TT: Alternate Universes of Higher Education

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and at your two bits to our  discussion on the awkward topic of how to tell an author “You’re Wrong.”  Then come back and join me and Alan as we venture into some of the newer developments in higher education.

JANE: Since we last talked, I’ve been thinking about how our own education system has changed.  One of the biggest changes is the increased role that community colleges have in providing post-high school education.

Education of a Different Stripe

ALAN: What are community colleges?

JANE: I’m sure they differ some from state to state –  here in the U.S., colleges and universities are often funded by state governments – however, I believe the basics are the same.

First, there are no elaborate entrance requirements.  I’m not even sure if one needs to have completed high school, since I’ve heard of talented high school students getting a jump on college by taking courses at a community college.

Second, community colleges do not offer a full four-year degree (also called a bachelor’s degree).  Instead, they offer a two year-degree, usually called an “associates” degree.

Third, although many are, not all the courses are “high brow” academic.  One can learn some pretty practical things, too.  I have a friend who needed to upgrade his computer drafting skills and went to the local community college for that.

With me so far?

ALAN: Absolutely! That sounds just like the sort of thing the polytechnics do. And the “associates” degree sounds as if it is exactly the same as the post A-level certificates issued by polytechnics. Isn’t it amazing how ideas converge?

JANE: It is indeed.

The most interesting element of all, to me, is that since community colleges are far less expensive than most traditional colleges, many students are opting to take their first two years of college courses (many of which are basics) at a community college and then transfer to a four year college for only the last two years.

I suspect this is going to undermine a lot of the “rah-rah” school identification we discussed when talking earlier about yearbooks, class rings, and homecoming.

ALAN: That has to be a good thing. “Rah, rah” stuff always makes me squirm with embarrassment.

JANE: Going back, you said something about getting a higher education being easier now than it was had been in your day.  What are some of the new options?

ALAN: In the 1970’s the British government funded something called the Open University. There are no real entry requirements for the Open University – anybody can apply to study. That’s because the university has no permanent academic staff and no campus. It employs only a small number of administrators. Initially, the lectures were broadcast on the television, but these days they make full use of the internet, of course. And the lectures are simply recordings made by “bricks and mortar” university staff employed briefly as consultants. The recordings are used again and again and again…

So there is really no limit on the number of students the Open University can accommodate because it has no physical existence…

JANE: That sounds interesting, although I admit I have my doubts about the use of broadcasts for education.  It’s becoming more common, even here, but I have no personal experience.  Did anyone you know go to the Open University?

ALAN: Robin took an Open University degree in the late 1980s and she said it was hilarious seeing the recorded lecturers with their 1970s haircuts and their wide lapels and bell-bottomed trousers!

JANE: I agree, it would be, but how did she feel about the educational experience?

ALAN:  She found it invaluable. She was in a quite unique position in that she already had a degree from a more formal course of study at a traditional university so she was ideally suited to compare the way the two systems worked. And she was very pleased to find the same rigorous academic standards in place.

JANE: With the rise of the internet, the idea of teaching via recording or on-line is becoming more and more common – even here.  I find it interesting that the whole notion has been successfully established to the point that an entire university has no “live” staff.

ALAN: Yes – it’s been hugely successful, but no other country seems to have stolen the idea, which is a pity. Open University degrees really are just as prestigious as traditional degrees and the academic standard is just as high. One of my friends from school left early without any GCE qualifications because he made the mistake of getting his girlfriend pregnant. Later in life he took an Open University degree.  These days he is very much a mover and a shaker; he’s done really well for himself.

JANE: It must be hard for the students if they study by themselves all the time without other students, tutors, or instructors to work with.

ALAN: Robin tells me that the Open University holds “Summer Schools” in addition to the broadcast lectures. These generally take place on the campuses of brick-and-mortar universities during the summer when they are largely deserted. The idea is to bring the students together so that they feel less isolated in their studies, and also to hold seminars and tutorials. Robin used to love the summer schools. They were really just an excuse to hold parties. She refers to them as “shagfests.”

JANE:  This seems to undermine the idea of any value to the Open University.  The Summer School seems a joke.  If I went through the hassles of a traditional education and found that this “shagfest” was considered “as prestigious” as a traditional degree I’d be highly offended.  Obviously, I’m missing something.

ALAN: Indeed you are, and that takes us right back to a profound cultural difference between us that we’ve remarked on before in these tangents. Just because something is serious is absolutely no reason at all for taking it seriously.  All work and no play makes Jack and Jill very dull people.

Of course a Summer School is a shagfest and a joke when the study day is over. How else would you spend your evenings after a day full of very hard work? I promise you, during the day, a Summer School is anything but a joke, it’s very much nose to grindstone. But sometimes you have to let your hair down. And, trust me, you are missing so much in life if you’ve never attended a morning of intense intellectual activity when you are so hung over that your eyebrows bleed…

JANE: I think I can continue on in life without that last experience. Even so, I wasn’t at all a dull girl.

I spent my evenings “at university” reading SF/F and playing roleplaying games.   No hangover with those particular entertainments.  I did have a boyfriend…

Go on…

ALAN: The Open University is no different from a real university in that respect. I managed to debauch myself very successfully indeed when I was a student – far more successfully that I ever managed before or since, to my deep regret. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard – I worked and studied very hard indeed. I earned my degree and I’m proud of it. And I’d be equally proud of an Open University degree, if I had one.

JANE: Heck…  I think that if the Open University students need to make the grade without tutors or faculty to whom they can bring questions, maybe they should be prouder.

ALAN: So they should. And Robin is extremely proud of her OU degree – she values it as much as she values her more traditional degree. Actually, from what she tells me, I suspect that she values it more.

JANE: I guess you’re now filled in enough on the American educational system that you can watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Animal House, and other school dramas in a well-informed manner.  I’m also glad I finally understand about “level exams” and why failing the eleven-plus exams gave us so many fine rock stars.

What do you want to talk about next?




9 Responses to “TT: Alternate Universes of Higher Education”

  1. Deborah N Says:

    Our local community collage just added the ability to get a bachelor’s degree. A better definition of a community college would be a local learning center. They are colleges because the offer at least AA degrees. They are local in that they are county supported and don’t have any housing for out of area students. I assume that the tuition at all community colleges have several levels. County residents, state residents, and out of state residents. Learning centers, because they offer non-degree courses like ESL, test prep courses for certificates (including GED’s), continuing learning course that are taken for no credit. The continuing learning courses can be almost anything: music, foreign language, art, gardening, dancing, etc and fee vary with the number of classes (some are as only one 2 hour class) and materials needed. Most have special programs for seniors. Hands on classes may include: auto repair that offer an auto shop for lower cost repairs, or restaurant training classes that run a campus cafeteria.
    BTW: my son took his junior and senior year of high at a community college and got his AA degree with honors. He did not get his high school degree because he did not do his senior project. He now holds a master’s degree and a very good job.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I should point out that the Polytechnics I know of in the US are anything but community colleges. They are engineering colleges, such as California Polytechnic University in Pomona (or San Luis Obispo) and Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute. While they aren’t on the same level as CalTech (the California Institute of Technology) or MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), they’re in the same vein.

    This differs somewhat from the tech and trade schools in community colleges.

  3. Sean Says:

    In Wyoming, the Community Collages offer housing as well. Of course the State has only one four year college, and about a dozen community colleges paid for by the State. Based on great distances and low population this formula works well for Wyoming.

    Many community colleges have very successful health science / health care programs such as Casper College in Wyoming and CNM here in Albuquerque with its nursing program. Many of them also offer certification programs.

    Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari New Mexico offers several degree levels in Wind Energy Technology and boasts being the highest class room in the world as students are required to climb the turbine for hands on learning.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the _great_ clarifications and expansions. Since education programs vary so much state to state here in the U.S., I couldn’t possibly know all of this.


  5. CBI Says:

    Recently I’ve seen numerous articles and discussions of a trend towards online college education here in the U.S., especially as the brick-and-mortar schools have begun to price themselves out of a market. Unless one is going into a profession requiring special skills or credentialling, the financial, societal, and opportunity costs are often not worth it. This is especially true for some of the majors which are basically jokes. (Leave aside for the moment that many of the credentials don’t really justify the time and classroom mixture they require.)

    It’s a complex topic, and one size certainly doesn’t fit all. As the higher education bubble starts to collapse in the U.S., I can see something similar to the Open University becoming more common, as well as the realization that many college degrees /per se/ are not really an asset for a large number of graduates.

  6. Other Jane Says:

    Community colleges inour area (western Pennsylvania) offer many “hands on” degrees like welding, printing, and medical technician. They work closely with local employers to assure they are preparing students for the types of job openings in our area. For example, Marcellus shale is a growing market in PA, and the local community colleges are offering courses to train workers.

    Our local schools are also important to retrain displaced workers seeking additional skills.

  7. Other Jane Says:

    Community colleges in our area (western Pennsylvania) offer many “hands on” degrees like welding, printing, and medical technician. They work closely with local employers to assure they are preparing students for the types of job openings in our area. For example, Marcellus shale is a growing market in PA, and the local community colleges are offering courses to train workers.

    Our local schools are also important to retrain displaced workers seeking additional skills.

  8. Other Jane Says:

    Sorry about the double post. Internet troubles!

  9. janelindskold Says:

    I like the community college model.

    If I was to go back to college, I’d go that way — and probably take something like welding.

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