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I mean, sigh.



First, let me state what should be obvious–I wasn’t talking about useless “arts” degrees.

Granted, a useless arts degree would be just as useless as any other useless degree.  But an arts degree that actually was an arts degree would be very useful indeed, although in no sense vocational.

The useless degrees I was talking about, however, are useless business degrees.

Virtually all the people I’m talking about have undergraduate “degrees” in “business administration,” “management,” marketing,” “human resources” and other areas of that kind.

And the problem with those “degrees” is that they have virtually no content, no standards, and apply to nothing in the real world that exists outside of deliberate bureaucratic constructions.

Cathy’s director of student services, director of undergraduate studies and director of graduate studies will all have these kinds of degrees, as will all the people working under them, and there will be lots of them.

But those positions are at least screamingly within sanity, sort of.  How about a “director of student success,” with a staff of fifty?  For a college with, say, about 3000 undergraduates?

In case you’re wondering what a “director of student success” and an “office of student success” do, they:  keep track of the attendance and grade records of every student in every class; contact students who are failing to show up to urge them to show up; counsel students about the root causes of their failure to show up; keep track of students who are not handing in homework; provide tutoring for students to get them to hand in homework; run a writing center to provide students with editing services if they are unable to produce papers in standard college English…

You get the picture.

Here’s the thing about the “office of student success.”

First, as Cathy F notes, something of this kind eats up enormous amounts of money that could be used to hire faculty and staff for regular academic departments.  The present state of full time vs. adjunct faculty is almost certainly at least partially the result of the growth of just such departments as this.

Second, this department eats up enormous amounts of faculty time for both full and part timers, because as part of its “mission” it requires faculty to submit reqular reports on student attendance, student grades, and student compliance with assignment deadlines.

Third–and this is the kicker–this department is completely unnecessary at any university that is actually functioning as a university. 

It exists only because the university in question does not see its mission as educating anybody.  It sees its mission as getting paying customers in the seats and keeping them there.

That’s why it’s more than willing to spend full-time salary and benefit packages on 24 year olds with bachelor’s degrees in human resources, but virtually no money (and less and less every year) on faculty to actually teach the students anything. 

And since its mission has become getting paying customers in the seats and keeping them there, it doesn’t really care too much about whether or not the students who are admitted actually have the preparation to do actual college level work.  

It therefore admits more and more students every year whose preparation is inadequate even for higher-level high school work. It then shoves as many of these kids into “developmental” (read “remedial”) classes as it can, reduces requirements in regular courses to the ludicrous (it’s possible in some of the schools I know for a student to get through four years of “college” without every being required to read a single complete book or to do a research paper of any kind), and, when even that doesn’t work–well, we’ve got the “office of student success.”

At the end of four or five or six years of this kind of thing, you have a student who “graduates” with a “degree” that signifies…well, it isn’t quite  clear what. 

Even a degree in fingerpainting would have real value in the real world if it required students to read several whole books a semester and understand them and do the old-time standard 20 to 40 page research paper every single term with correct documentation and extensive sourcing.

At the very least, such a degree in fingerprinting would tell us that the student who successfully completed it was capable of sustained effort in a complex goal, the ability to discover and organize disparate elements of that goal, and a whole host of other things.

A student with one of these “business” degrees can “earn” one while never having to produce a single long paper, ever.  All tests are multiple choice or short answer, and the questions and answers are up on Blackboard in advance.   None of what he writes has to have correct grammar, punctuation and spelling–if we required that, too many people would flunk out. 

If he can’t get his act together to get to class or get his homework in, no matter how meager that homework is, there’s the “office of student success” to follow him around. 

And when he graduates, he’ll get a job in…one of those same administrative departments.

Yes, of course, while he has this job, he’ll be getting real pay and real benefits and living a comfortable enough life.

But he’ll be doing it at the expense of the rest of us.  It costs us all a lot more to keep these offices and departments open than the salary and benefits of their staffs and directors. 

It costs us first because such offices actually make the businesses and organizations they function in less profitable, less efficient, and less resistant to downturns in the economy and other random problems in the environment.

It also costs us because we’ve created a class of people for whom “college” is a largely standardless, valueless waste of four years whose only reason for existing is to make one “pay one’s dues,” after which he is entitled to a “career.”

And, of course, when businesses and other organizations start getting wise to just how wasteful this all is, the result is…a big pack of “middle class college graduates” who can’t get “middle class college graduate” jobs.

Businesses, by the way, are often stuck with similar largely useless or dysfunctional departments–departments to ensure compliance with Byzantine and often contradictory regulations and court decisions (see all equal opportunity hiring guidelines and then add court decisions about reverse discrimination), departments that exist as attempts to bulletproof the organization against employee and customer law suits–you can run this around the block a few hundred times.

Yes, there are certainly common sense regulations that must exist to keep this society functional, but we live in a situation where government tries to micromanage businesses and organizations and where businesses and organizations respond by trying to micromanage their employees, clients and customers.

But it’s all an illusion.  Big Giant Corp doesn’t move its operations to China because it can pay an engineer there a fifth of what it pays one here. 

That’s very nice, but the real bait is this:  it can do without a good five or six of its big bureaucratic departments altogether. That’s saving it a lot more money than the mere differential in particular salaries for particular positions. 

To the extent that AI will take over these kinds of jobs–I saw, great.  They shouldn’t exist to begin with. 

Do I think this means that there will be nothing but billionaires and starving masses?


I think what it will mean is that we’ll finally have to start coming back to reality. 

Eventually, we’ll have to except what is true:  spending four years reading a chapter a week in a textbook and taking multiple choice exams twice a term does not make you “college educated,” even if the piece of paper you got at the end of it says you are;  declaring the wonders of the progress we’ve made in getting more and more people to graduate from high school or college does not mean we’ve actually done it if we’ve only done it by dumbing down the standards to the point where each level actually only indicates the accomplishments of two levels below it from a decade ago;  that there is no way to be “safe” and there never was.

And think.

I haven’t even gotten started on the thing about “don’t you dare get a job at McD’s to pay the bills when you’ve been laid off, because no decent business will ever hire you again for the kind of job you used to have.”

Written by janeh

February 27th, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Useless'

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  1. I didn’t mean to let undergraduate management degrees off the hook. (Or, for that matter, GRADUATE management degrees: what exactly does one have to learn to get an MBA other than jargon and ritual?) But the most spectacular examples I know of people bone-ignorant with four-year degrees had them in English and Sociology. If a business degree is softer than those two can be, they ought to give up pretending to teach, and just send them a diploma as soon as the check clears. This is what happens when people demand degrees instead of knowledge.

    For that matter, even 30+ years ago in Kansas we had Education majors refusing to take any course requiring them to read a book. These, of course, would go on to teach, which may account for some of our K-12 difficulties. When they couldn’t stand being in the same room as students any more, they sent off for Master’s degrees in “administration” and added to the burden on those unwise enough to remain in classrooms.

    Anyone wondering why we’re spending so much more on K-12 education and getting so much less of it is invited to take a look at school systems’ administrative staff c. 1960 vs today. If we had kept the same ratio of admin to teaching staff and spent the same money on education, the AVERAGE (mean) K-12 teacher’s salary would be over $100,000 a year. (Many of them would still refuse to teach, of course, but still…)

    A private corporation that wastes resources this way goes under, which is why we only see it fully developed in governments, or in education and medicine, where the government is so pervasive that normal market disciplines atrophy. (A private-sector buraeucrat paid to deal with government regulation isn’t useless in the same sense. He’s an overhead cost like fire insurance or paying protection money, and Jane’s right: the cost is an incentive to move to another jurisdiction.)

    I’m not sure what to make of “an arts degree which really was an arts degree.” I could outline a serious course of study in administration: what works, what hasn’t worked and why, with research papers on span of control, disciplinary methods and monitoring systems. But this doesn’t seem to be what administration majors have done. This seems to be related to the dictum that “if you’ve learned how to master one subject, you’ve learned how to master any subject” (Dorothy Sayers, but I don’t think she was original) I’m just not convinced that it’s true. Maybe studying English gives one a leg up in studying History or the other way around, but I am not convinced that learning either one is a help in learning to be a cook, an engineer or a platoon leader. Too narrow a notion of “subject” I think. I could be wrong, but I’d like to have the contrary position proven rather than asserted.


    27 Feb 11 at 8:58 pm

  2. Robert: there’s considerably more to an MBA than jargon. I don’t have a lot of time for undergraduate business degrees – during their undergrad years people should be getting a decent education, reading things, writing things, taking actual science classes with labs and so forth. But once you have that, an MBA is a really good grounding in the business practices that you’ll need to be any kind of manager at all – Accounting, Finance – how are you going to make a decision about making capital investments without knowing how to do the math? The future value of money’s a critical part of that, and you don’t learn it as a poli sci or English major (which are what my two employees who are working on MBAs were as undergrads).

    Many MBA programs offer classes on business law, on international trade, research and analytical skills.

    Certainly with all the online options and diploma mills, there are ways to get an MBA that won’t mean much. But that’s true of the online versions of academic Master’s degrees too.

    Also – just for the record, an anecdote is NOT evidence.

    (B.A., Sociology, University of Minnesota, 1981)


    28 Feb 11 at 11:05 am

  3. Hmmm. There used to be things called “business schools” which taught accounting, finance and the like to those not pursuing the humanities, but they didn’t confuse them with graduate-level studies. Of course their graduates didn’t parade around the country with “visions” and “mission statements” nor abuse the language with the “mentee.” (If I’m yelled at a lot, am I a stentee?)

    The skills of real management are different. Generals aren’t quartermasters. The next time you’re in a troubled organization, start a rumor that the new boss has a Harvard MBA and see whether it cheers anyone up.

    Quite right about annecdotes. I wouldn’t have wanted to be answerable for all the History degrees even in the seventies, and I suspect it’s worse today. Now give me a fair unbiased way of comparing different majors, and we can all use it.


    28 Feb 11 at 4:31 pm

  4. “It exists only because the university in question does not see its mission as educating anybody. It sees its mission as getting paying customers in the seats and keeping them there.”


    Here’s the thing.

    We don’t provide free education at the post-secondary level. Oh, there are assorted scholarships available from various sources but unlike, say, Finland, to go to school you have to pay. If you don’t get a full ride scholarship, or mom & pop can’t foot the bill and flippin’ burgers won’t pay the freight, then you have to get one of our wonderful school loans.

    Not entirely in jest, this is simply a Republican plot to increase still further the concentration of wealth at the top, but that aside, since these are “loans” which are guaranteed by the government — who, in principle since this is a “loan” must seek repayment, and the defaulting student is therefore delinquint on his debt. Etc., etc., etc.

    What it boils down to is that since federal money is involved that’s not a no strings attached grant (now just how simple would that be? A citizen wants to go to a school – give her a grant. She flunks, oh well. Set some kind of limits to keep “professional students” to a minimum – oh, flunk out two semesters in a row, and you can’t get a grant for a year. Been going to undergrad school for more than six years and no degree, you get one more year then no grants until you show up with a bachelors. Or master certificate for trade etc. (and really, which is worse — a “professional student” — or a professional burgler or bank robber?) and don’t worry about it further.

    But NO, we don’t do it that way. You take Federal loan money, the Feds have to be able to demonstrate to assorted oversight agencies or other auditors that they aren’t wasting their money, or putting it at risk. So, shit rolls down hill, so the school – if it wants to remain eligible for Federal loan guarantees, has to be able to demonstrate that IT is keeping the students on track – and on, and on, and on.

    The “Office of Student Success” is there because the school has to be able to prove that it’s not putting government money at risk.

    And yes, it would with little doubt be a lot less expensive, a whole lot more efficient, and produce much better results in the long run if we just let people who want to go to school to just have money for that purpose – but that’s not the way we roll in the Republican US of A.


    28 Feb 11 at 6:40 pm

  5. It’s a Republican thing to back student loans?

    We (meaning provincially, not federally) briefly had free tuition, but it got too expensive too fast, and didn’t last. It would be, umm, challenging to classify the politics of the party then in power in US terms, but what I know of the US doesn’t incline me to think that either student loans are a Republican plot or that they are entirely a bad idea. I got through university on a combination of student loans, paid work, tuition credits in lieu of pay for work done, parental contributions…the danger is, of course, that the student will take out more in loans than he or she can repay. Give them and their parents the information on loans, typical salaries of graduates of the programs etc., and let them decide.

    Our postsecondary costs are so much less than those in the US on the surface that the situations are hard to compare – although I’ve been told that the US has so much more available in scholarships and bursaries that the discrepancy isn’t as big as it appears.

    I would like to see education to the end of high school bumped up in quality and quantity, and free, while post-secondary education remained something extra, to be paid for, with loans, scholarships and bursaries available as needed.

    I don’t think any education past the minimum should be fully paid for. I think there’s too much of a tendency now for people to stay on indefinitely as students, achieving nothing, and am not sure that efforts to penalize the professional student type would be enough to prevent that continuing infantilization of adults from escalating.

    I suppose I’ve just seen too many people willing to con money out of their parents or anyone else they can manage to fund an entertaining lifestyle combined with a few not too demanding courses.


    1 Mar 11 at 9:56 am

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