. . . along with concerns about quality

September 02, 1998|By Jeanne Marie Grunwell

MANY YEARS AGO, a little girl walked into an empty classroom -- the wrong classroom -- on the first day of second grade in a new school. She waited, and waited, and when no one came, she still waited. Truant second-graders, she knew, would not be allowed to go to college.

Eventually, my friend found her way to the proper classroom. In time, she found her way to college (where she was my roommate) and even to law school. She was high school valedictorian, an athlete, an avid volunteer and a generally outstanding person. She turned down scholarships to well-regarded colleges for the opportunity to attend an elite university.

Heavy debt

Today, she pays $800 a month toward her student loan debt, and she will have to do this for the next 10 years. While she graduated in the top 15 percent of her law school class, she earns no more money than I did in my last secretarial job.

My other college roommate dreamed of becoming a doctor. She declined a full scholarship to a state university, where she almost certainly would have been an exceptional pupil, in favor of attending our prestigious alma mater. There she was in the mainstream, receiving average-to-good marks. In a year when high unemployment rates caused unprecedented competition for admission to graduate schools, she was not able to get into medical school. She, too, is saddled with college loans.

I have spent the years after my graduation working as a secretary. Because I majored in psychology, my undergraduate degree did not prepare me adequately for a career. After my disappointing college experience, I was hardly inclined to incur the debt that would come with pursuing another degree. Luckily, I learned in high school to type 80 words per minute.

Now, I know college is not just about earning potential. I was supposed to go to college because of a hunger for knowledge and culture, a quest to better myself. If I felt that I had achieved this, perhaps I wouldn't object so much. But compared with my 12 years in public schools, college was a waste.

The faculty-student ratio at my alma mater was one of the lowest in the country. Yet many of my introductory classes were taught not by seasoned professors but by graduate students, many of whom were foreign and spoke little English.

Most lower-level classes were lectures with 100 or more undergraduates.

My closest friend from high school, who attended a nearby state college at one-fourth the tuition, never had a class with more than 40 pupils. Also, she never had a class taught by a graduate student.

Professors at my college were prized for their research, their publications and their grant money. Teaching undergraduates was not a high priority, and teaching skills were certainly not a strong consideration in hiring decisions. A graduate teaching assistant advised my calculus class not to take an advanced calculus class because we had been so poorly prepared by our professor.

The course catalog for my university described an enticing number of courses on a vast array of subjects. It did not state that many of these courses were offered once every eight semesters.

As a psychology major, I was appalled to learn that there was no introductory psychology class. Anyone wishing to gain a broad overview of the topic was advised to take three courses.

Freshman year

The introductory writing class, Contemporary American Letters, was recommended for entering freshmen humanities majors. Interestingly, most of the works we read were written by professors at our university. Several were published by our university's press.

Most universities grant college credit to entering freshmen for high scores earned on advanced placement tests, which assess one's comprehension of college-level coursework taken while in high school. Our esteemed university refused to give credit for even the highest scores in such "subjective" areas as English and history. This was supposedly because of the superior quality of university instruction. I will admit that I never read the great works of my college professors in high school English. But I certainly had better teachers there.

During my freshman year, there was a building on campus that bore the name of a distinguished professor from many years before. During my sophomore year, the building still stood, but it had been defaced. A benefactor had donated enough money to the university that the name of this professor was eradicated from the building and replaced with his.

This cemented the truth for me and many of my classmates. College is big business. Increasingly, it's not about learning; it's about money. Furthermore, as private universities lose money on undergraduate students, college is emphatically not about undergraduate education.

I am not claiming that I never had a good professor in college. I am not even saying I regret the college that I chose. People are always impressed to learn that I am an honors graduate of this prestigious school. But that doesn't mean they're willing to hire me. And it certainly doesn't mean I got a good education.

Jeanne Marie Grunwell writes from Ellicott City.

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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