Archive for October, 2010

Higher Education: How colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing our Kids-and What We Can do About It : the Book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

October 11th, 2010 by under The University Today, Uncategorized. 1 Comment.

This book offers a number of insightful criticisms of American colleges and universities along with solutions that the authors feel would reform the system.  I agree with many of their observations and have been struggling to think of an economic model that will work for the University of the 21st Century.  Unfortunately, the authors do a better job at critiquing than coming up with a compelling solution to these problems.

First, we should acknowledge that the U.S. higher education system is generally admired throughout the world.  So despite all of its problems, at least it is perceived as working by the rest of the world.  Given the scathing criticism of k-12 education in the U.S. it is a wonder that colleges have any success since college freshmen come from those k-12 students.

The most obvious problem to everyone is cost: elite private colleges cost about $50,000 a year.  While there is extensive financial aid, there are still a large number of families, more than half at some schools, who are paying full fare.  Public universities cost far less, but can easily run over $20,000 a year at a four-year college where students live on campus.  Least costly are community colleges where students live at home.

The authors offer a list of colleges they feel provide a great education at a reasonable cost with the implication that one is wasting money to go to an Ivey.  This argument is missing one important fact: if the Ivies attract the best students, then the best faculty will want to teach there, contributing to a reinforcing cycle.  I believe any instructor will say that it is more challenging, more fun and more stimulating to teach bright students.  In addition, a lot of college learning comes from peer group interaction, the brighter the peer group, the better the experience.

Where do I think the authors have their best insights?

1.The huge growth in administrators.  At Williams over 70% of the employees do something other than teaching. Between 1976 and 2007 the ratio of college administrators to students doubled.  Why?  Some new positions are there to attract students like a “Director of Knowledge Access Services” and a “Director of Active and Collaborative Engagement.”  Others probably come from an increasing number of rules and regulations, at least in public colleges.

    At the Smith School we have very few staff members directly supporting the faculty; one or at most two department coordinators where earlier in my career there were multiple secretaries to work with the faculty.  We have offices for each major program, placement, alumni affairs, information technology and so on.  It is possible to reduce staff, but I don’t think we can reduce it far enough to make a huge difference in tuition.

    2. Too many non-tenure track faculty teaching.  Estimates are that nearly two-thirds of college teachers are non-tenure track adjuncts.  At the Smith School we use a number of adjuncts, but in my department they are a small minority.  We do have non-tenure track Tyser Teaching Fellows, all of whom have Ph.D.s and who teaching approximately six courses a year.  These faculty often receive higher teaching ratings than the tenure-track faculty and they are highly regarded in the school.

    I applaud moves at Maryland and other schools to encourage more tenure-track faculty to teach undergraduates.  Last year I led an undergraduate honors seminar and it was one of the best teaching experiences I have had.

    3. The University expects tenure-track faculty to do research, and tenure-track faculty choose that profession because they like to do research.  We have developed a system in which the prestige of the faculty member and the University depends on research.  I will discuss the nature of faculty research further in this essay.

    Tenure-track faculty might teach three courses a year at a research University.  This number sounds like a very light load, but having done that along with research and committee work and external service like editing journals, there never seems to be enough time.  Should we have fewer committees and less self-governance for faculties?

    I think we could all teach one or two more courses if the University reduced its expectations on research output.  But what would that accomplish?  Possibly costs would drop for a few years, but then inflation would and other costs would push up tuition.  I do not think it is humanly possible to teach enough to provide a substantial reduction in tuition or tuition growth.

    4. What good is academic research?  Industry has largely abandoned basic research in its quests for products, with the possible exception of pharmaceuticals. We expect the government to undertake research, but there are relatively few government research laboratories.  Instead, the government funds university faculties to do research in the national interest.

    I believe that a lot of our research in business schools is uninteresting and not very useful.  I expect that other disciplines have the same problem.  It is like the executive who said that he was sure half of his advertising budget was wasted, and he wished he could figure out which half it was.  Maybe some arcane topic of interest to a few scholars will lead to a major breakthrough.  Until we can figure out which half of research is not necessary, we will keep on with the current approach.

    5. We are producing far too many Ph.D. graduates for the job openings in teaching.  I am very concerned about this trend because it is the partnership between graduate students and faculty that advances the careers of each and advances our knowledge.

    6.Too many of our majors are vocational.  The authors would like to see students take a liberal arts undergraduate program and then specialize in graduate school.  Unfortunately, not all students plan on or can afford graduate school.  Business is the number one undergraduate major because students are concerned about getting jobs.  But all is not lost; one does not take 100% business courses if a business major.   Most universities still have breadth requirements so that students are exposed to some of the disciplines that are critical to being an educated person.  We are meeting a demand for “vocational” majors, not forcing them on students.

    However, I confess to having problems with some of the majors the authors have found like turf and grass management, resort management, baking and pastry arts, and furniture design.

    7. An end to varsity athletics.  The authors report that only a handful of schools actually make enough money on varsity sports to go beyond break even and contribute to the school.  In essence parents paying tuition are subsidizing varsity sports.  I am not sure it is realistic to end varsity sports, but there is room for significant cutbacks on the money at risk and the intensity of the programs.

    8. The authors would end tenure and replace it with multi-year contracts.  There are valid arguments on both sides of tenure.  Early in my career an economics professor explained that tenure was a kind of job security that let schools pay below-market wages for faculty. Now that faculty salaries are higher, maybe that reason is no longer holds.   Academic freedom is another reason for tenure, and I think the best one.  We need a core of people who can speak their minds freely, who can say that the emperor has no clothes.  Without tenure I am afraid that faculty who want to speak out on issues will be intimidated by college administrators, trustees and regents and politicians.

    In summary a lot of the authors’ criticisms are valid and we should address them along with others:

    1. More tenure-track faculty teaching undergraduates
    2. Reducing the number of Ph.D. students until there are jobs for them.
    3. Trying to focus faculty on meaningful research that contributes to society, though this will be hard to define and monitor.
    4. Ways to help students finance their education without running up huge debts.
    5. Encouraging post-tenure reviews for faculty who are no longer performing.
    6. Reducing the investment and emphasis on varsity athletics.
    7. Trying to cut the rules and regulations and all of the special services that are responsible for the huge increase in the number of administrators.

    If we accomplish all of the above I fear that we will still not have created a viable economic model for the University.  A challenge for all of us in the teaching business is exactly that: how can American higher education survive and flourish in the 21st Century?

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