COMMENCEMENT is a special time on college campuses: an occasion for students, families, faculty and administrators to come together to celebrate a job well done. And perhaps there is reason to be pleased. In recent surveys of college seniors, more than 90 percent report gaining subject-specific knowledge and developing the ability to think critically and analytically. Almost 9 out of 10 report that overall, they were satisfied with their collegiate experiences.
We would be happy to join in the celebrations if it weren’t for our recent research, which raises doubts about the quality of undergraduate learning in the United States. Over four years, we followed the progress of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse four-year colleges and universities. We found that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.
In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.
Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.
This article, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, comes from their study which has been knocking around the internet for a few months now. I have been critical of it in some areas, namely in that their data is derived from standardized testing (the Collegiate Learning Assessment), and should be met with as much skepticism as any other standardized test.
However, moving beyond the instrument's flaws or validity, Arum and Roksa make some stinging rebukes of what we do in higher education today which need to be taken seriously.
While some colleges are starved for resources, for many others it’s not for lack of money. Even at those colleges where for the past several decades tuition has far outpaced the rate of inflation, students are taught by fewer full-time tenured faculty members while being looked after by a greatly expanded number of counselors who serve an array of social and personal needs. At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.
The situation reflects a larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges. The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right.
Probably no greater disservice is being done today in higher education than treating students as "clients." I've written about this previously, regarding the lengths colleges go to today to "ensure" students graduate. From counselors and advisers to mental and physical health advocates, college administrators and bureaucrats go to great lengths to ensure their "clients" satisfaction and graduation (one bureaucrat said, in a recent article I can't find so I'm paraphrasing, "we take their money for education, so we owe it to them to make sure they receive a diploma"). As if we're just one gigantic diploma mill.
How things have changed. When I went to college in the 1980's, the expectation was the reverse. The message the university sent me as a student was "we have granted you admission to our university, it is entirely up to you whether you sink or swim, whether you earn your diploma or flunk out in the process." It would never have occurred to me, had I indeed flunked out, that I was "owed" a refund on my tuition. Generation Entitlement, indeed.
I have also addressed, in a post about the "country club recession," how colleges and universities routinely invest in ornate buildings, landscapes, Olympic-size sports venues, etc., while investment in instruction and education continues to shrink.
As states use the imaginary "budget crisis" to continue to enact ideological-driven cuts in higher education, institutions respond by raising tuition, continuing to build more and more monolithic structures, and layoff adjuncts, part-timers, temporaries, custodial and maintenance workers as a sign that they "take things seriously." Which of course, they don't.
Within higher education itself, the battle between the tenured and tenure track v. contract faculty continues to play itself out in these budget cuts. Half of all college and university presidents now prefer contract labor over tenure. Why? Money and expendability.
At four-year public institutions, half of the presidents surveyed said they preferred tenured faculty. Thirty-six percent preferred professors on long-term contracts.
Advocates of tenure say it is the surest protection of academic freedom, creating a system of due process in which the burden of proof is upon administrators to demonstrate that a professor's dismissal is for cause, rather than a response to controversial scholarship.
But critics say that tenure's protections make it difficult to get rid of incompetent faculty and can promote a culture of complacency among those who have attained the status.
Not to mention, when ideologically-driven budget cuts are made, faculty with tenure are inured from the pain, while contract instructors who don't toe the line get whacked.
All of this is setting up a system of stratification and inequality within higher education that, much like the economy itself, threatens to create disorder and erode society.
Throughout the survey of presidents, the most positive responses, and justifiably so, came from leaders of highly selective colleges, which have healthy balance sheets, more top-achieving applicants than they can possibly admit, and a strong portfolio of global partnerships.
But they occupy a tiny space in American higher education. The responses of nonelite institutions—two-year, for-profit, and less-selective four-year colleges—largely reflect their more precarious situation. The public institutions among them must grapple with declining state support, while tuition-driven private colleges confront a student market that has said "enough" to paying more. Proprietary colleges face greater government scrutiny and regulation.
All will have to educate a student body that is underprepared, many of whom are from groups that have traditionally not attended college.
So, as state legislatures enact budget cuts, it is, as usual, the poor, disproportionately minority populations that bear the brunt of it, including in higher education. Two-year and community colleges suffer disproportionate cuts, and their student bodies are unable to meet the rising tuition costs. Eventually, higher education will revert back to its original 19th century mission and demographic: serving the elites.
And that leaves the middle and lower classes angry, and a huge chasm between those who do graduate and those without degrees.
A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority (75%) says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. At the same time, however, an overwhelming majority of college graduates (86%) say that college has been a good investment for them personally.Of course, Pew sets up a false dichotomy with their choices. The "main purpose" has always been both: one can't prepare for the workplace without growing intellectually and personally, and vice versa.
In the Pew survey, all respondents were asked about the "main purpose" of college. Forty-seven percent said "to teach knowledge and skills that can be used in the workplace," 39 percent said "to help an individual grow personally and intellectually," and 12 percent said "both equally."
But unfortunately, that's the primary meme today about what we do here: make sure they receive their degree (whether they earn it or not) and make sure they get a job out of it. And those departments which can't or won't do that are increasingly viewed as expendable by know-nothing legislators and higher ed bureaucrats who want to micromanage program development.
Routinely, the humanities are eyed for the guillotine, while "business schools" receive more and more funding. Economics departments (which isn't really an academic discipline by anyone's scientific standards) receive more funding, while history and language departments get cut. To put it another way, programs which make you think critically are eradicated, while those which prepare you for a spot in the docile, disciplined workforce are kept alive.
So yes, we have major problems in higher education today. We are using 19th century rubrics to educate a 21st century populace. And when we adapt to 21st century thinking, it's often in the dumbed-down, "customer is always right," "what are your test scores?" superficial way of thinking about education.
There must be significant changes in the way we do things in higher education, but I fear until there are generational changes within academia, nothing is going to change.