"Learning to Learn"

Attacking Colleges Not the Answer to Job Crisis

Attack is the right word.

Her words are precise. Quiet but firm. She's thought this through.

Not a newspaper, not a morning radio news show, not a day goes by without the increasingly pervasive argument being posited: Is college worth it?

Why are we paying for years in classrooms when jobs are hard to come by? What good will English and history lessons do the 22-year-old graduate who is waiting tables?

Sr. Margaret Stallmeyer, C.D.P., joins the writer at a small conference table by a window that looks out over the suburban Crestview Hills, Ky., campus of Thomas More College. It is summer, so there are few students; but the green rolling landscape is inviting, the buildings collegiate.

We've come to her to sort through the criticisms and claims of "country club campuses" luring unsuspecting 18-year-olds into mountains of college debt with no prospect of a great salary at the end of four years to pay it off. Just because there are questions and issues does not mean that you abandon the mission or make changes for the sake of changes. Instead, you thoughtfully challenge and move forward deliberately. After all, the need for education has not changed.

She allows that "attack" is the right word, at least to the academic community. And it is having an impact, more on parents, she says, than students. Parents always have carefully explored costs. Those who face the prospect of major-league debt often choose public universities. Those who are convinced of the value of a small, private college weigh that against the cost. Ninety percent of full-time Thomas More students receive scholarships and/or financial aid to defray the cost, which starts with a semester tuition of $12,875.

Parents have made up their mind on value before their child completes the Thomas More application.

Students come here because they are looking for a small school, where classes are small and taught by professors rather than students working their way through a master's degree. They come to Thomas More because it is faith-based. A Catholic school steeped in traditions of the church but welcoming to all faiths. A school where ethics classes are taught along with accounting principles and nursing skills. A school where community service is part of the fabric.

Sr. Stallmeyer moves the discussion forward, examining the value of education, particularly a liberal arts education.

"We live in a society that wants everything instantly. We don't know how to cope with something that takes time," she says. College is more than job training, it is the opportunity for students "to learn to learn," she says. A liberal arts college doing its job will produce students who are articulate, critical thinkers, problem solvers able to integrate information."

"Almost no one today starts out in a career at 22 and ends up in the same career," Sr. Stallmeyer says. Moving from one career to another takes an ability to adapt, to integrate and to evaluate.

"In a society like ours, you are going to be changing careers numerous times and, if you think that what you want to be at 19 is an engineer [and that] is what you want to be at 40, you could be really mistaken," she says. You want to have something to fall back on when you want to make your move. A vigorous core curriculum of 60 hours of classwork is that something.

Let's be pragmatic, she adds, the country is falling behind in sciences and mathematics. To continue to play on the world stage and in the world economy, we can't stop efforts to excel in those areas.

"I'll get off my soapbox but I do think that college is more than preparing you for a job," says the president. Its challenge is to prepare leaders, people with a sense of the broader community and a knowledge of the world. That is the value of knowledge of art, history and literature.

Really, classes are just a part of college. Think about dorm life. The friendships born there and the lessons learned "” like how to get up in time to get to 8 a.m. biology lab and where to find the best cheap meal at 11 p.m. Think about campus clubs. Working on Habitat homes or getting the student newspaper to the printer. At 18, it's an introduction to what works and what doesn't in terms of leadership and organization. It's figuring out what and when to eat and sleep and study when Mom and Dad aren't around to make day-to-day living decisions.

We return to the question of graduates without jobs and Sr. Stallmeyer is realistic. It's clear that there are a number of 22-year-olds who are struggling right now to find work appropriate to their education. Something needs to be done to encourage job growth and fuel the economic rebound. But, she points out, current unemployment rates shows that people 25 and older with a BA are experiencing unemployment at half the rate of those with only a high school diploma. Second, these young people should challenge the alumni office to help them pursue job leads or to find job fairs that link them to opportunities or alumni business owners with openings.

Thomas More is making changes. This year it will offer a four-year degree in three years to save students a full year of tuition. It continues to explore online options and programs including TAP, an intense adult education program for those working full-time who want to earn a business degree.

We should challenge colleges to keep the education meaningful and costs in line but not while demanding private suites and 24-hour fitness centers worthy of the finest clubs. But, when it comes to jobs, we need to focus our attention on the economy, businesses and politicians.