Sunday, February 06, 2011

higher education?

WSJ | Higher education may be heading for a reckoning. For a long time, despite the occasional charge of liberal dogma on campus or of a watered-down curriculum, people tended to think the best of the college and university they attended. Perhaps they attributed their career success or that of their friends to a diploma. Or they felt moved by a particular professor or class. Or they received treatment at a university hospital or otherwise profited from university-based scientific research. Or they just loved March Madness.

Recently, though, a new public skepticism has surfaced, with galling facts to back it up. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition and fees has risen 250% for private schools and nearly 300% for public schools (in constant dollars). The salaries of professors have also risen much faster than those of other occupations. At Stanford, to take but one example, the salaries of full professors have leapt 58% in constant dollars since the mid-1980s. College presidents do even better. From 1992 to 2008, NYU's presidential salary climbed to $1.27 million from $443,000. By 2008, a dozen presidents had passed the million-dollar mark.

Meanwhile, tenured and tenure-track professors spend ever less time with students. In 1975, 43% of college teachers were classified as "contingent"—that is, they were temporary instructors and graduate students; today that rate is 70%. Colleges boast of high faculty-to-student ratios, but in practice most courses have a part-timer at the podium.

Elite colleges justify the light teaching loads of their professors—Yale requires only three courses a year, with a semester off every third year—by claiming that the members of their faculty spend their time producing important research. A glance at scholarly journals or university-press catalogs might make one wonder how much of this "research" is advancing knowledge and how much is part of a guild's need to credentialize its members. In any case, time spent for research is time taken away from students. The remoteness of professors may help explain why about 30% of enrolling students drop out of college only a few months after arriving.

At the same time, the administrator-to-student ratio is growing. In fact, it has doubled since 1976. The administrative field has diversified into exotic specialties such as Credential Specialist, Coordinator of Learning Immersion Experiences and Dietetic Internship Director.

In "Higher Education?" Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus describe such conditions in vivid detail. They offer statistics, anecdotes and first-person accounts— concerning tuition, tenure and teaching loads, among much else—to draw up a powerful, if rambling, indictment of academic careerism. The authors are not shy about making biting judgments along the way.

Of the 3,015 papers delivered at the 2007 meeting of the American Sociological Association, the authors say, few "needed to be written." As for one of the most prestigious universities in the world, "the mediocrity of Harvard undergraduate teaching is an open secret of the Ivy League." Much of the research for scholarly articles and lectures is "just compost to bulk up résumés." College presidents succeed not by showing strong, imaginative leadership but "by extending their school's terrain." Indeed, "hardly any of them have done anything memorable, apart perhaps from firing a popular athletic coach." For all the high-minded talk, Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus conclude, colleges and universities serve the people who work there more than the parents and taxpayers who pay for "higher education" or the students who so desperately need it.

Take the adjunct issue. Everyone knows that colleges increasingly staff courses with part-time instructors who earn meager pay and no benefits. But who wants to eliminate the practice? Administrators like it because it saves money, professors because it saves them from teaching labor-intensive courses. And adjuncts themselves would rather continue at minimum wage than leave the profession altogether. In a "coda," Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus declare that "it is immoral and unseemly to have a person teaching exactly the same class as an ensconced faculty member, but for one-sixth the pay." Perhaps so, but without a united faction mobilized against it, such "immorality" won't stop anytime soon.

But some change may still be possible. A lot of criticism of academia hasn't stuck in the past, Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus imply, because people have almost unthinkingly believed in the economic power of the degree. Yes, you didn't learn a lot, and the professors blew you off—the reasoning went—but if you got a diploma the job offers would follow. But that logic may no longer be so compelling. With the economy tightening and tales of graduates stuck in low-paying jobs with $50,000 in student loans, college doesn't look like an automatic bargain.


CNu said...

About half way through this excellent book (reading with my daughter who is in the process of considering all the available options) and it's a scathing and on point indictment of the hot mess into which higher education has devolved over the past few decades.

On a serious note, where does one go to access intensive vocational and technical training in computational genomics? School college counselors get a silly expression on their faces when asked point blank for specific actionable information like this.

Anyway, a comical, handwavy, and dismissive review of this book was published in the NYTimes and written by the president of George Washington University. methinkst Hacker and Dreifus are,

ProfGeo said...

My view of Hacker going in is analogous to your view of Turkle-- I would have a beer with him on the White House lawn, and my lingering impression is from the early '90s, Two Nations. But this one sounds like a true collaborative work and therefore may be interesting as a meld of his and Dreifus's opinions.

I'm tracking some other reviews of this, will let you know if any add insight or convince me to "just read the damn book." This one is from an educational technologist whose opinion I give some credence. (We don't always agree, but I always agree to consider what he says.) In this case I would be inclined to accept his take on problem #2 of the three he mentions, and challenge #1 and #3.

CNu said...

There is a growing body of evidence supportive of Hacker/Dreifus' contentions...,

ProfGeo said...

Let me add a P.S. to the WSJ article itself, which doesn't need the book to back it up.

people have almost unthinkingly believed in the economic power of the degree. Yes, you didn't learn a lot, and the professors blew you off—the reasoning went—but if you got a diploma the job offers would follow. But that logic may no longer be so compelling.

What I'm seeing are internal conflicts at the administrator level (dance of the elephants, everybody else gets trampled). Because most of them really used to be educators they have a core, if buried, belief in a liberal education in the classic sense. But they are also committed to viewing higher ed through the flawed lens of the Industrial Revolution factory, cranking out units of product, product being students with degrees.

To students they are still openly selling "degree --> better job, never mind the debt" showing off the success stories where that works, and downplaying any other value. Of faculty (esp. adjuncts) they only demand more students going through the meat grinder of large faceless lecture classes and an acceptable pass rate. They appease tenured faculty (love 'em or not) by allowing small classes for them. I don't think the math is sustainable (average class size inching up on our campus, went from 26 to 29 and each time it's the last increase). This is all, as we say, problematic.

ProfGeo said...

Saw the post, just hadn't got there yet, too busy laughing at the cartoon. :-) Last fall I was in a faculty co-op (like-minded folk across disciplines) that focused on this issue of the Holy Grail of critical thinking. No one, to my knowledge, is claiming higher ed is doing its best in this area. More when I get over to that other post.

nanakwame said...

They are offering big time scholarship for any young girls going into biology and especially marine biology. Our SUNY system is a quiet gem here, don’t know what you have there – Two years degree anything in robotics – start $26 an hour. Work awhile then see where one wants to go. They have a study showing how our youth cannot discern information on the internet

Big Don said...

The top dog profs don't generally give a ratsass about undergrads. They prefer to discuss the latest PRR in their small graduate courses (e.g. half a dozen students). Grad students frequently get invited to social events at the profs' homes, etc...

CNu said...

yeah, yeah, yeah..., been there, done that, got the tee-shirt.

we all know the baseline BD, and those of us paying careful attention, i.e., keenly rationally self-interested attention, know that the current level of much-needed criticism being leveled at the academy, constitutes a serious and possibly unique moment of opportunity.

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