Tag Archives: higher education

Easy To Destroy, How Long To Repair?

A friend who lives in Wisconsin occasionally sends me items from newspapers in that state that he thinks will interest me. Most have obvious implications for other states–and since Scott Walker became Governor, those implications have tended to range from worrisome to terrifying.

The most recent news from what I’ve come to call “the frontier of shooting yourself in the foot” was a report about the University of Wisconsin’s loss of thousands of engineering students.

The story began by explaining why engineering is “more than classrooms and theory: It’s a hands-on discipline for turning ideas into prototypes and products that help people.” The university should have a number of advantages when it comes to attracting engineering students–most recently, it has used private grant funds to create an innovative “maker space” appealing to both in-state and out-of-state applicants.

Accommodating those applicants is a different issue.

There are roughly 4,500 undergraduate students in UW-Madison’s engineering sequence today. About 6,600 applied last year, including many qualified applicants from outside Wisconsin who could add to the state’s talent base.

The main barrier to taking more is a lack of faculty to educate more students without diminishing the quality of the experience for all. Private gifts help, but the core funding for faculty hires comes from state government support and student tuition.

As the article delicately puts it, those funding sources “haven’t grown.” That’s a rather massive understatement: the Walker Administration’s cuts to funding for the university can only be characterized as savage. In the wake of those cuts, and other measures inimical to higher education, the once-storied University of Wisconsin has seen faculty depart and rankings slip.

Walker not only engineered (no pun intended) an enormous $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, just when other state universities were finally emerging from the recession. He also proposed to get rid of academic tenure.

As one observer wrote at the time,

With his draconian budget cuts and his assault on the tenure system, Walker is sending a message that professors at Wisconsin should sit down and shut up. Some of them–those most able to move, which likely includes some of their best talent–might now be looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

An article in Slate a year later considered the consequences of these changes in funding and tenure protections. Several highly-regarded professors had left; others at risk of being “poached” were retained (at least temporarily) at a cost of some $9 million dollars in pay raises and research support. As the Slate article explained:

Academics, whether they have it or not, want some form of tenure to exist to protect the integrity of the knowledge that is produced, preserved, and disseminated.

Wisconsin professors simply do not want research limited by the whims of 18 people appointed by a governor with an openly stated anti-education agenda. And you shouldn’t, either. Think university research doesn’t affect you? You’re wrong. Hundreds of technological and social advances that you depend upon have been made thanks to the research of some brainiac at some university somewhere: what kind of cities to plan; how (and where) to alleviate poverty and hunger; what kind of diseases to treat; what kind of drugs to invent (or make obsolete); what kind of bridges and roads to build (and where). If professors are not protected from disagreeing with the agenda of their “bosses”—whether that be Dow Chemical, Gov. Walker, or President Trump—the consequences will go far beyond one person’s paycheck.

What is happening in Wisconsin is tragic: Scott’s vendetta against intellectual “elitists” is affecting everything from the quality of the state’s workforce  to its reputation and its ability to attract new employers. Last year, the state ranked 33d in job creation–not dead last (Kansas has that distinction) but nothing to brag about.

What is happening in Wisconsin is also where Donald Trump and today’s rabidly anti-intellectual GOP want to take the rest of us. And that is truly terrifying. It’s relatively easy to destroy an asset; rebuilding it, and restoring a sullied reputation is a far dicier proposition.




Education and Student Debt

A few days ago, I wrote about the increasing tendency to rank colleges on the basis of alumni earnings, as if higher education is simply another venue for job training.

In the comments, people pointed out the importance of earning power, especially in light of the staggering expense of a college education.

Believe me, I get that.

Nothing I wrote was intended to justify the increasing costs of a university education and the resulting sky-high levels of student debt. Indeed, to the extent that we are pricing education out of the reach of many, we are sabotaging the educational mission I was defending.

Student debt is not only a huge problem for recent graduates; it is dragging down the economy. As Matt Impink and I wrote in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education,

Student debt constrains individual decision-making in a number of ways, and its growth affects the entire economy. For example, people paying back student loans are less likely to start businesses. Considering that 60 percent of new private-­sector jobs are created by small businesses, diminishing the ability to create businesses does considerable harm to the economy.

Debt loads also affect overall consumption. According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, fewer 30-year-olds in general have bought homes since the recession, but the decline has been steeper for people with a history of student-loan debt and has continued even as the housing market has recovered. In an economy that depends upon the ability and willingness of consumers to purchase homes, furniture, automobiles, and other goods, a debt load that effectively precludes such purchases poses a real problem.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found that three-quarters of the overall shortfall in household formation can be attributed to younger adults, ages 18 to 34. In 2011, 1.3 million more Americans in this age group lived with their parents than in 2007. Although it is impossible to determine the relative contribution of student-loan debt and the economic downturn to that phenomenon, student debt is clearly implicated. Any program that reduces the need to borrow can only improve the situation.

According to a report from Zillow, the relatively few millennials who are thriving economically are the ones whose parents are able to subsidize college tuition or a down payment on a home. Help with education and buying a home were the two primary ways in which the original GI Bill created upward social mobility. Estimates are that each new household leads to $145,000 of economic impact. If student debt is keeping just a third of those two million young Americans from living on their own — a reasonable, if undocumented, assumption — that adds up to a $100-billion loss or delay in economic activity.

Student debt is an enormous issue for the country. The Democratic presidential candidates have all addressed it; Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed measures to ameliorate it.

If any of the Republican presidential candidates have paused their attacks on immigrants, reproductive choice and various kinds of “losers” in order to address student debt levels and their impact on either young people or the economy, I’ve missed it.

I Know I’m a Broken Record…

Every so often, a Facebook friend posts an article about colleges that aren’t “worth” the investment of tuition. Usually, these lists are compiled by magazines or pundits out to prove a point, and I just grit my teeth and scroll on.

But recently, the usually responsible Brookings Institution got into the act.  An article titled “More data can make college less risky” began with the assertion that the “vast majority” of students go to college because they believe that it will improve their “employment opportunities and financial wellbeing.” The authors recommended that students do what other “investors” do—research their prospective investments.

And what sort of “research” did they suggest?

For decades, economists discussed the average benefits of a college education compared to a high school education with no regard to either field of study or institution. Finally, in 2009, the Census Bureau started collecting data that could be used to assess which majors pay the most,[iii] and then just a few months ago, the Department of Education released data on the earnings of alumni by institution, for all students who receive federal grants or loans. These data can be further analyzed, as we have done, to estimate the economic contribution of schools (or value-added) as distinct from the outcomes attributable to student characteristics (like test scores).

This approach is perfectly fine, if one plans on attending a vocational school.

The assumption that college is a place you go to get job training (and if you can afford it, a social life on a pretty campus) explains so much of what is wrong not just with higher education, but with American institutions in general.

Let me be very clear: there is nothing wrong with job training. There is nothing wrong with colleges helping students acquire marketable skills. But that is not their mission. Their mission is education. 

We live in an age where a candidate for President feels free to sneer at philosophers because they make less than plumbers. (Actually, Mr. Rubio, they don’t, but that’s beside the point.) We live in an age where politicians and pundits can and do make ridiculous, factually inaccurate statements secure in the knowledge that only a few “pointy-headed intellectuals” (i.e., people who read and think) will notice or care, an age where ideologues can distort history with impunity because no one has studied it, and cite the Constitution for propositions that would make the Founders turn over in their graves, because their only acquaintance with it is a vague memory of a week in high school government class.

Only in a country that has lost respect for the life of the mind and for intellectual integrity would the Senate vote to deny man’s contribution to climate change. (Perhaps they can vote on the value of Pi next. The Indiana legislature once did that. Or on whether the earth orbits the sun.)

In saner times, we valued knowledge of the arts, literature and philosophy, knowledge of other cultures, science. We valued knowledge for its own sake—and we studied the world in order to understand it, not just in order to make money.

A college that turns out excellent philosophers, artists, musicians, anthropologists and public administrators is probably not going to have alumni earning the highest median wages. That tells prospective students absolutely nothing about the quality of the institution.

I agree that prospective students should research colleges, but not to determine how much their graduates earn.

Here are some questions students should ask:  How good are the professors? How selective is the admissions process and how diverse the student body—will you be studying with people whose conversations will enrich your own understanding and broaden your horizons? How large are the classes? Will you be able to interact with your professors, or will you be in oversized lecture halls tended largely by TAs? Will you emerge with a better understanding of the world you inhabit, and an enhanced ability to be a contributing and thoughtful citizen? 

I’ve said it before: If your only concern is job training, go to trade school.

Producing Educated Citizens–or Worker Bees?

A recent, lengthy post at Talking Points Memo blames conservatives, liberals and accrediting agencies for a decline in the excellence of American higher education–a decline that is widely remarked upon.

First comes conservatives seeking a corporate transformation or restructuring of higher education. One option comes through the rise of for-profit private colleges, offering a game plan of expensive tuition and pricey administrators, delivered mostly with low cost adjunct professors in often cookie-cutter, interchangeable curriculum delivered online.

This is Fordism coming to higher education… The other option is traditional schools adopting this model; employing business leaders to run schools and developing cost containment policies aimed mostly at standardizing curriculum. It is top-down decision-making premised upon treating faculty no differently than an assembly line worker….The result: a market-driven product devoid of innovation, creativity, and intellectual challenge.

Liberals come second, often joined by religious conservatives, bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one. Captured in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” there is a push to insulate students from ideas and words that they do not like. Across the country schools are adopting policies demanding trigger warnings or alerting faculty to forms of microaggression that students find objectionable. The result is not only an erosion of academic freedom but a curriculum that is uninteresting and devoid of learning.

Finally comes the accrediting agencies who have taken the assessment lessons from K-12 and are imposing them on higher education. They demand schools measure and test students and curriculum by developing a complex process of goals, objectives, rubrics.

I would add to these indictments a more foundational issue: until we reach agreement on what we mean by education, we will never be able to focus on the question of how best to provide it.

Far too many “education reformers” at all levels fail to recognize the fundamental difference between genuine education and job training–between intellectual flowering and the inculcation of skills needed by the marketplace. It doesn’t help that state legislatures and Commissions on Higher Education focus on graduation rates and  employment metrics to the exclusion of all else.

Evidently, if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.

It’s probably heresy for a Professor to say this, but not every high school graduate is a candidate for college. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s important and entirely legitimate– and such training can meet the needs of a number of students. If we were to reserve the university experience for young people who display intellectual curiosity, a capacity for serious scholarship and/or a demonstrable passion for the life of the mind, both the institutions and their graduates would benefit.

As a bonus, we could trim those bloated administrations, disabuse ourselves of the notion that educational institutions should be “run like businesses,” and stop coddling students who demand protection against ideas they find threatening.

Ideas can be right or wrong, comforting or offensive–but to find any idea “threatening” is a signal that one is unfit to be educated.


When Does the University Stop Being Public?

The role and function of universities is increasingly a topic of discussion, and there is plenty to discuss. College costs have soared, student loan debt is at an all-time and dangerous high, and people are asking–reasonably–whether the product is worth the cost. The standards for making that determination are frequently misplaced; I’ve posted before my own frustration with those who see no difference between education and job training.

Meanwhile, state legislators routinely issue critiques and mandates. (This shouldn’t surprise those of us in higher education, since the General Assembly evidently considers itself a 150-person school board for K-12. This year it’s thou shalt teach cursive. A few years ago it was phonics.) Some of those legislative critiques are justified; most state universities could do with a leaner, meaner administrative structure. Many others betray an appalling lack of understanding of what a university is about.

One question that doesn’t seem to occur to these legislative overlords is: why should they have the ability to dictate university policies at all?

The assumed response to such a question is “because those institutions are supported by the state. It’s the Golden Rule: he who has the gold, rules.” But that assumption is getting thin indeed. State support is currently 11% of the budget at my university, and we are no anomaly. The vast majority of our funding comes from other sources: primarily tuition and fees, research grants, and fundraising.

This situation raises an interesting question: when do state universities cease being public? At what point does it make more sense for an institution of higher education to assess the considerable costs imposed by legislative mandates, compare those costs to the dwindling benefits of state financial support–and declare themselves private?

When children become self-supporting, they can declare themselves emancipated.