Saturday, September 12, 2015

That Time The New Yorker Incensed Me Into Writing the Editor

While I find John Cassidy’s concerns on the evolving  (devolving?) value of higher education largely on point (“College Calculus,” September 7), I question what appear to be potshots aimed at Kansas State University (full disclosure: not an alumnus, but I am native to the State and support the school’s research and extension mission). Cassidy is concerned that colleges are enticing students with specialized degrees that may sound exciting and even offer short-term reward, but fail to provide lifetime value. He then holds up Kansas State’s major in Bakery Science and minor in Unmanned Aircraft Systems as examples. While understanding of drone technology holds obvious value as the robotics become more ubiquitous in society (a fact the article fails to acknowledge), Cassidy condescendingly suggests that the purpose of the Bakery Science major is to “run a bakery.” Were this the purpose of the degree, it would well buttress his argument that students are increasingly taking on student loans to obtain unnecessary degrees. Unfortunately for Cassidy, it’s not. K-State’s Grain Science program has been in operation for over fifty years, suggesting it is far from a fly-by-night scheme to bring in additional tuition dollars. The program enjoys 100 percent placement (a statistic Cassidy may find dubious), and graduates earn the highest starting salary of all College of Agriculture graduates (a more difficult fact to quibble over - K-State’s College of Agriculture is consistently ranked among the top ten in the nation, signaling a semblance of worth in the degree.).

The irony is that the bakery program appears to be imbuing students with specific skills that make them more marketable in the workplace. Graduates are trained to work for Kellog’s, Nestle, and King Arthur Flour – not the local donut shop. As genetic science continues modifying the protein composition and nutritional nuances of grains, this training will only increase in value. We now want sweet foods without the sugar content and savory foods without the cholesterol – who do you think develops these products?

This article is dog-whistling at its finest. Cassidy fears that college degrees may only be used for signaling, thereby failing to provide specific training that makes a graduate worth more. He then purposefully singles out a program that provides specific training that makes students more knowledgeable and marketable, but condescendingly suggests these students are only good for running local bakeries. There are undoubtedly examples of narrowly focused degrees with inherent risk that can be mocked. I like to think an Oxford/Columbia/NYU-educated journalist didn’t simply single out a funny-sounding degree from a seemingly Podunk institution in Kansas and decide this was the perfect example without actually doing any research into the program, because that would be really lazy. I like to think this wasn’t a play to an overly educated East Coast audience readily willing to join the mockery of a public school in Kansas, because that would also be really lazy. Unfortunately, the author appears willing to do exactly that. I’m personally familiar with better examples on the East Coast, but we must apparently consider where our readership lies – in the ivory towers of the original colonies, and not the plains of the Midwest.

What's unfortunate is, I otherwise completely agreed with the article.

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