Higher Education: A Victim or Catalyst of Consumer Culture?

Editor’s Note: Melissa is the Vice President of Development at Kilns College.

By Guest Blogger: Melissa McCreery

“How can a writing class possibly help me land a job as a aerospace engineer?”

“Which class looks better on my resume—Biochemistry or Spanish?”

“Do employers look favorably on applicants who study abroad?”

Over the course of my career in higher education— particularly in my role as an academic advisor in the engineering department at a prominent California university —I’ve been asked these questions more times than I care to count. After just a few months as an advisor, my answers came automatically.

“Engineering firms are looking for employees with strong communication skills, and a college level writing course will give you those skills.”

“In an ever-shrinking world, employers like to hire bilingual students so I’d recommend adding a minor in Spanish.”

“Studying abroad shows potential employers that you’re a ‘go-getter’ and not afraid of taking on a challenge or new experience.”

While these answers rolled off my tongue without pause, they weren’t without thought. I cared deeply for my advisees and for their post-college success. Success —in my mind and theirs (and their tuition-paying parents)—defined by their employment status upon graduation. Were they at a reputable firm? Was their paycheck significant? Did they receive a signing bonus?

These were my goals. If I could help Johnny excel in his academics and complete his degree program, which in turn landed him a reputable job, then I successfully served Johnny, his parents and the university.

In my eyes—albeit heavily guarded by a pair of impenetrable (and highly fashionable) rose-colored glasses—a more altruistic industry could not be found.

Then, one day as I was settling into a new job, at a new college, serving a new population of students, I found myself answering the same familiar questions. Was it just me or did students fail to see the big picture about their education? Their questions revolved increasingly around job security and had very little to do with true learning. (I actually met with one prospective student who wanted to enroll in a degree program, but – on this point he was explicitly clear—he did not want to learn anything). That’s when the rose-colored glasses fell off.

Students never asked which classes would aid in shaping them into better human beings; or, how their study abroad opportunity would expose them to injustices taking place around the world. It seems if there was no practical purpose for their education, it was deemed invaluable. Had it always been this way? Had I really just been blind to this?

In that moment, I saw the higher education system for what it truly was. Noble? Yes. Well-intentioned? Yes. Imperfect? Most definitely.

Somewhere in its pursuit to save the world, higher education had become misguided. Colleges and universities across the country lost sight of their mission, which has never been to help students land big paychecks or large corner offices, but to graduate students with integrity and a broad worldview—who will positively impact the planet and contribute to society. (You can google almost any U.S. college or university to read their mission statement).

Had higher education fallen victim to today’s consumer culture? Or had it played a crucial role in creating it?

After researching numerous college websites and marketing materials, and speaking with administrators around the country, I discovered that a scant few colleges herald their graduates’ character development and worldview upon completion of their college experience.

Instead colleges’ praise students for their employment status—often based on inflated data—upon graduation. If it’s what colleges emphasize as important, their students will follow suit. And don’t be fooled, it is exactly what colleges are valuing. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article outlines how, in recent years, institutions of higher education have, with alarming frequency, inflated the employment rates for their graduates. Schools advertise high job placement rates—some as high as 98-percent – based largely on bogus numbers.

How much pressure must theses institutions feel, if they have lowered themselves to inflating graduation rates? One thing is for sure, pressure that intense it palpable and students easily pick up on this.

The mission of higher education – in theory if not on paper—has shifted from truly educating its students to ensuring their employment. Parents, students, college admission counselors, academic advisors, and high school counselors have placed growing emphasis on education as a means to employment and financial security.

A quick perusal of any bookstore will reveal an absurdly high quantity of books devoted to the topic.

Yes, providing employment and financial stability is part of a college’s purpose, but just a part (and a rather small part at that).

Higher education provides a number of benefits; most notably to the nation’s economic stability and job creation, civic engagement, and pulling students from low socioeconomic situations and landing them securely in middle class America. These are all pieces that make up the whole higher education pie, which, in the end, should speak to students’ education as a whole individual—mind and soul.

Today, when students ask what classes look better on their resume my response doesn’t come quite as quickly. Instead, I challenge each student I advise to look at the ‘big picture’ of his/her education. Why are you pursuing a college degree? How does God use each class to show you how to live a life of purpose and compassion? How are your relationships—with friends, classmates, professors and mentors – developing and shaping you into a person of character?

In the wave of clarity that came with the removal of my tightly fitted rose-colored glasses, my passion for higher education seems only to have intensified. In fact, it’s possible I am even more passionate today about the importance of higher education than I was under the guise of oblivion. I still believe higher education serves an irreplaceable role in society, and that—deep down—its intentions are noble. It merely needs to be guided back to its original mission.

Melissa grew up in Southern California and attended the University of Southern California where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism and Political Science. After working as a First Year Advisor at USC, Melissa moved to Boston to pursue graduate studies. She earned her Ed.M in Higher Education from Harvard University and moved to Bend, Oregon following graduation. Prior to working at Kilns College, Melissa worked at several college and higher education organizations such as USC, the New England Board of Higher Education, Emerson College, and Central Oregon Community College



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