Saturday, November 5, 2011

What's the Matter with Higher Ed?

Short answer: Money, and entitlement.

Wait!, you say. Whose money? Whose entitlement? Well, I suppose I could elaborate, but be warned: when it comes to educational inequity, I do tend to go on. So pour yourself another cup of coffee and settle in for ten minutes or so.

Ready? Okay, here goes:

Historiann's call for bloggers to address the question in the title of this post, in response to Tony Grafton's recent piece on the spate of books attempting to answer the same question couldn't have come at a better time for me. You see, just these past few weeks I've been considering the matter, prompted by the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose complaints about the systemic nature of economic inequality in the U.S. were recently reinforced by a report of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. I teach at a mid-tier public university, where most of our students work part- to full-time, and many are first-generation college students. Our faculty come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, but many have terminal degrees from elite universities, so they know their stuff -- we're hiring smart people. More importantly to the point of this post, many are the prodcut of undergraduate educations at small liberal arts colleges (my own had a student-to-faculty ratio of 12:1, I think), so they know what's possible with good teaching practices.

So if any institution should be positioned to help the 99-percenters (or let's call them 95-percenters, in the case of education) bridge the gap, it's us. And yet, because we are part of a large state system, and thus are dependent on shrinking public funding, we are instead emblematic of a two-tiered educational system that perpetuates that gap, and may even be widening it.

Grafton notes that most books critical of higher education fall into the trap of looking for the Bad Guy. Some blame entitled, lazy, out-of-touch faculty who can't be bothered to teach, and wouldn't know how even if they were made to. Others decry the ever-increasing number of administrators, vastly overpaid, blindly bound to a business mentality that has nothing to do with the mission of higher education, who impose reams of assessment paperwork on faculty in order to numerically prove that learning is taking place. Still others lament that today's students arrive at college coddled, unprepared, and aimless, and gravitate towards "pre-professional" majors that sell job training as education, and are short-sighted to think the goal is the piece of paper at the end, rather than the challenge and growth that gets them there. Grafton argues that all of these may be factors, but warns against the monocausal explanation, and for the most part, I think he's right.

Except when it comes to money.

On that note, Grafton also takes on the "rising costs" issue, as addressed by the authors he evaluates. But unlike those authors, he suggests that the high price tag at these elite schools often (though not always) pays for better educational quality for the students: wealth starting out will facilitate your entry into a more intellectually rigorous and nurturing (no, those two are not mutually exclusive) educational system.

To put it more bluntly than Grafton may be comfortable with: anyone who thinks that higher education is the last meritocracy is fooling themselves. I've seen a number of incredibly gifted students come through my classrooms. These students are here, rather than Oberlin or Williams or Swarthmore or Reed or whatever, because they don't come from a privileged background, and our in-state tuition is about 15% of what those schools charge. Some others arrive vastly underprepared for college, and struggle to get passing grades, and some fail to finish. But mostly we have a broad and varied middle of average students, some of whom have the potential to be very good, given the proper resources and attention. Over the years (and more often in recent years), I've seen some of them become aware of what they're being deprived of: "I've never had someone write so many comments on my paper!" "It's really frustrating to be the only person talking... I don't think that most people did more than a couple pages of the reading." "Wow! Thanks! That [half-hour one-on-one paper conference] really helped – I think I get it now." And heartbreakingly, one time, from a junior (or was she a senior?): "I've never been to a professor's office hours before – I guess I didn't know I could... or maybe I was a little scared."

Too often, whatever native ability these students have is not going to be properly nurtured, because in a university of over 30,000 students, where tenure-track faculty teach 80-150 students a semester without T.A.s or grading assistance or the like, and the lecturers who make up 50-60% of our staff teach much more than that (because at $3-5K a course, you've got to teach about 5-6 courses a semester just to make ends meet, often shuttling between our university and some other to do so, and your fancy Ph.D. and two bucks will buy you a cup of coffee), it's likely that nobody will notice that spark of brilliance in time to fan it into a flame before it dies. So the capable students coast, or they lose interest, and only rarely do they have a background of experience to know to push themselves, and to ask us for support when they do -- in other words, to demand for themselves what the five-percenters take as a given. In the meantime, they hold down 20 hour-a-week jobs to pay their ever-increasing tuition, and start to look approvingly at online courses because that would enable them to take on extra hours at work to foot the bill, since in institutions like mine, the students are picking up their own tab. And they emerge with an education that looks even less like the one their five-percenter peers receive. And so the cycle continues.

And the taxpayers and their elected representatives wring their hands, and say that the public universities are failing the students, and respond with more numerically-based assessment, and criticize faculty for spending what they see as too little time with students, and increase teaching loads and class sizes, and withdraw more funding, and leave administrations to rely more on adjunct labor and online classes in order to make budget. And so that cycle continues, too.

So what's the solution, for an institution like mine? It lies not in the professors, most of whom are committed to good teaching and good research (until they are too exhausted to do either) and who receive, at most, one course off per year for maintaining an active research agenda. Nor do I want to blame the students, most of whom have precisely the level of commitment and seriousness of purpose and focus on the journey rather than the finish line that almost all of us had at age nineteen. Administrators? Yes, we may complain of bloated salaries at the top, but the vast majority are paid middle-class salaries or less, and are trying to do the difficult job of making ends meet and serving the interests of students and faculty (both of whom can get a bit entitled from time to time) while keeping on top of the latest paperwork requirement to come out of the state capital, all on whatever shoestring budget the institution has to work with in any given year.

In my view, the solution lies in a state's voters deciding that they want to support high-quality education for all who qualify – and by "support," I don't mean buying a bumper sticker or clicking "like" on some Facebook page... or even writing a blog post, I suppose. I'm talking about the kind of support that you can stick into a bank account. This requires sacrifice, and, sad to say, this is not a political or cultural climate that favors personal sacrifice for faceless others or a commitment to the common good that extends beyond oneself and one's immediate circle.

In short: We have met the enemy, and he is us. The problem is indeed entitlement, but it's not that of students or faculty. It's a larger sense that we are entitled to the benefits of society without any corresponding obligations. As Grafton notes, "those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations." We can't rail about economic inequities á là OWS one minute, then demand cuts in public spending the next. We can't support obsessive multiple-choice testing and reports in an attempt to quantify learning, then complain that students don't think critically. We can't keep depending on low-paid contingent labor in huge classes, then blame professors and instructors for not providing the same education as an expensive small college provides. We can't increase class sizes or move to online educational models to save money, then wonder that students who go through this system aren't achieving the same graduation rates or post-graduation results as their peers at elite schools.

We find ourselves facing a choice: use education to expand opportunity and equality, or let it become another area where we let the wealthy have the best, and the rest can take whatever's left over. But let me underline something there: WE HAVE A CHOICE. We are not victims here, unless we choose to sit by and let short-sighted thinking undermine our most idealistic goals. We, as a society, need to take some accountability and realize that, whatever happens, we will get the system we pay for, and the results that we deserve.


Historiann said...

Thanks, Notorious--I agree with you completely. This is perhaps the logical result of our democracy and pro-access policies. But have the American people really changed so much since the 1950s and 1960s, when tuition at the University of California (and other state unis) was essentially nothing, or a nominal charge? Or do our elites--the beneficiaries of those educations in the 1950s-70s, especially our political elites--who have moved systematically to dismantle the public funding for education bear a greater proportion of the blame than the average voter?

I'm not saying that blame shouldn't be widely shared. (I've had the very same thoughts lately esp. about K-12 education, quite frankly.) But I think it's important to understand that the destruction (or capture) of public higher education has clearly been a priority of modern American conservativism.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

H'Ann, I, too, believe that what we label "conservative policies" are a large part of the problem. But the fact is that those attitudes have become part of the mainstream now, to the point where Reagan-era fiscal policies are looking delightfully moderate. The attitude that taxes are always bad, and that we don't have a fiscal responsibility to the wider society is the prevalent one. Because we live in a democracy, we can make a change. But even there, money has the power to drown out voices for change.

Until people at large (and not just us pinko academics!) start calling bullshit on the underlying attitudes, no change is possible. Entrenched interests can write off the assembled faculty of my university; could they really do the same if all 30,000 students and their families took the same stand? And if this move was repeated in universities across the country?

Anonymous said...

Nice post, I really enjoyed reading it and I think you're right.

One point, I'd like to make is that footing the bill for education is just one part of the problem. I come from India, where high quality education is relatively cheap, but that still doesn't mean that the IITs are filled with people whose parents' annual income is in the top 10% or so. The privilege of being born in rich household can make life vastly easier, which in turn vastly improves a students ability to perform well in school.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I agree that money is at the root of it. I was lucky (incredibly lucky) enough to go to an Ivy League university on my father's dime. We didn't get the kind of personal attention one gets at a SLAC, but we -- even those who worked 10 hours a week at relatively well-paid work-study jobs -- did have time to spend on our studies, and the admissions process probably selected for a certain degree of initiative and independence -- what it took to get the most out of a very rich environment, and occasionally bother our mostly research-focused professors to help us with the process. It wasn't perfect -- the good teachers didn't get tenure, and the very good advising on independent work I got was mostly from grad students and recent Ph.D.s -- but it worked.

Teaching now at an institution that sounds much like yours, I'm all-too-guiltily aware that if all of my students took advantage of office hours, or even wrote rough drafts of their papers on time, or didn't withdraw or simply disappear somewhere during the 1st half of the semester, I'd be overwhelmed. And I'm not requiring anywhere near the same amount of writing, or scheduling anywhere near the same number of conferences, that I did when I taught freshman comp at my grad institution (another Ivy). Of course, I had 30 students then, and I have almost 90 now. I put as much on my syllabi as I know, after some years of experience, I can manage to actually provide some decent degree of feedback on. In short, I'm doing what I can under the circumstances, and most of my students are doing the same. But all of us are overwhelmed, and that means that each group is actually asking less of ourselves, and of each other, than we might under better conditions.

Yes, we as a society need to provide better support for higher education, both in the form of support to colleges and universities, and in the form of student aid. The latter should, perhaps, be dependent on a certain degree of success (for instance, I'd support a system whereby students pay for community college, then have the equivalent of their accumulated tuition payments made available to them to help them finish the second two years once they finish the AA degree). And the idea of income-indexed loan repayments and forgiveness after a certain period strikes me as a reasonable one, too. But somehow we need to give both professors and students more time per student to spend on their work, and that means supporting both better (and, yes, also give professors some time to do new research, so they can share the experience with their students).

Janice said...

You're right that the conflict between wanting a service and not wanting to pay for it is at the heart of matters. It's less of a challenge here in Canada, but only by degrees.

I also have to concur with Contingent Cassandra: if my students took advantage of all the opportunities I made for them, I'd be absolutely buried instead of simply snowed under. I've had to cut back on effective assignment for teaching writing and research skills in my classes only because it's impossible to sustain that with over 160 students a term.

There are many elements contributing to the current crisis in higher education: we can't solve them simply by punishing faculty or cutting the number of administrators. But few politicians or university presidents will get far by acknowledging the serious and systemic issues.

Anonymous said...

John Q Public does not understand what a college education is. All of my neighbors are totally fine with the idea of people without PhDs or with them but not current in field teaching their kids and giving them a "good education," because they don't realize that at a certain point "good" means up to date.

Techie said...

The current culture of "I got mine, screw you" that pervades our politics and our economy has to swing back with the next generation (at least I fervently hope so). Our children will understand how "it takes a village" because they won't have had one to help them. I just hope they are able to elect officials who can bring it back to the mainstream.

Anonymous said...

Entrenched interests can write off the assembled faculty of my university; could they really do the same if all 30,000 students and their families took the same stand? And if this move was repeated in universities across the country?

Why not? It's not like the entrenched interests are elected. Watch how much difference the Occupy movement makes. There are no political alternatives, for you guys or my lot, that will change the entrenched interest structure. And no, I don't know what to do about it. Only the educators of the next version of the élite are in a position to make a difference, and their co-students I suppose. This generation's battle is lost, or so I fear. Sorry.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I hope to whatever gods may be that you're wrong, Jonathan. Because if things go much further down this road, the means of change are going to be much uglier than a few hundred people camping out on Wall Street.

Doctor Pion said...

The answer to your question about whether America has changed that much since the 50s and 60s is an unqualified "Yes". Been there, seen that.

The simplest example is, indeed, tax policy. The TEA Party is made up of coddled, spoiled, whiny products of an era where we paid for what we got but now don't want to pay for anything. They complain that the US is starting to look like Greece, but never look in the mirror to see that they are personally responsible for that change via their support of policies like the "W" tax cuts while living off of Social Security and Medicare, the latter paid for with borrowed money. They act more entitled than anyone in this society, but no one calls them on it.

The greatest irony is that the TEA Party critical thinking skills are so poor that they don't realize their taxes will go up if Cain's 9-9-9 plan is enacted. They wildly support him even though they would then owe sales tax on almost everything they buy, including medicine and powered wheelchairs that they now get for "free" from the taxpayers.

If you want to have fun, ask some conservative what they think of an anti-war candidate who backs a 95% top tax rate to pay down our war debt. Then ask them why they hate General Eisenhower so much.

Susan said...

I'm too tired right now to say anything profound, except: yes. We get what we pay for, in education as in everything else.

The rose-tinted glasses with which people observe the past forget that the K-12 teachers of the 50s and 60s were underpaid because they were women with few alternative careers available; and the colleges and universities had double and triple the levels of state support they have today. The amount of money in constant dollars that public institutions have to educate students has dropped. And guess what? teachers don't have more hours in the day to respond to students. The increasing reliance on lecturers has increased the burden on tenure line faculty for governance, supervision, etc. If I have no TA and 80 students I will spend less time on grading than if I have only 40 students. And I will give more -- and more useful -- feedback.

That's not to mention the "shadow work" that most of us do because we have no support staff: I am my own secretary, administrative assistant, etc...

sporksforall said...

I just wanted to thank you for this post. I think we're in the same state system (I'm an administrator at a different campus). I'm really pleased to see you not single out the administration as the problem. We're an easy target, but everyone I work with comes to work every day trying to do the same thing, do the best we can with dwindling resources.

A broken, underfunded system can't sustain itself, unfortunately. I just don't see the electorate or the continuously new legislature being willing to do anything about it.

Anyway, thanks again for a terrific post.

Anonymous said...

Word! Thanks for writing this. I shared the (for me) best paragraph with another prof friend.

Matthew Gabriele said...

where's the "Like" button? :-)

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