Thursday, June 28, 2012

And to Think School's Out!

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The start of the off season for college counselors was sufficiently trampled last week with college news that makes you wonder what the future looks like.  The first episode started about two weeks ago, when the governing body at The University of Virginia fired their popular president after she was on the job for a scant two years. Thanks to significant outcry from the faculty, students, and alumni, President Sullivan was reinstated this past Tuesday, but there are issues of trust, communication, and leadership among UVA’s governing group to work out before school starts.

Many reasons for the poorly timed decision are unclear, but newly released e-mails suggest President Sullivan wasn’t changing UVA quickly enough, at least in the eyes of some of her bosses.  The whole episode reveals the ongoing tension between business-oriented boards who think changing the direction of a college is easier than changing a light bulb, and academic-oriented presidents who know that college change doesn’t have to be glacial, but it does have to be based on consensus.  Look for more of these tensions to surface, especially at public universities that are starved for funding—and know how that tension can make a campus an unpleasant place to learn. At least UVA’s crisis occurred when school was out.

One area of concern at UVA is their competitiveness in the distance learning market, a position that’s become more important since Harvard and Stanford have announced plans to make some of their courses available online for free.  While it’s hard to see the economic plus side of this venture for Stanford and Harvard, colleges who can’t keep up will clearly be in a predicament, since students would undoubtedly want transfer credit for these courses, keeping dollars out of the coffers of other colleges—and what school would have the temerity to deny a student transfer credit for a class taken through Harvard?

While some see this as a real money-saver for students, there are larger issues to address before brick-and-mortar colleges need to fear.  Studies indicate that drop rates for online classes are vastly higher for online classes than traditional face-to-face classes, and this only includes students who think online classes are something they’d like to try.

The new Ivyesque online presence will do nothing for students who learn best from direct contact with instructors, and the completion rates of these online classes could be even lower, since the content of the courses is designed by two of the most rigorous colleges on the planet.  Add the concerns some college professors have expressed to me about the integrity of online courses (“How do we really know who’s doing the work?”), and UVA’s concerns about going digital now may prove to be unfounded.

And just in case there are those who doubt all of this “Better, Faster, Yesterday” approach to college isn’t having an impact on students and families, there’s the story of the parents in California who are suing their daughter’s high school because their daughter—a straight A student—came in second in her class.  This high achieving daughter is heading to Stanford on a Gates Scholarship and has a NASA internship, so you would think her parents would be proud, yes?

The story says “… to Elisha’s mother, Carol, the second-place finish means that her daughter's "sleepless nights" were essentially “for nothing.””

To be sure, there are some legitimate issues when schools decide As in one class are more important than As in other classes—but Stanford on a Gates Scholarship is nothing?

To add a comma to the words of Was (Not Was), boy's, gone crazy.

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