Why College is Failing America

As we go back to school in this crazy year of 2020, this is not a typical year. When I did the podcast episode “College is Failing America” a few months ago, we were in a much different situation. I also wanted to write about this because countless people have asked me what it’s like being a college professor. 

After all, we are in changing times. Why not look at all your options?! Plus, it’s an excellent option for a potential change in careers who like to serve others. 

My initial experience becoming an adjunct college professor is a field I stumbled into, and I love it.

Due to our current pandemic with COVID-19, the lousy economy, a presidential election year, and the wildfires burning in the great pacific northwest have now encouraged me to put it down on ‘black and white’ for you to read it. These experiences also have helped me share why I focused on this topic. When I was a kid, I never saw myself going to college. I believed college was for smart people, and I didn’t think I was smart. 

At least, that’s what I thought.

Perception and Reflection

So that’s what I believed. Nothing more. Nothing less. I didn’t see by going to college was going to present me with more opportunities. All I saw was more homework, sitting in classrooms, and having someone lecture at me. 

No thanks.

Plus, every person I saw on my mainstream television high profile positions were in sports or tv shows. They were in the system, but not leaders of the systems. A stereotypical black person wasn’t a star or leader unless it was in church or civil rights. Well, except for Bill Cosby, but that’s a whole other conversation. 

With 20+ years out of high school, I can now see and understand college was and still is a game-changer. I could never see the benefits of why it was good for me. Since I was a first-generation student, my parents couldn’t speak to those benefits like I can to my children. 

However, the idea of college was an unspoken belief that it was the right thing to do. Still, no one I knew ever articulated those bullet points or least state them to me. I’m not blaming anyone specifically, but this is another reason why America is failing college, and college is failing America.

As a college professor and leader, I don’t want to make the same mistakes to where the youth are not given this opportunity. As a college body, we do a horrible job of reaching out to the community and not making it an elitist entity. But the blame goes to everyone. Hence, why I’m writing this article. We all have a part to play in fixing the problem, so let’s get to it.

College Tenure Faculty

I’m going to focus on my peers and me. I can’t speak for every professor out there globally, so I’m using my experiences since I was a college student. And I know it’s not all tenure faculty professors, but goodness gracious, do we have some bad apples. Where is the hunger and fiery passion to be the best? I like a guaranteed paycheck too, but it comes with putting in the work.

Too many professors and instructors are clocking in and out like a factory worker. As a high school student, I remember the feeling of being treated like a number. My English teacher didn’t care about me. She cared about her workload, but I could be wrong. 

I know our students deserve you–I’m speaking to those who use tenure to be a weapon for doing minimal work–to be the expert in what you’re teaching. Please don’t teach me something you’ve never done or had minimal experience. To be clear, if it’s been more than 10 years, I’m talking to you. 

Go out there and be relevant. Our students will graduate one day, and their education needs to be applied to current trends and industry standards. Otherwise, we’re not setting them up for success.

I love to have my bills paid with automatic paychecks, but not at the expense of a bad experience. Taking accountability is hard if you don’t believe you’re the problem- but you’re one of the issues to low enrollment and poor student retention. I worked full-time while I was in school and had big dreams, so I used every opportunity I got by sitting down with my professors and asking for advice. College wasn’t easy for me, but I loved it when I saw people who cared.

This also goes to those adjuncts teaching at five different colleges. Don’t spread yourself so thin you can’t do a quality job. Teaching at three schools almost wiped me out. I do understand bills don’t pay themselves. However, I never want to be why a student had to drop out or failed a class because I was too busy to problem-solve with them or not respond to emails.

College Students

I’ll be the first person to admit my first couple of years as a college student, I wasn’t focused. I always looked for an easy way out, and my grades showed it. It wasn’t until my college classes became more interesting. My professors showed interest in my ability when I cared to give more effort. Once I experienced how the learning was fun and learned the curriculum, I consumed almost every bit of materials I could get my hands on. 

My priorities changed. I adulted. College was no longer a hobby. I made it a lifestyle.

Today’s students are coming with an expectation they don’t have to work hard, sacrifice, or break out of their comfort zone. I’m not saying every student, but more than you’d expect. What happened to college being for someone who wanted to better themselves? I’m seeing this small percentage looking for a handout. Not all college students are looking for charity instead of putting in the work, but some feel coming to class is enough. I think their mindset isn’t about learning to earn a degree, but to get by to get the degree.

Again, this isn’t a blanket statement, so it doesn’t apply to all students. Some students are looking for more, and we haven’t been able to deliver. Many students need college to better their lives and their families. Without college, they’re stuck in a life without seeing their dreams come to fruition. 

For the students wanting more, I encourage students to tell me if my class needs tweaking because not all textbooks are relevant. I’ve learned to teach without leaving people behind. The 100/200-level classes are broad. They aren’t a deep dive, so feel free to ask questions and/or meet for an office hour.

Ultimately, technology has forced all of us to change the learning experience. Every piece of our institutions needs upgrading, so I do my best to meet the student with where they are. I’m happy to accommodate, but it just can’t be for an ‘A’ grade when you earned an ‘A-‘ throughout the class. I want students who want to learn, not to fill in a scantron. So we do need to have mutual respect all around.

Change is Coming

As I’m writing this article, I am starting my fifth year as an adjunct business and marketing professor at the community college I attended almost 20 years ago. And let’s say the mutual respect for all levels and positions doesn’t seem to be there. Education has evolved in the last five years since I’ve been there, and it’s baffling how the infrastructure is still intact. The necessary changes being forced upon the institution have the buildings shaking as if we’re enduring a 6.2 earthquake.

College doesn’t like change. But change is going to happen, and they’re not going to be small.

Moving forward, I see the college needing to make more aggressive changes to serve the students and the community and a more conscientious way. We owe our faculty and staff the best quality product to current students from the new graduates, alumni organizations, and local employers. Consequently, the return on investment means the soon-to-be college graduates will have the opportunity to thrive. 

What’s the point of earning a degree if there’s no reward (aka, career) at the end?

I don’t believe an associate’s degree–or the community college purpose–is as effective as it once was but doesn’t mean it’s not worthless. Those fundamentals are critical to the academic journey. Some of my best moments are rooted in those relationships and experiences.

To my understanding and experiences, transferring to a university to earn a bachelor’s degree has been ideal for upward ascension. Community colleges have been a great diving board to that ideal. As colleges as a whole, we have been the slingshot to propel individuals to a more superb quality of life by opening doors they would have never had. 

In this post-COVID era, all colleges and universities should be equipped to do that. The ‘should’ is if they have a good business sense of trimming the fat and doubling where the growth will provide profits to keep enrollments coming in the doors. Therefore, let’s adapt to modern technology and help those who choose this path. 

Mediocrity cannot be the Norm

To adapt, we cannot continue with bad habits. Too many years have passed where “it’s how we’ve always done it” has permeated the culture. Can we stop saying that?! Please. 

Unfortunately, that mindset has allowed too many subpar policies to get past, and new initiatives fall by the wayside. We are no longer in ivory towers looking down at people. We need to be on the ground floor and hustling like our students to get where they need to be. However, that means this is no longer a 9-to-5 job where we clock in and clock out. 

This has to be a lifestyle of keeping education at a high level. There should be a distinct bold line college isn’t high school. We cannot grease anyone through. Set the expectation and provide resources to help students achieve their goals.

For the college to help America, we need to be realistic about what college has been to those who benefited from those experiences. First, it has caused a lot of debt to those who weren’t able to better their situation post-graduation or even after a few classes. It’s all of our responsibility to ask the serious questions of why students cannot pay back the loans. We also need to ask the hard questions about how institutions do not help students go to that next level post-graduation.

Do we put in the same amount of energy to get them employed as we get them enrolled? Or what about the infrastructure? I haven’t seen it in my short time, but I know there are faculty and staff that give their all. They make a ton of sacrifices and wear multiple invisible hats without compensation or recognition.

We need to acknowledge this was a broken system. In the post-COVID era, we have to change that narrative.

We Can do Better

It is time for America to understand our society is better with college-educated individuals. However, it should be a choice, not forced. Forcing people to go to college if that’s not their desire is wrong because there are plenty of alternatives. 

There needs to be an acknowledgment from local leaders that economic development comes from nurturing and supporting local infrastructure. Leaders need to grow the talent at home before consider bringing outside talent. I’m not excluded from this call to action. 

A few years ago, I had my class attend a popular local networking event. Students were offered resources and jobs. More importantly, students said it helped provide tangible examples to their textbook, discussion boards, and group projects. There was a time I would give extra credit to students who posted #business101 and #clarkbusiness on something business-related on specific channels to help change the social media perception. 

Kerry Blake is the one in the picture and took it to another level. But the funny thing, she also became the founder and leader of a successful student program, Clark Entrepreneurs. Yes, I’m biased.

I’ve also started Connected to focus with my hometown because I know the feeling to give 100% and be looked over because I’m native to the area. Too many local initiatives decimate fostering opportunities for local and regional growth in youth and dying industries. Now is the time for college to stop failing America and America stop failing colleges. 

Support local shouldn’t be siloed to business. We need to value our neighboring organizations’ contributions and what the other side brings to the table. Without it, one would argue, ‘Made in America’ is pointless.

I write this because my business is personal because this service is for the advancement of all humanity. My failures and successes are for your gain. No strings attached.

Nathan A. Webster, MBA
Marketing Consultant & Marketing Professor
Consulting | Marketing | Websites

Author: nathanwebster
From a US Marine to nonprofit executive director, I've been fortunate to do a lot of stuff. My quick history is I’m a brand marketer with a background in social good. In the process of running a small educational nonprofit, I learned the value of storytelling and digital branding. That’s how I got involve in marketing, websites, consulting via my podcast as well, and being an adjunct business professor at the local community college.