What Good is a College Degree?

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, September 26, 2007.

Along with the crisp air comes another sign of fall – throngs of students going to college. Excitement for them, anxiety for their parents.

But as we pack our students off to college, we must ask an important question:

What good is a college degree?

First, there’s the question of what a college education ought to mean, and what it really is.  College used to be a privilege, but our egalitarian society now believes everyone deserves the opportunity to attend. Thus, our government argues about college loans, and wise parents have investigated ways to set aside the money.

In February 2005, USA Today reported that 64% of high school graduates go to college, but the number of Americans with bachelor degrees is only 29%. So what happens to that other 35% between the time they go and 4 years later?

Many students simply aren’t equipped to attend. They can’t foot the bill, or don’t have the academic skills. For many, their personal habits interfere with their success. Besides money, college demands maturity and self-discipline. If you don’t have those, college can chew you up.

Secondly, there’s the question of whether we need college degrees – as individuals or a society. America has the largest economy in the world, but less than a third of us have a degree. Yeah, we need educated folk running the country, but we rely just as much on those who ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

Finally, some choose to educate themselves in their pursuit of rewarding jobs and a comfortable life. In Washington State, the average salary for teaching, which requires at least a bachelor’s degree, is $45,722. The starting salary for a power lineman (those good guys who climb power poles to keep our electricity coming) is $55,000. No college degree necessary, though some training (and risk) is required. That salary increases to $72,000 for journeymen.

I recently met a man with a Ph.D. in physics. There’s an accomplishment, wouldn’t you say? A degree in upper level sciences — surely we need more like him! Actually, no, we don’t. After the linear accelerator program died in the 1980s, the market for his skills dried up, and he retrained as a brain surgeon. Because he needed a job.

Sadly, a college degree no longer guarantees a good job. It may not guarantee any job at all. If you plan to get a degree in the arts or humanities (music, foreign language, history, literature), good luck. We could stop issuing degrees in English for 20 years and still have more than enough English majors to go around. (But Newsweek recently reported that medical schools are now looking for those with liberal arts degrees. Maybe there’s hope for us English majors yet!)

So – what good IS a college degree? If you want to be a lawyer, teacher or businessman, it’s mandatory. Not just one degree, but many. There’s also evidence that college graduates have a better quality of life – they’re healthier, happier, more likely to volunteer and vote. But if you’re looking to live comfortably with work you find rewarding (be it butcher, baker, or candlestick maker), you might not need one.

More than ever, today’s students must do their homework.


I Never Meant to Be a Pilot

Note: A version of this column first appeared in The Olympian, April 25, 2007.

Once upon a time, before I had children, I was home awaiting a visit from a friend, who brought along her 8-month-old son. I hadn’t seen this friend in months and was glad for the chance to visit. But my excitement quickly turned into annoyance, for as we were talking, my friend kept interrupting our conversation to turn to her child, who was happily playing on his own, to call out “Hey, Bud!” or “Whatcha doin’, baby?” The baby would then turn toward his mom looking slightly alarmed.

Now that I have children, I recognize that interruption is a constant of parenthood (though it’s usually the child interrupting the parent). Still, I remember my friend’s explanation for why she was interrupting our conversation and her child’s play. She wanted to stimulate his brain to form as many synapses as possible, giving him a jump on life.

Science has proven that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for brain development. But science has not yet recognized the creature arising from this research: the Helicopter Parent – one who hovers over a child directing every activity, well beyond those first 3 years. As a parent, I recognize the temptation to give a child every advantage. I’ve also started to notice the comic side of that tendency.

How do you know if you’re a Helicopter Parent? To borrow a page from Jeff Foxworthy (since he’s busy with 5th graders), you might be a helicopter if you…

  • Never put your infant down, even during nap time (yours or hers)
  • Marvel at the contents of your child’s diaper while changing it
  • Insist on walking your second-grader to the school crosswalk, which is just across your backyard
  • Videotape all your child’s activities, including visits to other children’s birthday parties
  • Never allow your 10-year-old to play at a friend’s house without being there to supervise
  • Constantly use that computer connection that lets you monitor your child’s activities at junior high
  • Fill out your child’s college applications
  • Distribute your child’s resume at job fairs
  • Consider it a privilege to do your adult child’s laundry

I’m not making these up. They are real-life examples from people I’ve met or heard about. Perhaps you recognize a dad or mom in this list. Perhaps you see me there. (Though my students stared at me wide-eyed when I described having my first-grader pack his own lunch for school.)

Most parents have the best intentions in guiding their children, and that’s what parenthood should be — guiding, not controlling. But some children of helicopters may end up thinking they’re the center of the world because that’s the position they’ve grown accustomed to. Others, given some free time, panic because freedom scares them. Some have told me they’re embarrassed by their parents’ actions. Others admit to rebelling against them. Perhaps the greatest danger is that these children might morph into helicopters themselves.

In those moments when I find myself preparing for take-off, I chant aloud the words of George Carlin: “Parents, leave your kids alone!”  And if that doesn’t work, there’s always a chapter of Confessions of a Slacker Mom, by Muffy Mead-Ferro. It works for dads too.

Travels from the Comfort of the Couch

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, February 7, 2007.

Recently, I took a couple of trips while sitting in my living room. No chemicals involved. Just the help of some magazines.

I assure you there’s no Travel & Leisure at my house — I have young children — but these magazines took me places I don’t usually go.

My first stop was in the land of American Handgunner magazine. I’m one of those who thinks guns should be controlled, so I opened the cover of the magazine (passed along by a student) expecting tales and politics, written by and for men, promoting the ownership of guns regardless of their danger.

But as I looked through the magazine, I was surprised. The magazine has women on the editorial board and a Japanese photographer. Several letters to the editor were from women, one of whom fights her husband for the newest issue when it arrives in their mailbox. An enlightening letter from an American civilian described the conditions of working in Iraq. The articles included a quote from Shakespeare, ideas for writing a journal, and a curious tale of hunting hippos in Africa. (Why someone would try that with a handgun is beyond me.) But most of the articles, including one by a man who accidentally shot his bedroom mirror, stressed the responsibility that comes with owning a gun and using it safely.

My second trip was through the vistas of Men’s Health, published by Rodale Press, which publishes other mainstream magazines such as Prevention. In its pages I expected a wholesome view of men’s lives but again was surprised at what I found. Lots of slick photos of buff guys, of course, and diet, exercise and nutrition tips. Recipes. (Nice to see those in a guy’s magazine.) Sex tips, of course. There’s even an advice column. Change the sex of the bodies in the photos and it starts to look like Cosmopolitan.

Unfortunately, I was left with that familiar view of women as objects, something to be had, like a car or a house. To its credit, the magazine had human interest stories – a doctor writing about everyday experiences with patients, a guy writing about marriage in terms male readers understand. (That’s the October 2006 issue, ladies.) But overall the magazine reinforces the same narcissism that many women’s magazines are guilty of. Not surprising, but definitely disappointing.

It’s not that I prefer handguns to buff guys. Frankly, I don’t need either one. It’s that reviewing these magazines from the comfort of my couch showed the value of “crossing over” – looking at how others live and think about the world. Imagine magnifying this investigation to a societal level, where everyone steps outside their comfort zone to see the world as others do. It might forever change how we see ourselves. Expand this plan to a global level – say, Americans living outside mainstream culture (easy to do within our borders) — and it might profoundly change how we think. It just might also change how citizens of other countries see us.

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.

— George Santayana, philosopher (1863-1952)

There’s a Demon Behind the Test Scores

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, June 7, 2006.

As a parent of children in the public schools, I’m following the debates about standardized tests across the country and in Washington. Recent scores show that math and reading skills are improving, but science scores are declining. There are rumors of cheating on standardized tests in Texas, scores being skewed by the exclusion of students across the country, and still a gap between white and minority scores here in Washington. But we’ve also heard people such as Bill Gates lament the standing of U.S. students in math and science compared with students in other countries. It’s hard to know what to make of all the reports and opinions, and it’s downright frightening for a parent who’s just trying to do right by a child.

When teaching composition at community colleges 15 years ago, I was appalled by the numbers of students graduating high school who placed into remedial writing classes – basic sentences, paragraphs, punctuation. Sure, I taught more of these classes in Mississippi and South Texas than in my native Ohio, but a recent trip to South Puget Sound Community College and a gander at the course catalog there shows there’s still need for remediation.

When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, the “new idea” was called the Exit Exam – a 5-part essay students had to produce to claim the credits from their mandatory writing classes. Our business then was to make sure students could pass that standardized test. That was in 1985. Now, the business of preparing students for standardized tests has been pushed down to elementary and even kindergarten teachers, whose mission is to help 5-year-olds “set goals.”

My concern back in graduate school was that we were teaching to the test rather than focusing on skills students would need in the real world. On the other hand, my teaching colleague in South Texas tells me that the reforms there improved the performance of students she sees now at the community college. And my daughter’s teacher says that tests like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do give teachers purpose in what they teach.

The question now is, does that purpose make better students of life or just better test scores? Every teacher can tell you there are good students who don’t test well. And there are students who get by the tests but can’t put their skills to use in the real world. In other words, one size never fits all.

The same is true in comparing scores from the U.S. with those of other countries. Yes, students in other countries outperform ours, but there’s a demon behind those scores. I lived for 2 years in Japan, one of those countries that worry Mr. Gates. The education system there relies heavily on test-taking, and a child’s path in life is set in stone as early as first grade. Faced by the pressure, some children refuse to go to school. Many get through it, and the extra cram sessions after the regular school day, only to develop ulcers by the time they reach college. They sacrifice their childhood to a test score. They become addicted to anxiety. If the U.S. takes the same approach of testing, testing, testing, our scores might eventually look as good as theirs, but the damage to our children might be as great.

Funny, though. The “new idea” about education in Japan is to cut back on the pressure, with changes like getting rid of mandatory school on Saturdays. The Education Ministry is worried that, with all the pressure, students aren’t given time to develop the creativity found in kids from other countries – like the United States.

Learning the Local Language

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, March 5, 2006.

Recently, I moved to Olympia from “flyover country” (FC) — that place east-coasters fly over to more important places on the other coast. My specific spot in FC was Lexington, Kentucky.  If you’re a fan of racehorses or bourbon (or both), you know it. Now that the dust has settled, or been subdued by rain, I’m noticing some language differences between FC and Olympia.

First off, I’ve learned new meanings for familiar words. I’ve heard these words before, but here I’ve come to know them on an, uh, intimate level: septic tank, power outage, and the most critical — generator. In FC, these terms were spoken only by people “in the country” – three more words that now apply to me.

Other words I’ve had to rethink include that ubiquitous phrase uttered by salespeople everywhere: “Have a nice day!”  Salespeople in FC say those words constantly, but they have a different ring here. Shopfolk seem to mean it and look me in the eye when speaking. The cashiers at Safeway even pronounce my name correctly. That’s one advantage of being on the West coast. With the Asian influence, my surname doesn’t seem foreign. And yakisoba is easy to come by.

Naturally, I’ve come up against the vocabulary for ordering coffee in the Pacific Northwest. But I don’t drink the stuff, so I can plead happy ignorance of the terms. The closest I’ve come to a double mocha latté is chai, but I can’t tell you what’s in it. I enjoy seeing espresso huts on every other corner, drive thru ones at that. In FC, you can drive-thru for money, dry cleaning, drugs (the legal sort), and even beer, but not latté. That’s a true measure of the culture.

Certain terms I learned as oddities in FC are common here, especially those associated with yoga:  plank, warrior, and anything ending with –asana.  If I shouted “down dog!” in a crowded theater, everyone inside might actually assume the position. Those street corners lacking espresso huts harbor yoga studios, and my kids even learned the tree pose while standing in the school bus line.

On the other hand, the meanings of some current terms here have already been decided back in FC — for example, smoking ban and water rights. I’ve found the image of a place doesn’t always reflect reality. East-coasters joke about FC, but the folks there are, on occasion, a step ahead.

I’ve also become attuned to the visual language of Olympia, and much of it delights. The Mountain. The calming presence of the water. The sharp outlines of trees against the sky, a scene made possible by clear air.  More men in grocery stores, shopping and working checkout. That booklet in my mailbox detailing issues on the ballot, so I could actually cast an educated vote. Older couples hand-in-hand in a lively downtown. Olympia’s downtown thrives at a level larger cities should envy.

For all the new meanings I’m discovering here, though, there are two visual terms I’m glad not to encounter.  Big hair.  Power suits.