Overqualified for Higher Ed: The Life Experience PhD

December 31, 2013

Lists of famous college dropouts name such people as Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Bill Gates, Woody Allen, Ellen DeGeneres, and Ted Turner. While higher education remains invaluable for many employers and their future employees, the stories of these sorts of capable individuals remind us that college can also be a detour, a four-year (or more) distraction from where they want to go.

Let us not understate that. As I suggested in a PhD program application filed with the University of Arkansas, higher education has long been a rigid, in some ways narrowminded process that can operate to keep good people down: it can delay and stifle those who are able to leap ahead; it can discourage those whose capabilities are incompetently evaluated by mediocre professors and poor grading systems; it can teach self-flattering and arrogant attitudes, and indoctrinate and isolate students from the real world, sufficient to impair their success in (or to disserve) that world; it can distract students from their original focus, and dilute their effectiveness; it can burden young people financially, reducing their career options. These regrettable effects are not limited to superstars. Vast numbers of students experience them, in varying forms and to varying extents.

This blog has used examples from my own experience to suggest that higher education can have these sorts of impacts at the doctoral level. In this regard, these posts have fleshed out a point expressed in my earlier remarks about the grading of my qualifying papers in social work and in parks and recreation at Indiana University. Those earlier posts identify remarkable instances of dishonest grading and other corruption; they show how administrators in those departments punished me, by curtailing my progress toward the PhD, when I questioned abusive practices in which they were engaged.

Simply put, higher education is not very well structured to identify and promote students whose capabilities are at or above those of relevant faculty, or who for various (e.g., ethical) reasons are threatening to the faculty and its potentially corrupt or incompetent business as usual, or whose ability at any level has been honed and demonstrated outside the classroom. You may be able to do things that your professors can only dream of doing; but for purposes of obtaining the degree credentials that are necessary for many jobs, you are nowhere.

There was a time, and there are still fields, in which it has probably made sense to treat knowledge as completely academic. Theology and mathematics may be good examples. But there are also many fields in which that model has long since become outdated. Indeed, even in traditional statistics instruction, research suggests that a pure classroom approach suffers the fatal drawback of failing to make students use (and thereby remember) what they have learned, commonly resulting in a largely wasted effort. Life experience is, after all, the ultimate purpose of such studies, for the vast majority of students.

The university has become a credentialing bottleneck, to the extent that it cannot or will not approve various achievements by needed, capable people merely because they have not spent years sitting in classrooms. It is true that a good university education (as distinct from the pseudo-educations offered in many grade-inflated departments today) can add valuable dimensions to the repertoire of someone who has already demonstrated real-world ability. There is surely a case for careful individualized testing to determine skill and knowledge deficits, and to specify targeted remedial coursework. But that is worlds away from today’s rigid one-size-fits-all assumption that everyone needs to endure numerous cookie-cutter classes (and to disregard unique strengths that s/he brings to a program) before s/he qualifies for a degree.

Nowadays, the university tends to be dominated by a faculty-first mindset that prioritizes the preferences of professors and administrators. The system is not designed to configure the individual’s education according to what s/he needs. As with the old Soviet central planning, where things were produced because someone thought they should be produced (as distinct from what end users were actually seeking), this is a producer-driven anomaly within a consumer-driven world.

America, and the rest of the planet, have long needed an alternative to this picture. The awarding of degree-type credentials should not be controlled by those who have vested interests in the outcome: in saying, for example, that their own students have of course acquired superior skills when, in fact, they haven’t, and in denying degrees to those who have not helped to pay their salaries. Credentialing would seemingly be better handled by independent testing organizations, state licensing authorities, or others charged with the task of providing relatively transparent evaluations of applicant qualifications.

Qualification at the PhD level need not entail secretive, byzantine, or downright absurd demands imposed by capricious faculty free of accountability. Depending upon the field, there may be little doubt that a candidate who has published in a recognized journal, for example – or who has obtained funding of a certain type or amount, taught a certain course, developed a working prototype of a certain device, or led a specified type of organization – is at least as qualified as his/her peers if not his/her professors, at least for some purposes relevant to the doctoral degree. Here, again, qualified evaluation – by, say, a panel comprised of industry experts, professors from other universities, and government representatives – may be capable of identifying deficits, if any, in the candidate’s preparation for the degree.

As may become clear in a review of the two years that I spent cooling my heels in superfluous make-work classes in the PhD program at Indiana University’s School of Social Work, the specified requirements for PhD (and other) degrees can be wildly out of touch with the actual needs of students and prospective employers. An appropriately individualized approach, consistent with a client-centered educational philosophy, will utilize apprenticeships, internships, online coursework, independent study projects, and other customized tools, not to keep the student in school for as long as possible, but to get to the heart of what s/he needs and keep him/her moving toward the exit. The need for such reform is evident in, among other things, the horrific rates of attrition experienced by PhD students in American universities today.

Much needs to change in higher education. Much will be changing in the years to come. Budgetary pressures and emerging rational alternatives will see to that. In the areas discussed in this post, one might surmise that the needed changes will finally have occurred when universities find themselves reaching out to qualified people who would be unwilling and/or unable to consider a PhD program absent the flexibility and realism advocated here.

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