Thursday, January 07, 2010


What Are You Going to Do With That?

One of the saving graces of working at a community college is that I don't hear the dreaded "what are you going to do with that?" question directed at students who major in liberal arts. At the two-year level, the answer is frequently obvious: transfer.

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.

Hmmm - what's going on with nursing? We keep hearing (from both national and regional media outlets) that there's a nursing shortage, how the demand for nurses will keep growing, etc. Yet your graduates are having a hard time getting nursing jobs? What's the story here?
I don't think getting nursing jobs right now is a problem -- but, the problem is that "hot" fields prompt increases in programs at CC's -- but, just as those programs get going, the field isn't "hot" anymore. Being in "computers" was like that a while back...

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.
My college had lab sections for philosophy. The Nietzsche labs were particularly dangerous, and we had to don protective "safety mustaches."
You could argue the strict pre-reqs are what keep students in liberal arts and out of other fields. I ran into an old high school friend of mine who had transferred to my university. I was extremely proud of her for finishing all her transfer credits and working on her bachelor's degree as most people I know in high school never got a degree of any kind after spending a few years at a CC. She had always said she wanted to be an aerospace engineer; her deceased father had been a mechanic. But turns out she had transferred in for linguistics because that was "easier" to complete the transfer program. Since I knew she had been living at near-poverty levels when we were in high school together, I had to wonder exactly how helpful a linguistics degree was going to be to her.

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.
I think location has to be at issue with the can't-miss jobs, esp. nursing. There is a nursing shortage nationally, which is what everyone keeps saying. That doesn't mean there's an equal shortage everywhere, which means nursing might be a can't miss in one area of the country and not so much in the other.

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.
The "problem" with nursing right now is a confluence of forces that are making it harder for new grads to find jobs. When the stock market tanked, a lot of nurses in their 60's decided to put off retirement to give their 401k/403b accounts time to recover. Also, experienced nurses that were working part time with partners that lost jobs started increasing the number of hours they wanted. These two things increased the number of experienced nurses available in the labor market. New nursing grads are expensive hires because they usually require a training period that is anywhere from 6-12 months long during which they do not count toward our required nurse:patient ratios. Given a choice between hired an experienced person and a new nurse, most facilities are choosing experience, hoping to get more bang for their buck in the short term. In California we increased our capacity to train new nurses by over 30% in a 5 year period - that vastly increased the number of new grads. As a result, areas that have training programs locally have a surplus of new grads at a time when more experienced folks are heading back to work and hospitals are looking for experience. This is a regionally limited phenomenon - new nurses willing to go to rural areas in the state (Central Valley, Far North, Southern Deserts) are able to find work. Those with limited geographic flexibility (for all the usually reasons kids, spouse with a career, house that's underwater and can't be sold, etc.) have a harder time finding jobs. All that said, the average age of a nurse is still in the high 40's with a huge group in the 55+ demographic. Over the next 5 years, large numbers of nurses will retire as they age / have their portfolio recover / get sick of the general crazy that will follow the changes that are coming to healthcare. The economy has just pushed the tidal wave back some, but it's still coming.
One thing that "Inside the Philosophy Factory" may not realize, because I didn't until recently, is that a Nursing professor is legally and professionally liable for what that professor's students do during a clinical session.

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?
Thanks for this. At my public four-year university, the liberal arts are holding their own in terms of enrollment (at least in English and History), but that isn't stopping the administration from massively defunding the humanities college.

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.
A "shortage" always just means that the folks doing the hiring aren't willing to pay enough to get new people interested in the career.

The nursing "shortage" is no different.
Nursing is the same here as with Ivory.

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.
PunditusMaximus - you are wrong in this case. The training capacity for nurses is insufficient to keep pace with the number of folks that are retiring. We probably have 3-5 times as many people interested in training as we have positions to train. This isn't a money problem in terms of salary - it is a money problem in the sense that colleges and hospitals are not reimbursed properly for the cost of training a nurse. Healthcare reform could help with this as people who don't pay their bills (the uninsured) are one of the biggest liabilities in the current system. More $$ for educational institutions that train health professionals would also help.
Ivory -- sorry, but I know too many nurses who refuse to reenter the field due to pay and working conditions.
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