Traditional Colleges’ Bad Bedside Manner Sets Them Up for ‘Gainful’ Failure

The notion clashes with just about every aspect of the foundation of traditional colleges and universities. As far as it relates to seeing students through to employment, “accountability” has never ranked high on the roster of concerns for tenured professors, college presidents and chancellors, or for many student services departments on the campuses of America’s most esteemed learning institutions.

Faculty at these colleges have taught accountability in regard to being truthful and honest in the pursuit of academic excellence and graduates have often been taught theory about civic responsibility and what it means to lead a life of good citizenship. Unfortunately, that’s where the accountability ends, for the most part.  Beyond the occasional career fair,  which entails lining up employers to visit campus for an afternoon – and even then, it’s up to students to make the connection – most American colleges do little more than wave their hand in the direction of soon-to-be-graduates who are about to venture out and obtain their first “real” job.

Can you imagine, then, what it must feel like (I know you can,) for the better side of academia to suddenly be held accountable for the outcomes graduates encounter upon their first experience in the job market? And, it must be particularly jolting for this suggestion to come from a Harvard-educated, liberal-thinking politician who was championed four years ago on college campuses throughout the nation. Seemingly, from out of left field, the Obama administration is contemplating a requirement on traditional colleges and universities that would link federal aid and net price increases — and determine whether those institutions provide “good value” to students.

While Obama was using election time rhetoric by placing colleges “on notice” during the State of the Union address last week (speaking with a boastful-sounding, almost post-election-like candor), he later clarified his remarks by stating a traditional colleges should provide “quality education and training that prepares graduates to obtain employment and repay their loans.”

Don’t be mistaken. This is not yet the level playing field career colleges have been hoping for all along. If we do see something like the gainful employment rule become reality for traditional colleges, it will be implemented with more respect than was given to for-profit colleges. Traditional colleges will be involved in the process of implementation, every step of the way. The president and the Department of Education will heed the words of college chancellors and presidents, particularly those at the larger and more renowned institutions.

But will their efforts truly impact what colleges charge for tuition? We’ll have to see. For me, the larger question is whether a sector of education that has a proven track record of terrible bedside manner can suddenly dig in and develop the genuine interest in students it takes to see through to gainful employment. I personally have serious doubts based on my own experience.

Just before I graduated from college 10 years or so ago, I made a trip to the Career Services Department to see what jobs they had relevant to my background in communications. I recognized the older woman at the front desk right away as someone I’d said hello to a few times on campus, and who was always pleasant, but I never knew exactly what function she performed on campus. When I asked about potential jobs, she directed me to a three-ring binder of jobs that was sitting on a table in a far corner of the office. I distinctly remember that she suddenly wasn’t so friendly about it.

Now, I realize this isn’t everyone’s experience, and that times have changed in the last decade or so. Those jobs are now probably listed on some sterile-looking job board somewhere. And I know that every institution approaches its career-based services with varying levels of intensity. But to be honest with you, what I was looking for more than anything was a feeling that I was going to be ok – that my degree had prepared me for a position in the working world. As long as I felt like I would find one, eventually, I would have left that office satisfied.

That’s not how it happened, though. I didn’t feel supported, and I wasn’t. It was up to me to find a job, to demonstrate for the employer how my education prepared me for the job, and to blow them away in the interview. I suppose I did alright with those requirements … but not everyone does.

The reaction to this from the traditional side will be interesting to watch. If they argue too strongly against the President’s plans, they will expose the fact that they make no promises to students about the value of their education or what it can get them. To me, a traditional college not making a commitment to the student is far worse than a career college trying its hardest and failing to place one.

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“While Obama was using election time candor”? Election time is not normally known for its candor. I think “(w)hile Obama was using election time rhetoric” would be a more accurate description.


Thanks for the suggestion, napensnake. It's amazing what falls under the fingers when you're letting a few thousand words fly. See the revision above (I think you'll like it better). Maybe you could volunteer to work as a proofer on our magazine staff … if you wouldn’t mind sharing your identity … and credentials.