Retrenchment, Day 12

I mentioned yesterday that the concurrent enrollment "College in the High School" classes offered by the local school and some others in Northern Minnesota were sort of an issue unto themselves. Today I thought I'd elaborate, because they are relevant to the situation at BSU.

College in the High School is just what it sounds like: an opportunity for secondary students to earn college credit taking a "supercharged" course that meets the learning objectives of a similar course in a college setting. The courses are taught by high school teachers and supervised by college faculty. I'm supervising a World History course up at Falls HS in International Falls, on the Minnesota-Ontario border. That means when the teacher was developing the course, I consulted on the syllabus. And I go up at least once each school year (but typically once per semester) to observe the class. This oversight is designed to insure the students at the Falls get a course that resembles what they would get from me.

Although students receiving college credit in high school courses reduces the number of credits they have to take at college, the hope is that the head-start will help propel more students into a college prep track and ultimately result in more people getting college educations. There are other ways students can get college credit before matriculating, of course. They can take AP courses and exams. Or they can do PSEO, the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option, where the state of Minnesota pays for their tuition and books when they take actual college courses. In some semesters as many as 25% of the students in my US History surveys have been PSEO high schoolers. Many of them were among the top students in the class.

So there are a lot of ways in which entering first-year undergrads can already have a lot of credits on their transcripts. This isn't entirely new. When I matriculated at UMass over forty years ago, I entered with a semester's worth of credits from an AP exam, a summer spent at Cornell, and a German proficiency exam. When my son begins at Mankato State next week, he will already have abut 60 credits on his transcript, from two years of PSEO he did at BSU instead of high school. There are even some programs that offer credit for prior work or life experience. So there are lots of ways that people can receive credit toward a Bemidji State degree, other than by taking classes at BSU.

There has been a lot of talk among faculty and administration, about the effects of these programs on enrollment and the university's finances. While the concerns people have expressed are not irrelevant, I think we're looking at the situation upside down. The cart is before the horse. The point is not really, how do these ways students learn and earn credits effect BSU. The more appropriate question is, how can BSU best help students learn and earn degrees?

There's all kinds of data available suggesting that on average, people who have a bachelors or higher degree will earn twice as much during their lifetimes than people with a high school diploma. The assumptions behind this statistic are rarely examined. I'm not even 100% certain what they are. But I suspect they have to do with the relative numbers of people with each credential. In other words, if half of Americans have a high school diploma and half have a degree, then the degree holders get the better jobs. There can even be jobs that require a bachelors or higher, to even apply for -- even if the job doesn't require specific skills acquired in college. There's an understanding that a college education provides some basic thinking and learning skills, and having the degree demonstrates a person has learned (or at least has been exposed to) these, and has had the discipline and commitment to complete a degree.

But what happens if 75% or 90% or 100% of people have degrees? I think we can all agree that this would be a positive change for the individuals and probably a good thing for society. But what happens to labor markets? Specifically, what happens to the half of the economy that existed because employers could tap into a low-wage workforce? Maybe people will all shift to "better" jobs and automation will do more of the lower value work. I hope so. My point here is only that the "college graduates earn 2x" calculation will change. Labor markets and pay will change, but not necessarily in ways we can predict.

Even so, I think we can still agree that having more people receive more education is a social good. The question is, what education and where? I'm running out of time this morning, because I'm trying to keep these daily check-ins relatively short. But I want to continue pulling on this thread and think about skills vs. general education and targeted programs vs. 4-year degrees, among other things. And where a residential university fits into that evolving picture and what it may need to do to remain relevant.

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