The Montana Legislature, the governor and higher education officials are working on a plan to demand greater accountability from universities. It’s a popular idea and presumably will pass in some form.
As a Billings Gazette editorial put it on Sunday, “Universities and colleges are supposed to deliver educational services that lead to completion of a degree or certificate. When students graduate – and graduate on time – they derive the highest value for their investment. Likewise, Montana taxpayers, who fund about 36 percent of the system’s educational expenses, get the biggest bang for their bucks when students become graduates.”
We all want bang for our bucks, even if we are paying only a third of the freight. But we need to be careful how we extract foie gras from this particular goose. Sometimes it lays golden eggs.
In addition to newspaper hackery, I have taught college courses off and on for a couple of dozen years, including both at Rocky Mountain College and Montana State University Billings. No one who teaches part-time as an adjunct faculty member would argue that colleges operate in the most efficient way possible. The room for improvement is a large room indeed.
But efficiency also can get in the way of education. Consider my own mottled college career. I was a good high school student and sorted through a passel of small but ego-stroking college scholarships.
But I had had a bellyful of school and wanted none of it. I instead enrolled in a local community college, fell into a deep funk, had a miserable time and dropped out in a couple of months.
I moped for a while, working part-time, then thanks to a low draft number, I spent three years in the Army. I wandered around Europe for a year after that, then got a dead-end job in Denver.
Out of sheer boredom, I eventually took night courses while also working full-time. After a year, I decided I wanted to go to college after all.
Nobody was interested in offering me a scholarship by then, but I had the G.I. Bill and qualified for low Texas tuition rates.
I graduated summa cum laude, worked for a while in another dead-end job and then knocked around for a few years as a cub reporter in Texas.
Eventually, I accepted a fellowship at Texas A&M University and banged out a master’s degree in a calendar year, winning a Distinguished Graduate Student Award in the process. Just 14 years after graduating from high school, I was a freshly minted college graduate with an advanced degree.
Now I often teach basic writing classes, including freshmen composition and developmental writing, and I tutor struggling writers (as all of us are), so I see a lot of students who don’t particularly want to see me.
Some have no business being in college – they lack the skills, the motivation and the aptitude to pay off, as the Gazette puts it, in bang for the bucks. Learning who doesn’t belong in college may itself be a decent return on the taxpayers’ investment.
Some bright students are just punching their composition ticket on the way to whatever brilliant careers they decide to pursue. Quite a few are like I was: confused, unsettled, at sea in a world of learning that has no meaning for them.
Some have horrifying stories to tell of illness, abuse, war wounds, broken families, addiction or plain bad luck. Some are taking a second, or third, or fourth stab at college after falling out somewhere along the way for reasons that may, or may not, have been their fault.
That is the beauty of the wildly overbuilt and inefficient American system. It is almost infinitely forgiving of students who, for some reason or other, find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Would my failed community college career have been saved by faculty intervention, by counseling, by mandatory tutoring or study skills sessions? Not in a million years. The failure was in me, not in the system.
Would colleges worried about retention rates have been smart to turn me down after I had blown my first chance? Probably. Even in my best years, I had a bad habit of blowing off critical study nights. But would a more efficient system have paid off for taxpayers? Maybe not.
I just remember that the things that ultimately seemed worthwhile to me about college don’t show up easily on performance standards. A professor I had in graduate school specialized in 17th and 18th century British literature, a field not exactly in heavy demand at Goldman Sachs. His lectures were faltering and tedious; class discussions were tentative and dull.
But at any vague mention of some great 18th century poet, he would begin reciting by heart long passages of precisely composed verse. He was transported, pulling those verses not from his brain but from somewhere deep in his heart. That, I learned, and not some certificate, is what it means to be educated, and I grew to want what he had.
I also remember tutoring one student in Billings who for several years brought me draft after draft of awkward, inept essays. At times I almost dreaded seeing him because I knew what I was in for.
But he never gave up, and in about year three, things changed. The comma splices and fused sentences disappeared. The arguments tightened; the evidence became thorough and precise. Reviewing his papers took just a quick glance and a pat on the back.
Taxpayers made a risky bet when they put tax dollars down on his education. But that long shot is coming home a winner, and that bet was worth making.