Dr. Michael MacDowell: The Trouble With College

Dr. Michael MacDowell, President of Misericordia University, discusses the value and assessments of college degrees.

Dr. Michael MacDowell, President of Misericordia University in Dallas, PA

Dr. Michael MacDowell, President of Misericordia University in Dallas, PA

The 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,’’ by the National Commission on Excellence in Education spawned a bevy of criticism that was directed mainly at elementary and secondary school educators. The new academic year is only days old for many of today’s students, but additional questions have surfaced recently about whether or not students are learning what they should be. How do we measure the progress of students and should school districts and teachers be held responsible for progress or the lack thereof, these critics have asked?

Now the debate has moved on to colleges. What is the value of a college degree? What do students learn while enrolled? Today, many people use rich and famous Harvard dropouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as examples of why some people should not attend college. Forgotten is the fact that they were admitted to Harvard in the first place – a feat accomplished by only 6 percent of the 35,000 who applied to there last year. Gates and Zuckerberg are solid examples of non-college graduates who have done well for themselves and who also became vested in their own communities. What a lot of people don’t realize, though, is the probability of doing as well as they did without a college degree is roughly the equivalent of landing a multi-million dollar contract with the NBA or NFL.

What we do know for certain about college graduates is that on average they earn $1.3 million dollars more over their lifetime than do individuals with a high school degree. We also know that while the national unemployment rate hovers at about 9 percent for high school graduates, the number is closer to 4 percent for those with a college degree. Just as important, though, is the fact that college graduates are more involved in their communities, vote more often, volunteer to serve others in greater numbers and pay more taxes. Perhaps that is why a recent national research study showed that 84 percent of two- and four-year college graduates said their degrees were a good investment.

While society tends to value a college education, the broader question that college educators are asking themselves nowadays is what is the “value added” by obtaining a college degree? Two college educators, Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, question what collegians get from their advanced degrees in their recent book, “Academically Adrift.’’

Arum and Roksa didn’t theorize about what students learned in college, instead they asked them. Using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an instrument designed to measure the critical thinking skills of students before and after four years of college, they measured a group of college freshmen and college seniors to see what value a college education offered. One finding was that some college curricula lacked rigor. They found that many college students had not written a paper of more than 20 pages during their last semester and few read over 45 pages of text or readings per class week. As a result, “45 percent of the students showed no significant improvements in knowledge.”

Arum recently came to Misericordia University to present at an annual conference on college learning assessment. Our faculty and administrators, along with those from five other Northeastern Pennsylvania institutions, participated. While it is easy to summarize Arum’s thinking in sound bites and percentages, his message is more complex. He suggests educators at the collegiate level should introduce more rigorous curriculum into their courses.

The work of our colleagues in higher education is important because it measures some outcomes of a college education. Other researchers and educators believe additional measurables need to be considered as well. The Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), for example, measures college students’ involvement in the learning process, hence their motivation to learn both in college and by inference later in life as well.

As the president of an institution whose students have done well on both the CLA and the NSSE surveys, I question the value of these instruments in predicting the future success of any particular student. I am in agreement, however, with the fact that these surveys say a lot about an undergraduate’s relationship with the college they attend and the professors with whom — at least at smaller institutions — they have the opportunity to interact.

Standardized measurements, whether they are an SAT or ACT at the high school level, or CLAs and NSSE surveys at the college level, are helpful. They provide those of us charged with managing institutions of higher learning and our faculty the opportunity to adjust what they do in order to add greater value to what schools and colleges provide their students and society. We owe that to our students who are, after all, our future.

Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

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  4. Ane Inc.

    With regard to this quote:

    “Gates and Zuckerberg are solid examples of non-college graduates who have done well for themselves and who also became vested in their own communities. What a lot of people don’t realize, though, is the probability of doing as well as they did without a college degree is roughly the equivalent of landing a multi-million dollar contract with the NBA or NFL.”

    With new technologies and some drive and ambition, what Gates and Zuckerberg have accomplished is NOT unrealistic and NOT the equivalent of landing a prominent position with the NBA or NFL. Instead, this IS indeed a realistic goal in this day and age with drive and ambition.

    It is important to be aware that the comment made by Dr.(?) MacDowell came from someone who does not possess a PhD but instead an Ed.D (not difficult to accomplish) and is not tech savvy, a known fact by an acquaintance who knows him well from past experience.

    From well-seasoned experience with the President of “Misericordia University” who changed the name of the institution (College Misericordia) for his own interests and resume/track record by selling it as beneficial to the college, I am surprised that a publication as reputable as this one would not investigate further before they publish an article like this.

    It is a fact (known by everyone in his past) that the President of this “University” should be questioned and taken with a grain of salt. Knowing what we know about this man’s unstable past both personally and professionally we do NOT feel he should be recognized in a publication as reputable as this one.

    Instead, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and others are to be applauded for accomplishing everything on their own intelligence that Dr. MacDowell has accomplished only by having to use others.

    Mr. Gates, Mr Zuckerberg, and other highly intelligent people can succeed by using their own ingenuity, hence the reason others like Dr.(?) MacDowell see them as a threat since they must gain their own omnipotence by flying on the wings of the success of others by using them. (Case in point: The “Rasmussen” building at Misericordia “University” (not “College”).

    In summary, we feel higher education is not to be banned. However, when it is led by people who cannot see beyond their own ego and self-serving points of view then it is time to step up to the plate and applaud the people such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to offer their “authentic” intelligence and ingenuity for the betterment of our future.

    Mr. Gates and Mr. Zuckerberg should be viewed as an inspiration to the intelligence of our future as opposed to being used as an “intimidator” to entice our younger generation into conforming to a college education simply because they are led to believe by so called “educational leaders” out for their own selfish interests that they are in the minority when it comes to believing in their dreams.

    If college education is for you then go for it. If it isn’t and you have a dream then do not let any so called “education leader” that got to their position through false pretenses tell you that you can cannot pursue your dream without paying through the nose and going into debt for the rest of your life. And all for the sake of that so called “education leader” to justify their job and their falsified success to claim they have improved enrollment and revenue for the college.

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August 25th, 2011

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