Why College is Failing America

by | Sep 30, 2020 | Guests Podcast

As we go back to school in this crazy year of 2020, this is not a typical year. When I did the podcast episode “College is Failing America” a few months ago, we were in a much different situation. I also wanted to write about this because countless people have asked me what it’s like to be a college professor.

There’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, it’s been a great journey. If it’s for you, awesome- you’re needed, but it’s also not for everyone.

This is more like an organized reflection to the podcast.

After all, we are in changing times. Why not look at all your options?! Plus, it’s an excellent option for a potential change in careers who like to serve others.

My initial experience becoming an adjunct college professor is a field I stumbled into, and I love it. Due to our current pandemic with COVID-19, the lousy economy, a presidential election year, and the wildfires burning in the great pacific northwest have encouraged me to put it down in ‘black and white’ for you to read it. These experiences also have helped me share why I focused on this topic. Since 2001, I’ve been very blessed to be a student, alumn, professor, advisor, staff, colleague, mentor, and friend to so many at Clark College (check out the picture).

When I was a kid, I never saw myself going to college. I believed college was for smart people, and I didn’t think I was smart.  At least, that’s what I thought.

Perception and Reflection

So that’s what I believed. Nothing more. Nothing less. I didn’t see that going to college would give me more opportunities. All I saw was more homework, sitting in classrooms, and having someone lecture at me versus to me.

Plus, every high-profile person I saw on my mainstream television high was an athlete or entertainer. Or, they were in the institution but not leaders within the systems. A stereotypical black person wasn’t a star or leader unless it was in church or civil rights.

Well, except for Bill Cosby, but that’s a whole other conversation.

With 20+ years out of high school, I can now see and understand college was and still is a game-changer. I could never see the benefits of why it was good for me. Since I was a first-generation student, my parents couldn’t speak about those benefits like I can to my children.  However, the idea of college was an unspoken belief that it was the right thing to do.

Still, no one I knew ever articulated those bullet points or least stated them to me. I’m not blaming anyone specifically, but this is another reason why America is failing college, and college is failing America. As a college professor and leader, I don’t want to make the same mistakes where the youth are not given this opportunity. As a college body, we do a horrible job of reaching out to the community and not making it an elitist entity. But the blame goes to everyone. Hence, why I’m writing this article, we all have a part to play in fixing the problem, so let’s get to it.

Adjunct versus Tenure Faculty

For those that don’t know about the adjunct versus tenure faculty. Adjuncts are paid contractors to teach the class, while tenure faculty are full-time positions with pay and benefits to build, teach, and support classes and departmental needs.  For the vast majority of adjuncts, the pay is minimal but the satisfaction is high. There are plenty of controversies, but that’s for another story.

I’m going to focus on my experiences, and I don’t see where the hunger and fiery passion to be the best is at.

I like a guaranteed paycheck too, but it comes with putting in the work. Too many professors and instructors are clocking in and out like a factory worker.

For example, I remember the feeling of being treated like a number. I’m not sure my high school English teacher cared about me or my success. I believe she cared about her workload, but I could be wrong. Since she couldn’t engage me, she tested my literacy for a lower English class placement- because I don’t think she wanted me in her class. When I came back with a passing grade, I don’t recall her helping me beyond the basic instructions. However, my English professor Bob Hale made the time to understand the ‘block’ that was keeping me from excelling.

As an adjunct professor, it’s extremely frustrating to see a tenure’s credentials are dated and they’re creating the curricula. Sometimes, I cringe when I hear student complaints, because their advice and/or teaching materials are 5-10+ years old.

I know our students deserve better. Our students will graduate one day, and their education needs to be applied to current trends and industry standards. Otherwise, we’re not setting them up for success. Taking accountability is hard if you don’t believe you’re the problem- but the academic process of making risks, decisions, and actions takes much longer than it should.

I know adjuncts teaching at five different colleges to pay the bills, but that’s a lot of work. Don’t spread yourself so thin you can’t do a quality job. Teaching at three schools almost wiped me out. I do understand bills don’t pay themselves. However, I never want to be the reason why a student had to drop out or failed a class because I was too busy to problem-solve with them or not respond to emails.

My Recommendation: college-level teaching can be brutal, so the leadership needs to be better with strategy and outcomes that improve student recruitment to alumni events. Instructors shouldn’t be the clearinghouse for resources. Students are looking for pathways for applied learning, curricula retention, and careers that align with their degrees.

College Students

I’ll be the first person to admit my first couple of years as a college student, I wasn’t focused. I always looked for an easy way out, and my grades showed it. It wasn’t until my college classes became more interesting. My professors showed interest in my ability when I cared to give more effort. Once I experienced how the learning was fun and learned the curriculum, I consumed almost every bit of materials I could get my hands on.

My priorities changed.

I adulted.

College was no longer a hobby.

I made it a lifestyle.

Today’s students are coming with an expectation they don’t have to work as hard, make additional sacrifices, or break out of their comfort zone. I’m not saying every student, but more than you’d expect.

What happened to college being for someone who wanted to better themselves?

Not all college students are looking for charity instead of putting in the work, but some feel coming to class is enough. I think their mindset isn’t about learning to earn a degree, but to get by to get the degree. Again, this isn’t a blanket statement, so it doesn’t apply to all students. Some students are looking for more, and we haven’t been able to deliver. This is when we as institutions need to take accountability for the lack of required infrastructure to build the necessary resources and partnerships.

Many students need college to better their lives and their families. Without college, they’re stuck in a life without seeing their dreams come to fruition.  For the students wanting more, I encourage students to tell me if my class needs tweaking because not all textbooks are relevant. I’ve learned to teach without leaving people behind, and it’s a challenge thanks to our awesome instant technology access to knowledge.  Ultimately, technology has forced all of us to change the learning experience. Every piece of our institution needs upgrading, so I do my best to meet the student where they are- but it doesn’t always work.

My Recommendation: I’m happy to accommodate students when life happens because it will. I do my best to stress focusing on the subject matter, rather than determining how to earn an ‘A’ out of the class. No one is there to micromanage the process of getting the work done except oneself. Lastly, be mindful to have mutual respect all around.

Change is Coming

As I’m writing this article, I’m starting my fifth year as an adjunct at the community college I attended almost 20 years ago. And let’s say the mutual respect for all levels and positions doesn’t seem to be there.

Education has evolved in the last five years since I’ve been there, and it’s baffling how the infrastructure is still intact. The necessary changes being forced upon the institution have the buildings shaking as if we’re enduring a 6.2 earthquake.

College doesn’t like change. But change is going to happen, and they’re not going to be small. Moving forward, I see the college needing to make more aggressive changes to serve the students and the community and a more conscientious way. We owe our faculty and staff the best quality product to current students from the new graduates, alumni organizations, and local employers. Consequently, the return on investment means the soon-to-be college graduates will have the opportunity to thrive.

What’s the point of earning a degree if there’s no reward (aka, career) at the end?

I don’t believe an associate’s degree–or the community college–is as effective as it once was but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthless. Those fundamentals are critical to the academic journey. Some of my best moments are rooted in those relationships and experiences. To my understanding and experiences, transferring to a university to earn a bachelor’s degree has been ideal for upward ascension. Community colleges have been a great diving board to that ideal- and it’s so much more affordable. The tuition costs are a fraction of the four-year university.

Colleges have been the slingshot to propel individuals to a higher quality of life by opening doors they would have never had.  In this post-COVID era, all colleges and universities should be equipped to do that. The ‘should’ is if they have a good business model to keep enrollments coming in the doors, retaining those students, and sending them off into the world on a good note.

My Recommendation: the administrators need to adapt to the technological wave that’s speeding our evolution. College isn’t the only method of learning and certifying one to do the work. You need to compete with the online demand for learning.

Mediocrity cannot be the Norm

To adapt, we cannot continue with bad habits. Too many years have passed where “it’s how we’ve always done it” has permeated the culture. Can we stop saying that?! Please.

Unfortunately, that mindset has allowed too many subpar policies to get passed and new initiatives to fall by the wayside. We are no longer in ivory towers looking down at people. We need to be on the ground floor and hustling like our students to get where they need to be. However, that means this is no longer a 9-to-5 job where we clock in and clock out.  This has to be a lifestyle of keeping education at a high level.

There should be a distinct bold line between college and high school. We cannot grease anyone through. Set the expectation and provide resources to help students achieve their goals.

For colleges to help America, we need to be realistic about what college has been to those who benefited from those experiences.

  1. It has caused a lot of debt to those who weren’t able to better their situation post-graduation or even after a few classes.
  2. It’s all of our responsibility to ask serious questions about why students cannot pay back their loans.
  3. We also need to ask the hard questions about how institutions do not help students go to that next level post-graduation.
  4. Do we put in the same amount of energy to get them employed as we get them enrolled?
  5. What about the infrastructure to where the college can sustain off its own merits?

I know there are faculty and staff that give their all. They make a ton of sacrifices and wear multiple invisible hats without compensation or recognition. We need to acknowledge this was a broken system.

In the post-COVID era, we have to change that narrative.

Be the Solution

Forcing people to go to college if that’s not their desire is wrong because there are plenty of alternatives.  There needs to be an acknowledgment from local leaders that economic development comes from nurturing and supporting local infrastructure. It’s time for America to understand our society is better with educated individuals, not with those who don’t care about education.

Community leaders need to grow the talent at home before considering bringing outside talent. I’m not excluded from this call to action.

A few years ago, I had my class attend a popular local networking event. Students were offered resources and jobs. More importantly, students said it helped provide tangible examples to their textbook, discussion boards, and group projects. There was a time I would give extra credit to students who posted #business101 and #clarkbusiness on something business-related on specific channels to help change the social media perception.

Too many local initiatives decimate fostering opportunities for local and regional growth in youth and dying industries. Now is the time for college to stop failing America and America stop failing colleges.  The “Supporting Local” campaign shouldn’t be siloed to business. We need to value our neighboring organizations’ contributions and what the other side brings to the table. Without it, one would argue, ‘Made in America’ is pointless.

Nathan A. Webster, MBA

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