Ursinus Twitter Uproar Misses the Point

This week’s uproar over Ursinus Board of Trustees President Michael Marcon’s tweets, and the subsequent resignation of board member David Bloom, has upset me — but not for the reason that one might assume.

Following a three-decade career with Philadelphia-based FMC Corporation, I had the opportunity to serve on the faculty and staff of Ursinus from 2002-2014. Coming from a corporate environment, I had the opportunity to compare both business and higher education from an insider’s vantage point, and I have written extensively about my experience, including occasional commentaries in The Inquirer.

Let me say at the outset that I don’t recall having met either Michael Marcon or David Bloom, unless it was in passing at a campus-wide function. Similarly, I have not met the current president of the college, as the president and a number of the administrators have turned over in the two years since I retired.

To me, the issue here is not Marcon’s tweets on yoga pants, an environmental slogan pasted on a janitorial bucket, or any of the other comments that many in the student community have apparently found so offensive and threatening. I’ll agree that the tweets were certainly careless, though, and showed a flippancy and lack of thought on the part of somebody who should know much better. My immediate advice to him would be to deactivate his Twitter account.

No, my real frustration is that such student energy and attention is not aimed at the much more important issues in higher education today.

Demographics are working against college admissions, as fewer students graduate from the nation’s high schools, and competition for them has become fierce. Small schools are finding it harder to survive, despite rapid increases in tuition, and school closures and consolidations are becoming more commonplace.

Student debt has climbed past $1.3 trillion, more than all personal credit card debt in this country. To make matters worse, over 40% of all entering college freshmen will fail to graduate in six years. Unfortunately for them, their student debts must still be repaid. I suspect that the concept of “free tuition” will amount to nothing more than a vapid campaign promise.

Even for those who do graduate, as I reported last year on the SeeThruEdu higher education web site, employers are not happy with what they are getting. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Business Roundtable contends that a third of their members are unhappy with the qualifications of college graduates.

It is easy to understand the employer dissatisfaction. A recent survey of 32,000 students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment Test (CLA+) showed that 63% of college freshmen failed to demonstrate proficiency in critical thinking and written communication skills. OK, you may say, they were freshmen at the time they took the test. You would think that three more years of education, at a cost of up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars, would rectify that. But you would think wrong.

A stunning 40% of seniors still failed to demonstrate proficiency in the assessment test.

So what do we have here? Tuition costs that have been rising out of control. Failure by almost half of all students to even graduate. Employers unhappy with a third of college graduates.

If I were a student today, I’d be toughening myself up and thinking about these issues – not whether somebody thinks women should wear yoga pants. Higher education is frightfully expensive, the college years absolutely fly by, and the world waiting for them is rugged indeed.

Students should demand the absolute best in return for their college investment, but they should also make sure they are demanding the things that really count.