized the smaller class sizes, close interaction between students and faculty and young students that seemed to be making the most of their opportunities.

In addition to some of the issues mentioned, the rising cost of higher education is putting it beyond the reach of many students from middle class homes and families of the working poor. In the past, America had a social contract, which said that if a student wanted to go to college, then opportunities would be provided through grants, and other means, which would ensure a college education for all students. Instead, much of that prior funding that closed gaps caused by socio-economic differences have been cut. At no time since WWII has it been more difficult to obtain financial assistance for higher education. As a result, college is no longer an option for many graduating seniors. Those students who do make it through four years, are graduating with debt loads that place an undue burden on them, as they set out on life’s journey.

If this trend continues, it will just acerbate the class divide that already exists. In addition, it will create an entire underclass with little or no hope and lead to social pathologies that are much more expensive to address on the back end. I hope that our leaders will allow others the same opportunities at an education that they received. I’m not very encouraged by the current administration of privilege, but possibly, future administrations will reinstate Pell Grants and some of the other funding opportunities that have been taken away to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest few.

On a brighter note, at least for those who know Mark and/or follow college baseball, the College World Series games will be broadcast on the web, so you can follow Mark and the Lyons, as they try to capture their first national championship. There will be a link at the official NCAA Championshp 2006 site. I’ll also try to blog a bit about the trip, the games and the Fox Cities region via my other blog, over at Write in Maine.

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