Monday, June 14, 2010

an unholy alliance

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an interesting story Is "Wal-Mart U." a Good Bargain for Students?, about a deal made between the Walmart corporation and American Public University, a for-profit institution that specializes in on-line instruction.

Here are some excerpts from the story:
A closer look at the deal announced this month shows how American Public slashed its prices and adapted its curriculum to snare a corporate client that could transform its business. It also raises one basic question: Is this a good bargain for students?

Adult-learning leaders praise Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, for investing in education. But some of those same experts wonder how low-paid workers will be able to afford the cost of a degree from the private Web-based university the company selected as a partner, and why Wal-Mart chose American Public when community-college options might be cheaper. They also question how easily workers will be able to transfer APU credits to other colleges, given that the university plans to count significant amounts of Wal-Mart job training and experience as academic credit toward its degrees.

For example, cashiers with one year's experience could get six credits for an American Public class called "Customer Relations," provided they received an "on target" or "above target" on their last performance evaluation, said Deisha Galberth, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. A department manager's training and experience could be worth 24 credit hours toward courses like retail ethics, organizational fundamentals, or human-resource fundamentals, she said.

Altogether, employees could earn up to 45 percent of the credit for an associate or bachelor's degree at APU "based on what they have learned in their career at Wal-Mart," according to the retailer's Web site.

Janet K. Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, points out that this arrangement could saddle Wal-Mart employees with a "nontransferable coupon," as one blogger has described it.

"I now see where the 'trick' is—if a person gets credit for Wal-Mart courses and Wal-Mart work, they aren't likely to be able to transfer those to much of anyplace else," Ms. Poley wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle. Transferability could be important, given the high turnover rate in the retail industry.
The cynic in me wonders if the lack of transferability of the credits may be exactly the point for Walmart. As the last paragraph above points out, there is very high worker turnover in the retail industry. Walmart expends time and money training workers, only to have them leave. The ones most likely to leave are those who obtain a college degree and move on to new careers. What better way to gain more stability in their labor market -- provide workers with something they crave -- access to a college degree that will give them huge amounts of credit just for working at Walmart, and they'll discover that the degree is only good for advancing within Walmart.

My experience college teaching in the past thirty years has shown me that college students from lower and working class families, and even many from middle class families, are extraordinarily naive about the different values that employers put on degrees from different institutions. They also actively resist knowing how different the content of education differs between colleges. My students refuse to acknowledge any difference between the content of their college courses and those at four year colleges and universities. Yet they find ways not to read the forty or fifty pages a week assigned in my class, and will not listen to the facts, that students at four year school are expected to read and comprehend, two and three times the amount of content.

The reality is, I could assign as much reading as I thought was necessary and test students on that reading, but then my course failure rate would be unacceptably high, and my teaching evaluations unacceptably low. So slowly as years have gone by, I've bowed the quiet, subtle pressure NOT to "dumb" down the class, but to cover less material, and to cover it differently (like not getting into esoteric discussions about the deeper meaning and implication of materials).

Community college faculty are constantly commanded to accommodate students who are married, with children and full-time jobs. These students cannot read three full books a week (as I often had to do in my own undergraduate career at an elite four year college) -- heck they cannot even seem to find the time to read three full books a semester.

The depth and breadth of knowledge acquired by community college students simply pales compared to that acquired at more demanding four year colleges and universities. This fact is well understood by colleges, graduate schools, professional programs, and employers. Which is why graduates from elite schools have different doors open to them than do community college students.

So an educational institution that is willing to say, oh sure we'll give students up to 45 percent of their academic credit for just doing their Walmart job, is reducing the content of education even lower. Students will be able to get "degrees without all that troublesome knowledge" (my husband's favorite saying) even easier than they already can with this alliance between Walmart and American Public U.