Home > Uncategorized > One Phrase Explains Demise of Alternative Colleges: “…a Desire for a Higher Return on Investment”

One Phrase Explains Demise of Alternative Colleges: “…a Desire for a Higher Return on Investment”

March 4, 2019

I have a soft spot in my heart for so-called “alternative colleges”, a soft spot born from my own personal experience as an undergraduate and my older daughter’s experience as a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and my younger daughter’s experience at Amherst College.

As one who valued hands-on experiential learning and the opportunity to develop one’s own curriculum, I stumbled into an ideal situation as an undergraduate at Drexel University. When I entered Drexel, it was an “institute of technology” like it’s more famous role model Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It differentiated itself from other “institutes of technology” by offering a five year work-study program that enabled undergraduates to work six-month stints in industry where they could see how the abstract coursework they were completing in the classroom translated to the workplace. When I enrolled, I intended to pursue engineering, but after two six month assignments at the Ford Motor Company and increasingly daunting and uninteresting coursework in mathematics and science I decided to change majors to Commerce and Engineering— a hybrid major Drexel offered to disenchanted and/or challenged engineering majors who wanted to pursue a degree that would prepare them for the workplace at that time. While I found the coursework much more interesting and upgraded my cumulative average, after a successful six-month period at Mobil Oil, I turned down an offer to return there because I had decided to become one of the first students to enroll in Drexel’s fledgling “Humanities and Technology” college— an undergraduate degree that Drexel needed to offer in order to become a university instead of an institute of technology. My plan was to major in English, teach in the City, and find my way to a leadership role in that organization instead of climbing the corporate ladder. While my classmates dreamed of becoming CEO of their own business or of an existing Fortune 500 company, I dreamed of being Superintendent of Schools in Philadelphia.

As a new student in a new and as-yet-undefined program, I was able to design my own major for my final two years. I took a heavy load of poetry, literature, and history courses, was tutored in the design of standardized tests by Drexel’s lone psychometrics professor, and dabbled in introductory courses in biology and pure mathematics (as opposed to the five calculus and many physics and chemistry courses I took as an aspiring engineer) in order to broaden my opportunities for education certification. I also spent three months as a student teacher in English at West Philadelphia HS. When I graduated, I had sufficient courses to be certified in English, social studies, science, and mathematics. Since Pennsylvania only allowed a prospective teacher to have two certificates, my academic advisor recommended that I get certified in English and mathematics. But more importantly, I had a sense that I had in some sense controlled my destiny for the previous five years.

When my daughters were selecting a college to attend, they leaned toward schools that did not have distribution requirements and allowed undergraduates to take a wide array of courses. My older daughter specifically sought out unconventional schools that would allow her to pursue coursework based on her own interests. The colleges we visited included some liberal arts schools that had distribution requirements, but also included Antioch in Ohio and The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, the school she ultimately selected. My younger daughter was more interested in attending a school that would nurture her desire to become a writer, which led us to visit Brown, Wesleyan, and Amherst where she ultimately enrolled.

Given my personal experiences as an undergraduate and the fact that their mother majored in art as an undergraduate and was working as a fabric artist at the time they were aspiring to college, we supported the idea of them attending liberal arts colleges. We both recognized that once they obtained degrees they would be able to find their way in the world… and, from my perspective, if they could effectively design their own course of studies they would have a sense of agency that many college students who follow a prescribed curriculum lack.

With all of this as a backdrop, I was saddened to read Anemona Hartocollis’ article in today’s NYTimes that one of the groundbreaking “alternative colleges”, Hampshire, was on the verge of closing its doors. The reason?

The problems alternative colleges face point to a larger crisis in higher education: a shrinking college-age population, especially in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where many of these institutions are clustered. But they are also confronting a growing skepticism of the liberal arts, often a focus of nontraditional programs, and a desire for a higher return on investment.

The shrinking college-age population is a demographic reality, but the notion that college attendance is based on a “return on investment” is a mental construct that exemplifies everything that is wrong with traditional education and the so-called K-12 “reform” movement that perpetuates traditional schooling. A quote from Eva-Maria Swidler, a faculty member at Goddard College, an alternative college in Plainfield, Vermont, offers the best insight on the current state of affairs in undergraduate education:

“What I see happening under the aegis of ‘financial responsibility’ is a purging of colleges that serve unconventional students….What this purge leaves behind is a system of higher education even more focused on either training only the elites in the liberal arts or training everyone else as obedient workers for a corporate work force.

The call for students to be “ready-for-work” creates a demand for cookie-cutter curricula that prepare undergraduates for job vacancies that exist today but are unlikely to exist in the future… and by obediently completing these prescribed course sequences undergraduates who aspire to get a good “return on their investment” are denied the opportunity to control their own destiny, to learn-how-to-learn, to have any sense of agency, or be prepared for an ambiguous future.

Education is not intended to “prepare students for work”… it is, in the words of John Dewey, “life itself”. I did not realize it when I entered college, Drexel was following Dewey’s admonition:

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.

I doubt that John Dewey ever uttered the phrase “return on investment”… indeed, I cannot think of any respected education philosopher who ever used that phrase. Nor did any creative genius.

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