Education’s dirty little secret -- Part II

In an earlier column we raised some questions about one of the country’s sacred cows: the four-year college experience. In brief, we suggested that higher education is an over-build industry: a good product designed for perhaps well below a quarter of our high school graduates and one which has now been stretched and diluted to “fit” nearly half of all high school grads. Currently many students and their parents are depleting family resources and going into debt in exchange for four fluffy years of questionable value.

Before investing some $160,000 in higher education, or more importantly four precious years in the life of your children, some questions ought to be rigorously addressed. Since high school students have been completely seduced by the college sales pitch, the questions are for parents.

First, is college really the best place for your child? Charles Murphy, one of the country’s most distinguished social scientists, recently wrote that while fully 45 percent of America’s high school graduates go to college, only the top 15 percent are intellectually able to do college work. Murray believes that colleges have not only dramatically lowered their standards, but by accepting so many students unequipped for the demands of college work, they are doing harm to students. He compares the damage to that of an average high school athlete going to college and spending every afternoon getting battered around at varsity practice. Instead of a four-year academic college, Murray suggests that for both the good of the nation and the great bulk of high school graduates, two years of community college-based vocational education is the answer.

Second, is college right for them now or would they be better served by putting the college experience off until later, until they have gained greater maturity? There is a small, but grounding movement among some high school seniors to delay thoughts of college until they have had more life experiences. They do a variety of things, such as working in a factory, a Wal-Mart-type mega store, or an office. Some work in nursing homes and with the poor. Some travel, taking whatever jobs they can to keep themselves afloat. We know personally several young people who have deferred immediate entry into college. In every case they appear to have made beneficial decisions

Third, is this college serious and demanding? This is an easy question to ask, but a hard one to get an answer to. It’s like asking a Ford dealer, “Is your new SUV any good?” You are snowed under with glossy brochures and reports on this or that aspect of the car. So, too, with colleges. They all have “sales departments” ready to impress you with what they can do for your child. One possible source would be to interview a number of second semester seniors out interviewing for jobs and just now confront the size of their college debut. The question to ask is not, “Did you enjoy your four years?” but rather, “Was it worth it?’

Fourth, will four years at this college strengthen my child’s faith and Christian character? If a non-Catholic college, what about the quality of the school’s Catholic community? Is there a Newman center and how vital is it? Will they be in an academic environment where their faith is continually under attack or ridiculed?

If a Catholic college, many of the same questions must be asked. All, of course, claim to be Catholic, but truth in advertising has in recent years been stretched beyond belief. All the same questions about dorm life and the campus social scene need to be answered. In addition, though, find out if they teach the faith or merely question the faith. In our experience, the faculties of most Catholic religion or theology departments are staffed with scholars more interested in criticizing the Church than in teaching students the corpus of the Church’s teaching and what it means to be a Catholic in the modern world. Although professors from all departments typically are rewarded for their research rather than their teaching, this failure of the Catholic theology faculties is especially egregious.

This issue of what the college actually teaches about our religion is crucial. Research has shown that while many Catholic colleges still require religion courses, many of these required courses have devolved into critiques of the Church or surveys of world religions. One of the favorite and sadly popular theology department offerings are “service courses.” Flying under the banner of “peace and justice courses,” students can take care of their theology requirements by tutoring a young child or helping out in a nursing home. While there is much to be learned from such experiences, one wonders what students are learning about their faith. And, of course, there is the awkward question; Why are parents paying thousands of dollars in tuition to have their child do volunteer work?

If a parent is having trouble getting a handle on whether or not a Catholic college is still Catholic, there is one cut-to-the-chase question to ask of the admissions officer: “When was the last time a production of “The Vagina Monologues” appeared on campus? At a few local Catholic colleges the VM is the most popular theatrical production and one that keeps returning. For many students it is the only play they have seen in four years. So, ask the question and when they respond in the affirmative, ask, “Why?” When the administrator starts talking about “exposing students to a diversity of points of view” and “freedom of expression,” put away your checkbook and head for the door!

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.