Is the College Education System Really Broken?

Let me begin by saying that during my undergrad I was the type of student that found most lectures boring, could not pay attention for more than a couple of minutes at a time, cared a lot about my grades and much less about learning, and skipped most of the classes when I could get away with it. That being said, I still think I got a really good education, a solid grasp of my domain, and even enjoyed some of the classes I took; else I would not have chosen to pursue a Ph.D. in the same discipline. The reason for that is that I interpreted courses as a path that leads me to my goal, and not my actual goal.

The first issue I would like to point out which makes the college (I am strictly talking about college here) education system seem broken is the lack of proper guidance that students receive before picking their majors. I know from personal experience and from observing the people around me that the majority of students rarely pick a major based on passion or interest, and when asked why they have chosen to pursue their major, the most prevalent answers were “Why not” and “The market demands it”. With people making such choices why does it come as a surprise that most students want to survive through their education? If a student is passionate about his major, sitting through 3 to 4 years of college is a very small sacrifice that will yield dividends in the coming 30 to 40 years of work. My point is, in many cases in many cases, guiding people towards a major that suits them is a better solution as compared to making courses more “barrable”.

The second point I would like to touch on is that yes, the education system is not perfect, but with the current economy of scale it’s very hard to come up with a system that is both better for students and scalable. How is it possible for a professor to interact with students at a personal level when the class has a 100+ students? You might say that a class should not contain that many students and I agree, but again I come back to the issue of scale, when 10000 students apply for one specific major, the university hast to either reject most of them  (you can’t do that) or hire more professors (not a very financially sound decision for the university).

Thirdly and finally, I would like to address Dr. Michael Wesch’s  Ted-Ex video in which he introduces the concept of going through a class using a stairs approach where students help each other and are motivated to work to reach a goal. Even though this approach might have worked in a particular case and in a particular environment, I think such approaches will fail when applied to groups of scale. Particularly, concepts like “students helping each other” are more likely interpreted as an open invitation to cheating as opposed to an opportunity to learn from each other.

To wrap up, is the college education system perfect? Definitely not, I can point out so many things that are current being done wrong, but overall is it broken? I don’t think that either. I think that the way our current society works has forced the education system along its current trajectory and instead of trying to fix the education system, I would suggest looking at why the education system got to this point in the first place, fix those core problems, then try to fix the current problem which is a consequence rather than the cause.

Disclaimer: If you made it all the way congrats :). I know my ideas are all other the place but hopefully ill get better at this.

12 Replies to “Is the College Education System Really Broken?”

  1. Remy,

    I think you make an excellent point about guidance with declaring a major. We are a money driven society; therefore, many people choose a career based on that–not their passion or future happiness. It’s a sad reality, but it is one that academia does not seem to care about much because–after all–they are still making the money of the student’s tuition. Money, money, money.

    1. Kathleen,

      I definitely agree that the guidance system is broken, and that’s giving it more props that it deserves because in many cases it is non existent. However, i also struggle with a solution to how guidance should be given to students; when my brother started university i found it very hard to give him constructive feedback on which major to apply to, even though i was in the same situation myself not too long ago.

  2. Remy- I think you did a fine job with organization and structure, no worries there! While I have a number of comments about the whole post, I will stick to responding to your first point- guidance in selecting a major. This is the one thing that makes me so upset and angry at students, that they don’t choose their major based on their passions and what they enjoy. I remember when I declared my major, communication (specifically multimedia journalism), I got a tone of flack about studying communication, a field who is consistently talked down upon. Some of this flack came from my own family, too. However, I made a point to explain that I would rather make less money doing something that I love, than make more money and be completely miserable every single day. However, I think guidance needs to come from more than just those who are expected to do that (academic advisors, students resources, etc.), but also from those in their inner circles. Students need SUPPORT from those around them. How are we to push students to do what they are passionate about if we feel the need to tell them they wont make a certain amount of money or that the job prospects are low for that major?

    1. Blayne,

      I completely agree with your “I would rather make less money doing something that I love, than make more money and be completely miserable every single day” statement. And i personally have said this statement countless times to my friends and family. That being said, now that I am approaching graduation and need to pick the specific field i want to work in, i cant help but factor in money as one of the more important aspects of the job. Sadly, i think many other people do the same, and even though I’m completely aware of the downsides to this, i think its still really hard to get out of it.
      As for the support needed to make a decision on which major to pursue, i definitely agree that the opinion of my inner circle has much more weight as compared to any adviser or councilor. However i also find it very hard to give useful advice on this matter because every person is different and has his own perspective. So i often try to give my own experience without trying to sway the decision of others because only the person involved can really make that call. And whatever that call is, i usually try to support it (unless its completely off the mark, then comes the intervention:p).

  3. To continue Blayne and Remy’s conversation, I don’t know that it’s solely a student problem that their academic focus tends to be based on financial decisions. I think the situation Blayne described is all too common– a student wishes to pursue a passion, but those around them are discouraging, and thus the student may change direction. Additionally, like Remy said, financial stability is an important consideration and faculty members and those in the student’s support circle should help them to find the balance between passion and stability.
    I will say that I went to a mid-sized liberal arts college for undergrad and was a member of the honors college and I had a great experience as far as career and academic guidance. Each semester, I met with not only my academic advisor, but an advisor from the honors college to go over my future plans, make sure my courses were in order and to discussion opportunities for development in my chosen field of psychology. So while I agree that there are issues in higher education, they are not the same across all universities. I think the goals and interests of research intensive universities are not focused on the undergraduate students and that is reflected in the treatment and experiences those students have, whereas my smaller, teaching-focused university had many resources for personal and professional development available to students.

    1. I completely agree that research based universities are not focused on undergraduate students. For many professors, the main priority is publication and research with teaching being a handicap they have to deal with. Additionally, being a great researcher does not translate into being a good educator, these are completely different jobs that require divergent skill sets. When pointing out in my blog that there are a lot of problems in the education system, this point was on the top of the list.

  4. I enjoyed reading the post. You have well connected the problems and the reality. I agree with the point that society has shaped the education system and only a change in the society can bring a change in the system. When a person (or the family) is investing a huge amount of money on education, the expectation of the return on the investment is a natural thing. With the initiatives of free-tuition in place by some of the universities (medical college at NYU, in-state students at UIUC with family income < $61,000), the motion will be in favor of pursuing interest rather than outcome. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

    1. I do agree that free education is a step in the right direction, and will allow candidates to be judged based on their qualifications rather than their financial status. I can see some potential to help solve the issue of choosing the correct major by freeing the person from any financial commitment if he realizes that the major he is pursing is not really the way to go (in other words he would not feel the need to finish the major just because he has invested so much money). Also free education will allow the student to pick the major regardless of cost. Beyond that, i still think students will face the same problems of following current trends, which in some cases is the rational decision to make, but should not be done blindly and with no real expectations to what the future holds.

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful post Remy. Much of the discussion in the comments revolves around the prospect of a career and financial expectations affecting education. That is an important discussion and I enjoy reading everyone’s take on it.
    I thought I might raise a different point here. I understand your skepticism when you declare that “students helping each other is more likely interpreted as an open invitation to cheating as opposed to an opportunity to learn from each other. ” I think without serious subversion of the system that fails to inspire students, this is exactly what is going to happen to collaborative efforts. But think of circumstances where student don’t have to collaborate but want to. How hard is it to ask students what they want to learn and let them figure out how they want to work together to achieve that goal?
    Not sure how realistic ( scale-able) such classes would seem to you. In my opinion, not impossible 🙂

    1. Arash,

      I understand where you are coming from, when students are driven towards education, their whole perspective of learning changes and they will be willing to go the extra mile. My issue with such an approach is that i fail to see it implemented consistently without students taking advantage of the system. I know to some this may seem pessimistic, however, over the past 7 years of being a students, i realized that this was more of a reality. Another point i would like to elaborate on is that even though people should enjoy their education, it should not necessarily be easy. As an engineer, i have taken many math classes which where very boring and hard to sit through, however, this is a necessary sacrifice on the road to becoming a successful engineer. So yes, i agree that students need to be consulted on what they want to learn, but on the other hand they should also be willing to put in the effort even if the course does not interest them.

  6. I really appreciate your comments, Remy. I think you made some trenchant criticisms of the higher education system that I experienced when I did my undergraduate work in engineering. Since, I’ve begun studies in higher education, so what you’ve brought up are issues I see with students every day.

    While I think each of your points individually is a valid issue, I perceive the underlying problem to be that education is approached competitively as a means to an end rather than for the sake of learning itself. Students attend college simply to get a degree that will get them a lucrative job. Hence, they aren’t looking for a major that involves their passion, they are taking the same classes to get a competitive edge (and class sizes must increase), and their peers become competitors after the same prize instead of fellow learners with whom they can collaborate.

    I see this issue as one of social perspective, one that won’t change over night, and frankly, many students can’t afford to pay for college and not get a profitable job afterward. I think that social change needs to happen, but that change is bound to be slow. Hence, the question that I find myself is how can we effectively work to promote learning in this non-ideal system? I hate for it to be a bait-and-switch, but students are coming to the university with the sole focus on getting a degree to get a job. Once they are here, how can we help them gain a better understanding of themselves and how they can best contribute to the world while living meaningfully?

  7. I think you brought up some really interesting points about feasibility and the ability to scale up a methodology. I don’t think the education system is completely broken and I definitely agree with your thought that we should spend more time looking at how we got here instead of wallowing in the issues with the current college education system and trying to start all over. From my viewpoint, college is now viewed by many students as something that they just have to do to get either the job they want or a job that will pay them a lot of money (again, money money money). Many students aren’t excited to go to college for the classes they will be taking so why should they be fully engaged in those classes? As you mentioned, they aren’t passionate about that part of their journey. So for me the question is how do we get students excited about their own academic journey and about the prospect of learning to expand their horizons? I don’t really have an answer, but I think your post brings up a lot of questions that we as a community need to continue to address.

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