March 16, 2018

Just One Student but He Sent a Message | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellHigher education workers strongly believe in its value. So when people denigrate it, that creates some consternation. What does one student’s inappropriate gesture say about the state of higher education?

The first column of the year is usually reserved for a look back and a look ahead. It’s a time to question what we learned and reflect on what we can do to improve. The big question for higher education is, what can be done to make it affordably available to all those who want to take advantage of what it offers? What plan and strategy will help to build enthusiasm for earning a degree and communicate the value of accomplishing that goal? The demographic trends are not in higher education’s favor. The current economic recovery will continue to siphon off potential students. These factors contribute to an anticipated long-term enrollment drop, and the increased institutional competition that accompanies it. A more basic problem is the public perception of higher education’s value. Current and potential students ask if it is worth the significant investment of time and money, with the certainty of debt but far less certainty of achieving a good career. Increasingly the answer seems to be no for too many of them. One student decided to make that point with emphasis.

The Anti-College Movement

Questioning the value of college is hardly new. James Altucher did it most famously in an essay years ago when he shared why he would not send his children to college and advocated for other parents to follow his example. More recently Charles Sykes, best known for his book Profscam (Regnery), takes on higher ed’s declining value and its systemic problems in his 2016 book Fail U (St. Martin’s Press). Billy Willson was intent on sending a similar message, like the title of Sykes’s book, but with a few different letters. Instead of just ending up as another freshman dropout, leaving Kansas State University (KSU) after his first semester, Willson attracted considerable media attention by literally giving KSU the finger. In a Facebook post detailing his reasons for quitting college, Willson encouraged others to do the same. Attacking questionable general education courses as wasteful and textbooks as outrageously overpriced (sorry, but hard to argue with him on that one), Willson attached a photo of himself “flipping the bird” in front of the KSU campus. What happened next? Willson received an avalanche of support for his post, though a few writers took him to task for showing poor judgment. Then Inside Higher Ed shared it with their readers.

Striking a Nerve

What is there to say about a freshman who decides he’d rather start a t-shirt business than finish college? Why it’s getting much recognition at all is puzzling. The real story appears to be the considerable and unexpected reaction. There were supporters who agreed with Willson and cheered him on, while others simply wrote him off as a young, naïve fool. And over at Inside Higher Ed, where even the most controversial articles may get 50 or so comments, the report on Willson’s antics generated three times that amount. While many described Willson as an ungrateful jerk, others questioned, quite rightly, how his actions reflect on the state of American higher education. Why did Willson’s reference to general education courses as worthless resonate so strongly with current students, graduates, and faculty? What does it say about higher education that so weak an indictment of its value touched a raw nerve among so many faculty? Perhaps it reflects a fear that the next generation will contain many more Willsons.

Is Free the Next Big Thing?

Higher education will continue to have its share of challenges in 2017, including declining enrollments, declining budgets, declining societal influence, a decline in its perceived value, and the ongoing loss, as demonstrated by Willson, of too many students before they graduate. We can only conjecture what is to come from a Trump administration that appears poised to promote the virtues of for-profit over public education. One bright spot will be the growing conversation around free higher education. Election conversation about free college demonstrated how this topic resonates with the public, so anticipate that politicians will be all over it. I see it as an emerging theme in 2017. If this idea actually gets off the ground, it pushes things further along the spectrum towards a culture of openness. Despite calling these programs “free college,” what’s offered in Tennessee and what’s proposed for New York are hardly completely free, as explained here. I expect that we will hear more discussion of strategies to provide greater access to all those who want to take advantage of higher education. Granted, it might not be for everyone, certainly not for Billy Willson, but you can imagine the public goodwill in making it possible.

Year of the Students (We Don’t Have Yet)

In my first column of 2016 I envisioned that the coming year’s big trend in higher education would be our students. Student success requires a holistic approach that pays attention to a wide range of student needs that extends beyond the classroom. I think 2017 will focus on students as well, but extending beyond those we already enroll. This year higher education will turn its gaze to the students it has never attracted or those who quit too soon. While college is not for everyone, too few Americans get the opportunity to earn a college degree or fail to realize their dream to do so because of financial challenges. Free college is an idea that will accumulate more talk than action this year, but as the conversation involves more policy makers and draws media attention it is possible that more states will explore how to make it happen.

If Willson and others want to leave college, if they feel that it’s a waste, we should wish them well in their future endeavors, even if it’s selling it-shirts that say “Fuck College.” That choice completely ignores the overwhelming evidence that for most Americans college is a critical step on the path to life success. This year begins with great uncertainly and concern for what our future holds. Making higher education more affordable would be one vastly positive improvement. I look forward to seeing what progress we make towards that goal and will be thinking about how that creates change and new opportunities for academic librarians.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. This student’s commentary on general education courses reveals a tension that is all too familiar. When university was only the dream of some, and you could get a decent job without it, there was more of a sense that gen ed would cultivate the mind, and that was seen as a good thing even if it didn’t immediately lead to a job. Today, relevance is key, and the perceived irrelevance of gen ed by some is likely a product of the question, “How will this stuff get me a job?” I find this deeply troubling, because…And there I pause. Is it because I am elitist and believe university should be left to students who are there to be students and to rule in the next generation’s hegemony? Is it because I see missed opportunity when students cultivate only that which makes them job-ready? Is it because foisting gen ed on such students may be a less that wise choice when they are not prepared to appreciate it and might do better in a technical school that is more hands-on?

    Lots to ponder. Thanks, Steve.

  2. Hi William. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the column, particularly the predicament of GenEd.

    Given what I see in my own institution, not only do the students question the value of these courses but so do some of our administrators.

    That’s why we are currently doing some experimentation with a new approach with “micro-courses”, which will allow students to have more choice between skill building and exposure to liberal arts education.

    Given that GenEd is often the locus of an institutional strategy to integrate information literacy in the curriculum, losing GenEd could shut an important door for librarians.

    Good point though about the lack of appreciation for GenEd. Perhaps students are not paying close enough attention to what employers are saying about the soft skills that graduates often lack – writing, speaking, researching, asking good questions…GenEd, despite some questionable courses, is largely where students in professional programs are most likely to learn these skills.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Yes, I hope that more students can enjoy the college experience and educational benefits without a huge financial burden. The Trump administration wants to destroy quality education for all–what an abysmal and destructive attitude! I want to believe that educators and librarians will make progress in 2017 and beyond. Thanks for talking about this topic!