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Trick questions in higher education Trick questions in higher education
by Joseph Gatt
2020-10-17 09:13:26
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The main problem of higher education: either you go to college straight out of high school and your brain is still comfortable with studying, attending lectures, reading, memorizing and tests. Or you take a break from high school, try to make money, try to find ways to work while studying so you can graduate out of debt. But you lose focus on your studies and drop out.

In Israel for example, most Jewish and Druze and non-Arab Israelis have to serve in the army for two to three years before heading to college. That is, they have a three year break between high school and college.

acade01_400The result? A massive college drop-out rate among Jews, the Druze and non-Arabs in the college system. The smart ones will get disastrous grades in their first semester and drop out. Some, despite disastrous grades, will try their luck with college for a year or two before dropping out.

Arab Muslims and Arab Christians however tend to be luckier, because they don't interrupt their studies from high school to college. So the proportion of Arab Christian and Arab Muslim doctors and lawyers is unusually high in Israel, as Arab Christians and Arab Muslims tend to find it easier to focus on their medical studies, or any other college studies.

In the US and a few other countries, some high school students like to take a “gap year” or “two gap years” before enrolling in college. Some work during that gap year, others travel, others do a bit of both.

The problem? They often don't open a single book during that gap year, and eventually lose focus on studying, which makes it very hard for them to resume studying.

There is a silver-lining though in Israel. The Israeli university system and labor system is very, very flexible. So a lot of Israelis will enroll in college, drop out, spend a few years working, gradually develop an interest in academia, and resume college around the ages of 28-32 or in some cases at an even older age. Some go on for a graduate degree, while others end up pursuing careers in academia.

In the US and Europe, the pay gap between college graduates and non-college graduates isn't that large. Colleges like to advertise that college graduates make double what non-college graduates make, which is true, but only because there's a minority of college graduates that become millionaires, and that plays with the statistics a bit, bumping up college grad average wages.

This means many in North America or Europe will end up doing away with college, and make a decent living working in jobs that don't require a college degree. Some people even get lucky and end up working in jobs that technically require a college degree when they don't have one.  

Two other difficulties when it comes to going to college: tuition and debt, and choosing a major.

From a national macroeconomic perspective, college tuition debt is mostly about keeping money inside the country, rather than having wage earners invest their money in foreign banks. College debt is in some ways a guarantee that wage earners are going to invest parts of their money “inside” the country.

But for college students taking those loans, they are often kids who never worked a day in their life and have no idea what it takes to earn a paycheck.

So when they do get a job, they face a dilemma: either choosing a high-paying, but high-responsibility job that they tend to be underqualified for. Or opting for a lower-paying job with less responsibility and those they are appropriately qualified for, but college debt takes longer to cover.

As for choosing a college major, there are three problems: first, college students tend to choose majors they have no prior knowledge about. Second, many students tend to realize that their major choice was not a great choice, and end up regretting it. Third, many college majors have very little application to job market demands, which is a liability when you're looking for a job and trying to convince a company to hire you.

How do you fix that? Either you train “generalists” in college and make college more of a “high school” experience that is you do away with the notion of “major.” You give students a number of courses on general topics, and let them specialize in graduate school if they want to enroll in specialized occupations like the medical profession or law or any other profession.

Or you break down majors into “broad” fields that have practical applications on the job market, and make college something of a “vocational training” kind of experience.

What about those students who lose focus on their studies if they take gap years or decide to work a little bit before going to college?

You could design majors and specializations that mix classical academia (books and memorization) with more “modern” academia (as in discussions, debates, simulation of professional life, task-based learning and so on).

I'm especially worried about my Israeli friends who go to college after dropping the books for 3 or 4 years, and who have to go to college in a “classical” system. The Israeli system is mostly books and memorizing and writing papers, and many Israeli military conscripts don't even read the newspapers (they're mostly on Instagram and Facebook – many confess that writing a simple letter is a complex task for them).

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