Frivolous (or at least misguided) Suggestions to “Improve” Higher Education

OK, in my most recent post I argued that it is time to be really serious about the problems confronting American higher education, especially public colleges and universities. I implied that some of the “problems” and some “solutions” were, well, less than serious. That raises the obvious question: So what specifically do you regard as less than serious or even frivolous contributions to the discussion? Here’s my answer. I apologize in advance for its length, but, even so, there is a lot more that could be said on these complex issues.

First, let’s end the foolishness of talking endlessly about access and affordability while saying nothing about quality. Yes, the student loan situation is a looming crisis that we absolutely must address. But there is one thing worse than graduating from college with a lot of debt. That is graduating from college unprepared to succeed in the intensely competitive global economy. In fact, that’s much, much worse.

Second, let’s acknowledge that not everyone needs a college education. There are good jobs out there that do not yet require one. But a lot of the best jobs and careers do, and will continue to, require some amount of post-secondary education, if not a college degree or even a graduate degree. And the percentage of the jobs that do will likely increase. A college degree is still the greatest driver of upward mobility in America. That said, we should pay no attention to those who argue that a college education is no longer needed based on the success of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates. That is just silly. These individuals are extremely rare. Moreover, this argument completely ignores the fundamental fact that the success of Apple and Microsoft is built on the innumerable, essential contributions of thousands of engineers, programmers, designers, managers, business professionals, and more – the vast majority of whom have college degrees. While the odds of any particular 20-year-old being the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are very low, the opportunities to build a successful, productive, rewarding career – or a new company – in the technology sectors of the global economy are still high, but only if you go to college.

Next, let’s dispense with the tripe that distance education is some kind of panacea for the issues surrounding access, quality, and affordability. That’s not to say that distance education and web-based learning are unimportant. To the contrary, they are essential tools to improving learning and access. We in higher education should be “all in” with regard to adopting, implementing, and developing technologies to improve access and student success. The lecture is far past its expiration date for many of our classes. However, teaching in laboratories, in the field, seminars, supervised internships, studios, and tutorials is more important than ever, and cannot be satisfactorily replicated on line, if at all. Nor should we underestimate the value of students and faculty interacting face to face in a learning and social community, developing relationships and interpersonal skills not readily created through distance learning. One of the most important advantages of teaching-learning technology is to free up faculty time for engaging students directly in hands-on learning, research, and creative work. Especially in science and engineering (which continue to be among our nation’s critical needs) laboratory or fieldwork, or both, is simply a necessity. A virtual laboratory does not adequately replicate being in a laboratory, actually conducting experiments, and making your own mistakes. A video of a stream is not the same as standing in it, sampling the water or the organisms, or just closely observing an ever-changing microenvironment. Designing and building a robot is completely different than watching one. There’s a lot more that could be said in this context, but I hope you get the idea.

While we’re at it, let’s develop a realistic attitude towards “for-profit” education. It certainly has its place among America’s higher education options. It serves a lot of students very well. It has, and can continue to, teach public and private colleges and universities a lot, particularly with regard to high-quality distance and web-based teaching strategies. But it must also be remembered that the primary constituency of a for-profit institution is its owners or shareholders. The primary motivation is, well, profit. It seems to me that students tend to be regarded as customers. I think that attitude is fundamentally flawed. Students are not our customers, they are, or should be, our partners. A college education is not a commodity to be selected from a display like cornflakes or oatmeal. I believe that a college education is a creative endeavor involving close collaboration between the student and the faculty. Each must contribute to the creative process; without that partnership some type of credential may be awarded, but the kind of education that would most benefit the student has not been created. Also, we should not lose sight of the fact that net revenue is a leading driver of academic offerings at for-profit institutions. It is one reason, I suspect, that programs in science, engineering, clinical practice, and anywhere where small student/faculty ratios are required, tend to be underrepresented in that sector.

Of course, net revenue considerations are also a part of the planning and resource allocation strategies of public colleges and universities. In the current fiscal climate the need for such considerations is frequently acute. A net revenue approach can be valuable in multiple contexts, such as setting priorities and insuring that resources follow students. It can also all to easily get out of hand. Expensive programs in the sciences, engineering, nursing, pharmacy, and allied health, are unarguably critical to our future. So are philosophy, literature, foreign languages, history, the social sciences, the arts, and yes, even, anthropology. Even in the midst of financial affliction, we must constantly keep the fundamental purposes of higher education foremost in our planning and decisions – one of those purposes is to prepare our students for success as thoughtful, knowledgeable, informed, and engaged citizens.

Finally, can we dispense with the specious argument that faculty productivity and salaries are a major cause of rising costs? Faculty salaries, even for those on the tenure-track, have been nearly stagnant for several years, especially at public colleges and universities. Moreover, practically everyone knows that adjunct faculty are increasingly teaching our students and that the percentage of tenure track faculty has been declining. Why? Because adjuncts are substantially cheaper, particularly if part-time. The trend towards more adjuncts and part-time faculty needs to be reversed, not exacerbated. Are there slackers out there? Of course. Would increased accountability be useful? You bet. Those are problems we have the tools to fix. In fixing those problems let’s not lose sight of the fact that our faculty generally work hard, accomplish a lot, care about students, and are passionate about teaching, scholarship, and service. For many colleges and universities I think the data indicate that our faculty deserve more, not less, in terms of salary.

Whew! I’m glad to get all that off my chest. I feel better, although you probably don’t. Thanks for reading anyway.