Monday, February 14, 2011

Problems in Higher Education

Title: Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids - And What We Can Do About It (find in a library)
Authors: Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Ridiculously long title aside, this book was an interesting discussion of the problems in higher education. And there are many. Some interesting tidbits:
  • Colleges and universities are extremely administrator heavy. The authors list some administrative titles that really do make you wonder: Director of Active and Collaborative Engagement, Credential Specialist, Coordinator of Learning Immersion Experiences, among others. "Between 1976 and 2007, the ratio of college administrators to students basically doubled" (p. 30). And not particularly surprising, there was no equivalent increase in full-time faculty. In fact:
  • The number of adjunct instructors has shot up exponentially because they are cheap labor. A typical adjunct makes about $3,000/course. Teaching a course load of 5 in a year (which is what many full-time faculty teach, if that) nets an adjunct a whopping $15,000 with no benefits. And there's no real evidence that adjuncts are any less effective at teaching than full-time professors.
  • The institution of tenure should be abolished and replaced with a contract renewal system to provide some accountability.
  • Colleges and universities providing undergraduate education should de-emphasize research in favor of teaching. Harvard gets a particularly bad rap in this area as an institution with faculty who are especially poor at teaching undergrads.
  • The authors also argue that colleges should refocus on the liberal arts and less on vocational majors. They define vocational as anything intended to lead to a job - engineering, business, etc. They believe that a recent grad will mostly learn on the job and won't be expected to apply principles learned in courses.
  • Colleges should seriously reconsider athletics, or at minimum, the amount spent on them. Almost all colleges and universities (even many with big name football teams) spend far more money on athletics than those sports ever bring in. Not to mention, rigorous athletic schedules take time away from schoolwork. In addition, "An NCAA study found that half its coaches are paid at least $252,000, over twice the salary of professors at most institutions" (p.158). That really gets me. An institution of higher education, where education should be the primary concern and sports coaches make twice what professors do, on average? Ugh.
All in all, some very interesting points were made. It is clear that higher education needs to be reexamined. The cost of a bachelor's degree has increased far more rapidly than inflation would warrant. Universities claim to spend tens of thousands of dollars per student when in reality, a sizable chunk of that money goes to faculty research. Should undergraduates really be paying to support that?

And just in general, students in PhD programs that are intending to go into teaching should be required to take education courses, or at least be provided with a program that helps them learn how to teach.

I look forward to reading the latest book published on the failings of higher education next: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.


posted by Kate at 8:36 PM


Blogger reyn said...

Thank you. Easily the most depressing thing I've read in a while, but I've also been brooding about the nature and quality of my education, so I was already teed up for the shot.

While I absolutely agree that colleges with undergrads should be more focused on educating those students than on using them as a source of income to fund research which doesn't involve or impact the undergrads, and I've been bitter about athletics since high school, I still think that focused educations (for instance, engineering or biology) are important. I've had a lot of experience with unsuccessful job hunting, and I guarantee you that no employer wants to teach their college-graduate employees. They want people who already know what they're doing. I would argue that those specialized areas call for not just specialized education, but experiential learning as well--more hands-on stuff, fieldwork, maybe even required internships that actually help the students, not just employers who want a slave for the summer. I would also bet that the authors were liberal-arts types who would never see the value of a specialized education. Not that there's anything wrong with their degrees, but they don't have the background to make the call on mine.

2/24/2011 11:55 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I don't know why I find the topic of education so interesting, but I do. To spout off a bit:

Yes, cut athletic funding, particularly for behemoths such as men's basketball and football, which at the college level have become something akin to farm teams for the professional leagues. But funding for athletics shouldn't be abolished altogether, and students (including women...thank you, Title IX), should be given the opportunity to participate. But the emphasis should be on enjoying exercise, sportmanship, and team bonding. You know, the 'honorable' things that amateur athletics used to be about. But I'm probably naive here...

Tenure debates are harsh. But overall, I side with maintaining tenure. The book apparently mentions accountability ... perhaps instead of revising tenure, it can be reformed to increase accountability.

Theory?: Are there so many adjunct professors because there is a glut of PhD's in the market? Supply exceeding demand? Sometimes, I feel like universities are handing out too many PhDs nowadays to individuals who don't realize how dim their prospects of becoming full-time profs really are. It doesn't seem fair.

Overall, a college/university education should provide a student with 3 skills: 1) reading; 2) writing; and 3) basic scientific logic (essentially, the ability to develop a hypothesis, test it, and determine whether a scientific theory is supported by evidence). These are critical skills. Without them, an individuual cannot separate all the junk information flying about nowadays from the actual truth. People need to learn how to distinguish fact from opinion, propaganda from reality. It seems basic, but one only has to turn on any cable news channel to realize that the ability to think rationally and reasonably is almost completely absent from today's discourse. And that's truly disheartening. People need to know when they're being fed junk information.

I agree with Reyn that experiential learning is also important, and often a necessary supplement to the above. I'm a huge fan of internships. But it can't replace the critical thinking tought by liberal arts. Perhaps the best programs shoudl combine the two?

Overall, yes ... college costs too much money. And I often find myself wondering whether too many people are going to college, particularly since many students start college by taking remedial courses covering content they should have learned in high school. High schools should be capable of giving people a solid grasp of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, and it's thievery to make everyone pay upwards of $120,000 for an advanced education which may not actually be necessary for the career they choose.

Ah bah, I could ramble on, because (as I said above), I find education fascinating and think about it a lot, without the opportunity to discuss it often. But I'll stop. Sorry that most of the above diatribe is irritated grandstanding with no actual supporting evidence, etc. At least my liberal arts education taught me to be ashamed of that, even if I do indulge in it. :)

2/24/2011 6:46 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Reyn - I found it interesting that the authors argue for the elimination of anything other than the liberal arts. I believe they proposed separate vocational schools for anything outside of the liberal arts. I'm not sure I particularly agree with them, but I think colleges should graduate more well-rounded individuals, especially from schools claiming to be liberal arts institutions.

Elizabeth - I do actually agree with the authors in abolishing tenure. I am not sure how you would increase accountability if one's job isn't ultimately at stake.

Also, there does seem to be a glut of PhDs in the market, which leads to more adjuncts - but many institutions are decreasing full-time faculty in favor of adjuncts, which doesn't necessarily seem good. Especially when they pay the poor adjuncts so little. Ultimately, education has become a business, and universities will continue to award PhDs as long as it brings in money or improves their reputation. Along the same lines, many institutions continue to lower their admission requirements leading to a higher number of undergraduates needing remedial education. Then, the institutions may or may not do a good job of providing that remedial education. And if they don't do a good job, you've got frustrated faculty who are somehow expected to teach course content along with basic skills.

3/02/2011 6:56 PM  

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