Thursday, January 07, 2010
What Are You Going to Do With That?
From this neck of the woods, "liberal arts" also gets called "gen ed," and it forms the easily-transferable core of many (though not all) majors at four-year schools. While articles like these detail the agonies of philosophy departments at some four-year colleges, our philosophy sections routinely fill, thank you very much. In fact, philosophy is actually a moneymaker for us, since it doesn't require expensive labs (though it's a fun thought exercise to imagine the Nietzsche lab). We have great full-time faculty there, good adjuncts aren't that hard to find -- any underemployed philosophers out there? -- and the classes transfer beautifully. The same holds in most of the other evergreen disciplines in the liberal arts -- English, history, poli sci, psychology, etc.
Although you wouldn't know it from the national political discourse, in which community colleges are routinely reduced to 'remedial education plus workforce development,' the largest single major on my campus is the liberal arts transfer major. My college isn't unique in that, either. The appeal of the program is severalfold. It gives students two full years' worth of easily transferable credits, but at the cc tuition level. It gives students a chance to sample courses in many different parts of the curriculum, to see what clicks for them. It gives students who truly don't know what they want a couple extra years to figure it out. When you're 17 or 18, fresh out of high school, and lost, the value of this is not to be underestimated. I've had some bracingly frank discussions with parents in which they've said variations on "Johnny doesn't know what the hell he wants, so I'd rather he floundered here for $3,000 a year than there for $50,000 a year." It's not exactly "learning for learning's sake," but it creates the opportunity. I've seen clueless 18 year olds become motivated 19 year olds; they just needed a little more time and experience before the lightbulb went on.
(Btw, the 'fresh out of high school' demographic is our fastest-growing segment. Our student body is getting younger, more traditional, and more full-time. With those changes, the liberal arts major just gets more popular.)
It's not for everybody, of course. If you know from the get-go that you want to be an engineer or nurse, there's a pretty strict chain of prereqs you need to follow. (Interestingly, that's less true for becoming a medical doctor.) But I get a little cranky every time I read a statement from a politician who should know better claiming that community colleges are all about job preparation. That's part of the mission, but only a part, and frankly, that part is harder to sustain over time because the market keeps changing. "Can't miss" fields have a way of missing after a few years, what with market cycles, technological change, and people flooding them. The job projections we were told in the late 90's were pretty accurate, if you substitute "Bangalore" for "America." Five years ago, nursing was a can't-miss field; now, new grads have to really scrap for jobs.
None of this refutes the battles that some liberal arts departments are facing at some schools, of course, but it suggests that the picture is more subtle than a straightforward "business is crowding us out." On the ground here, the liberal arts are alive and well.
At my CC, it's all about the enrollment numbers... if we get butts in the seats, we can add more classes -- which is generally what's going on in humanities.
I suppose what really bothers me about the image and implementation of the liberal arts transfer is that our course size has grown significantly, because we don't need expensive labs etc... so, while I may have 240 philosophy students (like last semester), a nursing prof may have 20 -- sure, hers are with her more every day -- but to figure out the equivalent load -- she'd have 100 where I have 240... Larger class sizes aren't good for liberal arts students, even if they are possible.
I also think that a large portion of the young "traditional" students at CCs are kids for whom living at home comes with the condition of going to school. And while many take advantage of this and really learn a lot, others just use it as a delaying factor to make decisions about their lives and never complete an education of any kind. Not to mention the four year university kids taking GE's and other courses at a cheaper CC, I think this is overinflating that demographic. So I understand why politicians talk about CCs as career training; they still see that as their most vital contribution to the community.
an anecdote: my sister just started a nursing program at a community college. She studied and worked on prereqs for several years before she was finally admitted--it was incredibly competitive. As soon as she was admitted--even before she *started* classes--she was offered a job for after graduation. The reason? She lives in a city of only about 200,000 people that has five major (and I mean huge) hospitals. It's the largest city in the immediate area and therefore its a regional hub for medical care. The hospitals are the major employers in town. High quality nurses are in huge demand there, which is why the programs are so competitive and why my sister already has a job lined up even though she hasn't graduated.
Nursing programs for the ccs there *are* a can't miss, for students and for colleges. That doesn't necessarily translate to all markets.
Imagine being in a situation where you could lose your professional license (and with it, your job as a professor and ability to work in your profession) because of something one of a few dozen of your students did while under your supervision. How do you calculate the "equivalent load" for that level of responsibility?
I've seen clueless 18 year olds become motivated 19 year olds.
Me too, which is why I've always thought American students should take a year off between high school and college. Those who can afford a British-style "gap year" can go backpacking around the world or whatever. Those who need to pay rent would work whatever crap job they could find (easier said than done these days, I realize). Either way, I promise you they'll be in a better position to appreciate college when they get there. And they'll have a year to get some partying out of their system without jeopardizing their GPAs.
The nursing "shortage" is no different.
It's an extraordinarily flexible profession - where you can work as little as 1 shift (8-12 hours) a week or as much as 80 hours a week.
With the economic situation, many Nurses have decided to return to work or up their hours - so rather than taking 12 hours a week they're doing 40, if a spouse's business is taking in less money.
It will recover and be a good long-term bet still.