Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Part 1 - Liberia: What it means to be an educated person?

Should we quantify someone as educated solely by the number of certificates and degrees hanging on their wall? Should we qualify someone as intelligent by their ability to read and write? These questions need to be examined, because too often we measure someone as educated by their achieved academic level, ability to read or write, and knowledge learned in the traditional classroom. Based on these accepted standards, we often forgo that someone is also educated in the “world” classroom, because much insight and wisdom are gained through life experiences.

This two-part article will explore what defines an educated person. Part one examines how this relates to the need for educational programs that serve Liberia’s seasoned adult learners with some secondary education; and how Liberians are being arbitrarily eliminated from good paying jobs in private and public sectors including international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for lacking a diploma or degree, or being bypassed by individuals who falsify their credentials. Part two will examine how people believe illiteracy hinders someone’s intelligence or knowledge; and how most Liberians, regardless if they can read or write, have no access to critical documents such as their constitution. It is important to note that all these barriers (perceived or not) were erected from poverty, war and other social ills. Therefore, this two-part article will question why these barriers continue to exist.

What Defines an Educated Person

As someone who continues to seek knowledge and understanding, I have come to value “what it means to be an educated person.” I was first introduced to this question when I entered my alma mater—Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota—in 2003 as a new freshman. As someone who was entering college in her mid-thirties, I could not discount the knowledge and experience I had gained outside the classroom as I pondered this question. Then this question was re-stated in 2005 during a perspective’s class where I decided to select the First College student-centered, individualized degree program (i.e. self-designed degree). It was during this class that we read various essays, watched films and participated in group activities that delved into an interdisciplinary study revolving around all the “-isms” in defining an educated person. This question was posited for the last time during my capstone class in 2008 as we prepared to graduate that semester. This time around many of us took an introspective approach to this question, since we had each experienced and overcame a critical life test that altered our futures. Many of these individual life trials were included in our final assignment to where we shared our “heroic” journeys in oral class presentations. These personal stories shared in this class illustrated how our life experiences shaped and defined our own existence as an educated person.

Metropolitan State University caters to primarily older students with an average age of 32 of diverse backgrounds. This highly diverse group of students is an invaluable database of knowledge and wisdom; since each person enters the classroom with a wealth of experience from being employed or self-employed, raising children, being involved in their communities, and living through situations that had profound impact on their lives. This diversity enhances the learning process through thoughtful exchanges in the classroom, because eyes and minds are opened to new perspectives as someone shares their experience of a life-changing or perilous journey. This unique learning institution values these experiences and the time constraints of these life-long learners by offering flexible creative learning strategies that allow them to demonstrate their knowledge as a way to earn college credit.

As a graduate from this university, I hoped to find something similar in Liberia that valued the life experience of those who suffered through a lifetime of poverty and survived 20 plus years of civil conflicts that may have prevented them from getting their high school diplomas or higher. I recently made an inquiry at one of Liberia’s public schools about the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP)[1] it offered, because I knew two Liberians who were interested in getting their diplomas. These two men, now in their 40’s, had achieved some secondary education when they were younger; however, poverty and war stifled their chances then. As adults they are forced to work long hours to maintain their families’ survival and that stifled their chances now. I have found both individuals to be very educated and knowledgeable in many areas, so this prompted my inquiry.

When talking with the principal, my hopes quickly diminished that this accelerated program met the needs of these two men. What I hoped to find was a program that advanced these adult learners through the various disciplines by demonstrating their knowledge either by oral presentations, writing papers, tests, or other means. Then they could focus their attention on areas that needed classroom room instruction or only theoretical study in the areas that they possessed practical knowledge. Instead the ALP program only advances older children and adult ex-combatants through primary education.

In exploring what options were available for adult learners I was referred to meet with someone at the Ministry of Education, but that meeting did not occur as planned. Fortunately after scouring the internet for information about Liberia’s adult education programs, I did find one option and it is categorized as a non-formal education[2] program for adults. This program offers literacy training and elementary elements of small business development and management skills that lead to micro-credit loans for graduates (The Art of Adult Learning and Education, 4). Neither the ALP nor the non-formal program is an option for adult learners who have some secondary education and advanced skills in business and management.

Based on these preliminary findings, it appears that there is a great need for an educational program that targets Liberia’s lifelong learners. There are some educators from private and public schools that I have discussed this issue and they have acknowledged a need for such as program. Additionally, from what I discovered from visiting and living in Liberia that there is a hidden wealth of knowledgeable, hard working and experienced Liberian people. However, the current reality in Liberia is that these educated people continue to be overlooked for simply lacking a piece of paper that states they are.

Is this reality benefiting Liberia’s adult learner? If we examine the rate of Liberians who have completed some secondary education or higher, we find that the results are rather dismal. Looking at the table below, the number of Liberians having some secondary education is 20.3% while those completing high school is 7.1%. The percentages for individuals completing post-secondary education barely registers with only 0.7% receiving a vocational or technical degree, 0.7% receiving a bachelor’s degree, and 0.4% having a master’s or doctorate degree. What is even more alarming is the total ratio of men to women receiving some secondary and up to completing post graduate education is 1.8 to 1 and for those receiving post-secondary degrees is 2.6:1.

Table: Percentage of Literate Population 10 years or older by Highest Educational Grade Completed

In equating this ratio imbalance, there are 492,707 men out of 1,217.970 literate males to 271,054 women out of 1,222,232 literate females who have some secondary education up to post graduate degrees and this equates to 1.8 males to 1 female. Likewise, there are 32,635 men and 12,263 women out of their respective literate populations that have received post secondary degrees, so in other words 2.6 males to 1 female.

These percentages could easily increase if there were programs that allowed working adults to earn their high school diplomas or college degrees through accelerated alternative learning initiatives that valued their life experience. Also include programs that encourage more women to enter institutions of higher learning, and empower them to be more competitive in the job market.

Since returning to Liberia in January, I also have been seeking paid employment in this depressed market either with a NGO or the UN. Surprisingly, as I scan the postings I have discovered some for Liberian citizens that require both a post graduate degree and a vast amount of experience. How does a person acquire a master’s or doctorate degree living in a nation that has endured one civil crisis after another from 1979 to 2003? Again, the numbers from the Liberian 2008 Census show only 7,796 men and 2,423 women (3.2 males to 1 female) have acquired post graduate degrees which span from ages of 20 to 85 plus

Valuing Education over Experience: Falsified Credentials

Clearly, this educational background has frustrated Liberian job seekers in my community of friends, because they have extensive field experience with certified training in professions such as healthcare practitioners. However, they continue to apply for positions where they meet the job qualifications while knowing they have a good chance of being eliminated in the selection process for failing to “possess” the required degree.

Another frustrating point for many qualified and experienced Liberian job seekers is how some of their competitors are bypassing university standards of learning to purchase a fake degree. These fake degree holders see this as a means to quickly obtain the extremely limited management or specialized jobs in a country with 85% unemployment rate. And most often they will be employed in these prime jobs regardless if they possess the required knowledge or skills.

Liberia’s National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) has been probing this problem and shut down ten so-called online institutions offering fake distant learner degrees. For example, on December 9, 2008, the NCHE in collaboration with the Justice Ministry arrested and jailed Rev. Dr. Johnson Oni Akinnola for illegally operating a bogus institution of higher learning—Monrovia University (MU)—in New Kru Town, a Monrovian community. As the President of the bogus MU, Rev. Akinnola was providing fake master’s degrees to eager students crammed in an overcrowded “one-room institution” that could barely accommodate ten people (Wolokokollie).

This problem of degree buying is not limited to Liberia, because even in countries like the U.S. people can obtain degrees from websites for $50 USD up to thousands (Counterfeit Degrees). Interestingly, many of these “purchased” degree holders become gainfully employed in upper management or executive level positions, because their educational backgrounds were not properly verified during the hiring process.

For example, in an 11-month congressional investigation conducted by the General Accounting Office it was discovered that over 300 U.S. federal employees4 had obtained phony degrees from “diploma mills.” This probe exposed one high profile case when an employee of the Department Homeland Security reported on May 2003 concerns of the credentials of the Chief Information Officer Laura Callahan, who was appointed one month earlier. It was discovered during this investigation that she had obtained all three subsequent degrees from the same institution, Hamilton University of Wyoming, within one year’s time, March 2000 to March 2001. These degrees, by the way, had been conveniently backdated to 1993, 1995 and 2000 in their respective order. This is one of several “diploma mills” operating in the U.S. and elsewhere that use similar names of accredited schools to disguise their illegal operations, and with this case it was the reputable Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, (Sperry).

Interestingly, U.S. and Liberia were linked to an $8 million “diploma mill” scheme from 1999 to 2005 that included over 100 phony institutions and over 9,000 individuals in the U.S. and elsewhere obtaining fake degrees. Several members of this scheme based in Spokane, Washington were arrested and charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act for bribing several Liberian officials for more than $43,000 (USD) to obtain accreditation for three online distant learning universities. These alleged Liberian based schools sold about 6,000 phony degrees which 40% were bought by foreign residents seeking entry into the U.S. This is just a small sampling of the corruption in this billion dollar industry (Probation for FCPA).

There is also a cheaper alternative to buying degrees and it involves falsifying one’s résumé, curriculum vitae or other verifying document by simply listing a degree earned from accredited institution. This was the case of the notorious U.S. businessperson Tom Petters, who was arrested in 2008 for defrauding people for multi-millions of dollars in financial investments and charitable donations. A few years before his arrest, a New York hedge fund manager Richard Bookbinder of Capital Management passed on one of Petters’ dubious investments after learning he lied on the Dun & Bradstreet questionnaire about earning a degree at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota (Phelps, 5).

These are several good examples of how valuing a person as educated merely by the degree they claim to possess could be extremely hazardous. Not only could this lead to fraud as for Tom Petters, but also the hired “professional” may not have the experience to operate safely machinery or equipment, or manage people to effectively and efficiently achieve the goals of the business or organization. Therefore, it becomes a calculated risk to hire someone without verifying their education or experience, because people could be seriously hurt if not killed or the business could lose valued customers and sustain low profit margins if not go out of business.

Many Liberians have not been educated in the formal system or traditional setting, but they have acquired a great deal of experience throughout their life. In fact, since 1998, I have met individuals who are experienced technicians in automotive, communication, computer, and electronic fields; successful entrepreneurs; knowledgeable and wise teachers; skillful craftsmen and craftswomen; and others who are proficient in their vocations and avocations. The skills possessed by these individuals were not learned in any traditional institution, but were achieved in the “school of survival” What I discovered from this observation is how in countries like the U.S. we have so many career options that we can go years before we select one. But in countries like Liberia where poverty and war determine their fates, one does not have the luxury of time to choose a career. Instead their natural or God-given talents emerge out of necessity to continually exist. The studies and lessons from the “survival classroom” are some of the hardest and toughest exams a person can ever take, because their life and the lives of their family depend on them passing these critical tests.

Liberia cannot afford to continue to overlook these “educated and experienced” people, because they too are capable of contributing their knowledge and skills to help rebuild their nation. These are people that are worth investing in by developing an accelerated and flexible educational program that values their life experiences and demanding schedules. Poverty and war can no longer be a barrier for people who are eager to complete their education and to be acknowledged as qualified applicants based on established standards. It is time for Liberia and its international partners to recognize this talented and skilled labor force who are ready to contribute in the rebuilding process.

The second part of this article will be posted next week.

End Notes:

1 The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) was established in 1998 by providing life skills training including literacy and numeracy for older children (i.e. children above the primary school age of eleven plus years), former combatants, and children associated with the fighting forces. The six years of curriculum in primary education was condensed and structured to enable this target group “to pursue and complete their primary education in three years.” (The Art of Adult Learning and Education, 4).

2 The non-formal education program also includes basic and secondary literacy training, post-literacy activities, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training, extension services, vocational courses, youth training, etc. It targets adolescence, young men and women, normally those fifteen years old and above (The Art of Adult Learning and Education, 2).

Works Cited:

Counterfeit Degrees. 27 August 2009. www.counterfeitdegrees.com

Kinder, Molly, and Emily Stanger. Policy Brief: What will the revitalization of Liberia’s economy mean for the women at its center? Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. 2008. 09 June 2009 www.hks.harvard.edu/wappp/newsletter/KinderStanger.pdf

Phelps, David, and Jon Tevlin. Part 1: The collapse of the Petter’s empire. Star Tribune. 26 October 2008. 27 August 2009 www.startribune.com/business/33287804.html?page=5&c=y

Probation for FCPA Offenses In Fake Degree Case. USLaw.com. International Law: FCPA Blog. 02 October 2008. 27 August 2009 http://www.uslaw.com/library/International_Law/Probation_FCPA_Offenses_Fake_Degree_Case.php?item=257756

Sperry, Paul. Cut-Rate Diploma’s: How doubts about the government’s own “Dr. Laura” exposed a résumé fraud scandal. Reason Online. January 2005. 27 August 2009 http://reason.com/news/show/36443.html

The Development and State of the Art of Adult Learning and Education (ALE): National Report of Liberia. The Ministry of Education and Partners. October 2008. 20 July 2009 http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/INSTITUTES/UIL/confintea/pdf/National_Reports/Africa/Africa/Liberia.pdf

2008 Population and Housing Census Final Results. Liberia Institute Of Statistics And Geo-Information Services (LISGIS). May 2009. 14 July 2009 http://www.lisgis.org/Docs/NPHC%202008%20Report%20-%20Final.pdf

Wolokollie, Alva P. Reverend Jailed for Granting Fake Degrees. Daily Observer. 11 December 2008. 27 August 2009 http://www.liberia.corruptionwatch.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=artricle&id=141:reverend-jailed-for-granting-fake-degrees-&catid=1:latest&Itermid=1

This was published in the Liberian Forum on 19 Oct 2009 http://www.liberianforum.com/Articles/Part-1-Liberia-What-it-means-to-be-an-educated-person.html

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