Monday, May 4, 2009

Colleges vs. Universities: engagement wins

Colleges are giving universities a run for their money, according to an article in yesterday's New York Times.

As the NY Times reports, the lines are blurring between colleges and universities. As one college grad says:
"(Colleges are) much cheaper, the teachers are good, you can do it in the evening while you work, and everyone's very helpful."
More and more colleges are also now offering baccalaureate degrees - Red River College included.

Of course, universities are coming back with warnings about "watered- down" bachelor's degrees. The Times quotes Mike Boulus, the spokesman for a group representing four-year universities. He says:
"Colleges should stick with the important work they do extremely well, offering two-year degrees and preparing student for transfer to four-year schools."
This sounds like the same thing people say whenever something comes along that challenges convention. Like newspapers, universities are used to being "gatekeepers of information." And we all know what's happening with newspapers.

As I said in another post, universities have long been gatekeepers to accepting - and preventing - students from being members of their club, "anointing" the chosen few with the cash, connections, or both.

As Billy Bragg sings in his song, Ideology:
"Our politicians (have) all become careerists...
(They've) built their private fortunes
On the things they can rely
The courts, the secret handshake
The stock exchange and the old school tie"
Engagement breeds engagement

To me, the college environment has the advantage, and I speak as a university and college grad. It all comes down to engagement: instructor and student. Instructor engagement breeds student engagement, plain and simple.

This year, a long-time teacher I know said something that blew my mind: "I have no contacts in the industry." This person wasn't upset about it; it was just a statement of fact. How could a teacher allow that to happen and, even worse, feel comfortable saying it out loud? When a teacher is engaged in what he or she is doing, something like "contacts in the industry" just happens.

In Creative Communications, we may breed "a culture of criticism," whereby I critique students, they critique me, and we're never satisfied with what we've got. That said, I'm certain that the program in which I teach provides an education that is a thousand times better than what I experienced as a university student, because I, and my students - though it may not always be puppy dogs and roses - are engaged in what we're doing.

At university, my professors' role began and ended in the classroom. Interactivity didn't exist. I hope that's still not the case. Right now, my average week involves at least five lunch and after-work meetings with former students, and another handful with people working in the industry. Not to mention the hundreds of phone calls and e-mails a year from students requesting references and employers checking them.

Our second-year students haven't even officially graduated, and 16 of them already have jobs. Many more are going for interviews and getting offers - in a supposedly bad economy. If the instructors in our program weren't actively making connections - even by doing something as simple as visiting a student on work placement - it's doubtful that this would be the case.

And, as a communications guy who loves conversation and gossip, I can hereby reveal that having lunch with former students and current employers is just, plain fun.

So, in the U vs. college battle, who's the winner? I say its the one with tight connections to the outside job world, instructors who continue to talk with and support students after they graduate, and engaged instructors and students.

You do the math.

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