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Akst: Students say colleges earning bad grades

Published: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

“Payback time!” I joked Tuesday afternoon on Facebook.

“Here I sit in a hallway while my students anonymously evaluate my class/teaching. I encouraged them to give honest critique ... then I gave them candy and $5 bills (not really ... can’t afford it).”

I was kidding about the money and candy but serious about honest critique and that I can’t afford $5 bribes.

College students turn the tables and evaluate instructors this time of year, but the feedback could also be about facilities, equipment, expectations, whether desired outcomes were met, etc.

Their ability to do this is necessary, useful and cathartic. The private sector has a roughly equivalent process in 360-degree reviews.

Typically, course evaluations are anonymous; instructors don’t see results until after grades are posted, so whatever they say couldn’t jeopardize their grade. Unfortunately, evaluations also occur at the most stressful time of the semester, the week before finals.

Although always concerned and for legitimate reasons (not just my usual paranoid tendencies), I’m not too freaked out about students’ course evaluations.

What worries me is their perception of the worth of a college education on a grand scale.

The New York Times and Newsweek have published major stories recently that ask whether college is worthwhile ... and growing numbers of current and would-be students think it’s not. Both pieces are well written and raise compelling, disturbing points.

Because of record-setting debt (student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion) and a stagnant economy, more students are “hacking” their post-secondary education with a patchwork of volunteerism, free online courses, traveling, and – as the stars in both stories are doing – developing apps that sell big, thus providing all the money they’ll ever need.

Closer to home, last week I graded papers on the couch with the TV on. Doing so is counterproductive, but I wanted to watch the Northern Illinois University Huskies play in the MAC Championship game.

I seldom watch sports, I’m critical of how much we as a society invest in playing games, and I’m really critical of the money colleges spend on athletics.

But I often teach athletes and it was a big game, so watching it was the least I could do. As the joke goes, “Never let it be said that I didn’t do the least I could do.”

I was transfixed. The Huskies played heroically. We nearly lost everything in a couple of horrible moments, then pulled out a win. It was awesome.

So awesome that the national sports media, upon learning the Huskies had earned a trip to the Orange Bowl, think we’re unworthy.

On Sunday, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit called the win “a sad state for college football,” adding that “I love MAC football, but to put them in the BCS is an absolute joke to the rest of those teams that are more deserving. I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion.”

We challenge students to live up to their potential – maybe even beyond their potential – and when they do, we blast them and bury them in debt, mostly because government is increasingly unwilling to support education, and because we pay administrators and coaches exorbitant salaries?

Something is very wrong with this picture.

In 1984, a funny, poignant movie titled “Teachers” starred Nick Nolte as a maverick but quality high school teacher and Judd Hirsch as his well meaning, burned out principal. The plot was about how schools fail students by allowing them to graduate when they still can’t read.

Near the end, Nolte hopes Hirsch will help fix this tragedy.

“They’re not here for us,” he says. “We’re here for them.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. Contact him at jasondakst@gmail.com

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