“You’re not getting one of those cheap [name deleted] university masters degrees, are you?” That was the reply of the superintendent when one of my high school teacher colleagues had stopped in to mention that she was beginning a masters program. She was not pursuing that cheap degree, but another that he recognized with: “Now that is a good program.”
Administrators are aware of the extreme variations in quality of university programs. And students should be aware that it matters. Some degrees are valued. Others are worthless.
College freshmen have now had enough time to observe their first classes and make a judgement on the quality of their school. What should they look for in a rigorous and valued degree?
On the first day of classes, did many professors just hand you a syllabus and dismiss class? You just missed an hour of learning that you paid for. Some pundits quip that education is the one industry where the customer rejoices in not getting what they paid for. But you are now one day dumber, and more of that can add up. Find another school.
Every school now seems to have a mission statement, a vision statement, and other formal mottos. Do the words “academic” and “scholar” and “intellectual” and “rigor” appear anywhere in those documents? If not, then its mission is not academic, scholarly or rigorous. Perk up; you have just learned the meaning of “platitude.” But find another school.
Did they schedule you for the easiest classes your first year, avoiding the more difficult “weed out” courses in your major that might “flunk out” students? This is one strategy being used in Kansas to keep students who are not college-able in school to retain them as long as possible to collect tuition. The regents have essentially commanded it. But if you don’t start your major courses, you will be unable to finish in four years. Their obsession with retention can cost you a year of your life. Find another school.
Are professor’s office doors open between classes for students to get extra help, good advising, and to carry the classroom discussion further? If the professor is never in, e-mail is a poor excuse for efficient and meaningful communication. Find another school.
Do your teachers know your name by mid-terms? Yes, most universities have been herding students into large lecture halls for decades—a form of institutionalized malpractice. A class should be less than 30 students so every student can participate in the discussion and the professor can monitor eyes for understanding. You are not just a number. But even if professors are teaching big classes under duress, the teacher should still know your name. You are also going to need references when you graduate. If your professors never know your name, find another school.
Do your advanced courses have prerequisites? If not, they could all be taken by beginning freshmen. An “advanced” course that starts at a beginning level really isn’t an advanced course at all. A bachelor’s degree is not just two associate degrees. A real education progresses into advanced learning. “No prerequisites” means “no depth.” Find another school.
Is your school spending more money on marketing than on faculty salaries? In some for-profit online operations, their most expensive line-item is advertising to attract students. But they hire adjunct professors who work at food-stamp wages. Find a real school.
Is your university gutting its general education program? -Reducing the credit hours for a bachelor's degree from 124 to the regent’s minimum of 120? -Offering a masters degree for going one year past the bachelor’s degree? Run, don’t walk, to another school!
Unfortunately, our students live in an educational Wild West. Political pressure to increase the number of college graduates and bring in tuition dollars has silenced the faculty voices for academic integrity. At higher education conferences in Asia and Europe, this decline in the value of the American public university degree is an open topic of conversation. But the value of degrees at our more rigorous campuses remains.
Students who want a diploma of value will have to take charge of their life. That may mean—finding another school.