The Coming Decline and Fall of American Higher Education?

The September 4th edition of The Economist included an article/commentary entitled “Declining by Degree” that effectively forecasts the collapse of U.S. higher education, citing a number of facts and trends I’ve already mentioned in previous blogs and adding in a few others.  For example, an American Enterprise Institute study found that in 1961, on average, U.S. students at four year colleges studied 24 hours a week, but today only study 14.  While U.S. household income has grown by a factor of 6.5 over the period, the cost of attending an in-state public college or university has increased fifteen times, while the cost of private universities, pricy even in 1960, has increased 13 times.  Yet educational outcomes are no better, and less than 40% of all students graduate in four years.

While the commentary identifies many of the causal factors I’ve mentioned, such as the incredible administrative bloat and building elaborate facilities not directly related to academics, i.e., football stadiums and lavish student centers, it addresses the problem of faculty as “indifference to student welfare” and inflated grades to faculty preoccupation with personal research and scholarship. I’d agree that there is considerable institutional indifference to student welfare, despite all the inflated claims and protestations to the contrary.  Based on my own years of teaching and more than twenty years of observing my wife and several offspring who teach at the university level, that indifference generally does not come from the individual faculty member, but from the combination of administration, parental, and student pressures that most faculty – especially non-tenured, tenure track junior professors – are unable to withstand if they wish to keep their positions.

Like it or not, grades have become the sine qua non for entry into graduate programs or jobs, and, also, like it or not, virtually all university professors are judged in large part on how good their student evaluations are, and, according to studies, the higher the grades a professor gives, and the less demanding the student workload, the better the student evaluations.  The other principal aspect of gaining and retaining tenure – especially now that more and more universities are instituting post-tenure review – is the faculty member’s scholarship and/or research.  In addition, to cope with the incredible increase in tuition and fees, more and more students are working part-time or even full-time and/or taking out significant student loans, which they intend to pay back by getting a high-paid job after completion of their education, and they see the pay they will receive as at least in part determined by their grades/class ranking.  As an illustration, an incoming student at my wife’s university inquired about the percentage of As granted in each class for which he was registered – and immediately dropped the hardest class after the first week of classes. He wasn’t the only one; it’s a pattern that faculty members recognize and note year after year.

The combination of these pressures effectively communicates to faculty that their own welfare is determined by their popularity and by their scholarship and research, not by how well they prepare students. For at least ten years, the vast majority of professors I’ve known who require in-depth preparation and learning on the part of students have had to resist enormous pressures from their superiors, and sometimes even from colleagues, not to be “too hard” on the students. Under these circumstances, it’s not hard to see why American college graduates are, as a whole, less prepared than their predecessors, and why more than half of the graduating college seniors are effectively marginally literate… or why The Economist cites the coming decline of U.S. universities. You can’t put professors in a situation where, to improve student performance, they effectively have to destroy their own future, and expect the vast majority to be that self-sacrificing.

The problems and trends are indeed real, but, as in so many cases that I discuss, few want to look at the root causes.

5 thoughts on “The Coming Decline and Fall of American Higher Education?”

  1. j says:

    I’ve taught at three universities and attended a couple more. I don’t have a long enough experience to see the trends over time, but the troubling state of current affairs is easy to see.

    First, the better universities have gotten extremely expensive. Almost shockingly expensive. But the faculty in Arts and Letters departments are not seeing any of this money. I think it’s important to make the public aware of this, because too often I see magazine or newspaper articles where administrators are interviewed and pass the blame onto the faculty–in my view this is quite misleading, and perhaps intentionally dishonest. In fact, the high tuition money is going to administration and construction projects.

    Last year the administration at my university, which is large and well known, hired consultants to come for a week and observe some classes in the humanities. When I inquired about the cost of these consultants, I discovered that the amount they charged for a week could pay the salaries of two of our junior faculty members for an entire year! What came of their visit? Nothing.

    The largest building on our campus was recently upgraded, at an absurd cost. How is the new building different? It looks nicer. That’s all. The old building was perfectly functional, and not even truly ugly. The new building looks more impressive to parents. It makes them feel more justified in paying the absurd undergraduate tuition.

    We’re virtually required to give an A or B to all of our students. Why? Because if grades from our university are low, it makes it harder for our students to get into grad school and to get jobs.

    The university system is supposed to be a meritocracy that helps the best and brightest get the best education and then get the best jobs where they can make the maximum positive impact on society. But now it’s turning into a system that charges students to be admitted to the elite class of American society–charges them to have a recognized brand name attached to their resume–and then makes no effort to form them into an elite of any real substance. The Ivy League can afford to charge high tuition, because they’re not selling an education, they’re selling access to the privileged elite.

    All this without touching the issue of adjuncts–professors in all but name who do the majority of teaching but are paid less than minimum wage and usually gain no health benefits.

    In a world of mega-corporations this system of pre-selection isn’t going to change. It’s new, smaller businesses that will look past grades and education and choose the employees with real expertise.

    Sorry if I’ve gone on a bit, but I have to watch these problems go on every day.

  2. Rob says:

    A few other factors to consider here….

    I not-so recently watched a report on business related professions and the increasing demand to have dual-degrees so that one individual can run two completely separate & unconnected departments that used to be run by two full time managers. This is where I refer you to Mr. Modesitt’s previous comments re: the success of multitasking.

    I can tell you, working in a hospital where the same director manages the medical/surgery(27 beds), intensive care(6 beds), the ER (8-infinity beds), and Respiratory departments…. This manager is a registered nurse who has no intensive care, emergent, or respiratory knowledge. The hospital’s profit margin has increased slightly if you ignore that the state owes us 54 million dollars from the last 5 years. I can also tell you that the quality of care has de-escalated in the half-decade since the change from single-unit directors.

    As a nursing student, I recently discovered from my brother who runs the financial department for a local technical school that I will, as a starting nurse, make more money an hour (starting = $23.50/hr +) than the Nursing clinical / class room instructors. That is, all except the program head who will pull around 55-65K a year.

    Add to the fact that because of the deplorable pay scales for nursing clinical instructors, we students are forced to learn from seriously incompetent personel. My last rotation was on a Cardiac Medical/Surgery floor. Our instructor was a Cardiac Catheter Lab Nurse whose sole job for the last 20+ years was to count and prep the inventory for the scheduled cardiac caths. Absolutely no patient care in 20+ years. Prior to that job, she was a Psych nurse. This lady hadn’t the faintest idea of the standard drugs used today, nor of their usual doses or interactions. She on multiple occassions, stuck needles in IV systems designed for a screw on lock, destroying hundreds of dollars worth of equipment and medicine. Other times, she ignored her lack of understanding of the ordered medications, administered them anyways and had a patient nearly die as a result. Finally, she pushed a IV drug into a line that already had an existing medication running through it w/o verifying their compatibility. This medication ended up precipitating (turning from a liquid into a solid) in the guys arm causing severe life-long issues.

    Throughout the clinicals we were constantly “complaining” to the people in charge of our program regarding this clinical instructors unprofessional conduct. We were repeatedly ignored and belittled. It even got to the point that I recorded three of the four occassions that we met with the program head and the department’s dean to report the numerous problems. Each time, we were essentially told to “suck it up.”

    Most of the people in this program (probably 80% or so) are adults seeking to change professions, not ignorant 18 year olds who like to drink rather than study. I for one, have bachelor degrees in computer science and biology and am about to finish an associates in Nursing with a minor in Math. On top of that, I’m also the only tutor the university has in all the math, science, and social-science courses that they offer outside of mental health services. None of us take kindly to be treated like children, especially by people presenting professionalism, therapeutic communication, and compassion as central concepts to their hyped up profession.

    I hope sir, that Medical school is different from what you say in your post (unlikely). I’m very much hoping to come out of Medical School a competent physician. I know full well that I’m leaving Nursing school both unprepared and undereducated and I’m not comfortable with that in the slightest.


  3. Kathy says:

    When I was a young college student I wanted As without having to work for them and (if asked) would have given low ratings to tough teachers who tried to challenge me and high ratings to easy teachers. I dropped classes that seemed like they would be a lot of work. I was really too emotionally immature to attend college and needed a serious kick in the pants.

    Then I decided to join the Army and quickly learned a lot about hard work and personal responsibility. I left with a new found maturity, confidence, and desire to better myself, if for no other reason than never wanting to be so poorly paid and low on the totem pole again. When I went back to college I was much more ready to learn!

    I am currently back in school in pursuit of an additional degree. I work hard, put effort into my studies, and participate in class. I am really getting a great deal out of my classes because of what I put in. I see many young people just trying to sleepwalk through school and I feel sorry for them; they don’t know enough to know what a disservice they are doing to themselves.

    Based on my own experience and observing others I believe that many (if not most) young people should not go directly to college after high school. Better for them to learn how the world works and appreciate what higher education can do for them. I wish there was mandatory service for everyone between high school and college. Young people could either go into the armed services or into some type of conservation corps where they would be relocated to another part of the country, forced to take part in physical activity, meet people who are different than what they’re used to and serve their country in some form. I believe we’d all be better off.

  4. I don’t want to get into an argument about whether English has more words than any other language as that brings out the idiot in everyone. However, I would be interested to know if you think English has any advantage over other languages in the production of ‘Literature’. I have seen various estimates for the size of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, ranging from about 18,000 to 25,000. I have also seen estimates claiming that the ‘average’ native English speaker’s vocabulary is around 8,000. Obviously it depends on many variables so I’m not interested in discussing the accuracy of the figures or how they are measured– you can make up your own minds about that. What I am interested in, however, is whether or not a huge vocabulary makes any significant difference to what ends up as Literature. Whatever the final count might be, someone writing in English certainly has an enormous number of words at his or her disposal. Does this matter?

  5. Demonstrating students today have every right right to be outraged. All of us should be – because of the student fees, instead of the brightest kids only the richest kids will get the education. That’s to all our detriment.

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