Why Higher Education Isn’t Better Than It Is

On why higher education quality is poorer than it should be:

When instead school systems consolidated, when some children were channeled into more “academic” and others into “vocational” tracks, when professionalizing educators increasingly monopolized decisions about methods and curricula and spawned a distinct class of administrators, and especially when taxpayers decided they would prefer to buy bigger cars and houses for themselves instead of paying for smaller classes and better-compensated teachers for their children, almost all of the characteristics necessary for pragmatist education vanished.
– James T. Kloppenberg. “James’s Pragmatism and American Culture.” Indiana University Press. p. 29.

That is so very true about higher education today and similar things could be said about the state of most of our institutions. In higher education we have the wrong priorities in two key areas.

The Wrong Priorities On Staffing

The problem in higher education today is not the professor-student ratio, it’s the administrator-student ratio. Two decades ago there was one administrator for every 125 students, now it is one administrator for every 78 students. Meanwhile administrator salaries are significantly increasing. It is now typical for a college to pay its president the equivalent of what they pay adjunct faculty for 80-100 course sections. With adjuncts teaching over half the classes at many schools, the increase in tuition is not because of costs of faculty. The proliferation of administrators and their inflated salaries is driving tuition costs up while providing little benefit to the schools and their students.

I want to share one anecdotal illustration about the “distinct class of administrators.” I am aware of a local college (I do not teach there) where the college president is paid $249,000 a year. Two-thirds of that college’s courses are taught by adjunct professors who the college pays an average of $2,460 per course. That means that an adjunct professor has to teach 101 courses before the college would pay them the same as they pay one administrator. If the adjunct taught the maximum allowable six courses per academic year, they’d have to teach for 17 years to get paid what the president gets paid in one year. This is a typical situation in higher education today. Even more incredible than those statistics is that no one even thinks to question the assumption that the college president provides more value to the educational process than do 101 adjunct taught courses. Some colleges and universities pay their presidents, chancellors, and vice-presidents far more than a quarter million a year.

 

The Wrong Priorities On Students

There is another disturbing trend in higher education that was noted as far back as 2010. The New York Times published an article entitled Share of College Spending for Recreation Is Rising that speaks to some of the same complaints I have made.

Yes, you read that right, colleges are spending more money on recreation activities for young people who allegedly are students. These “schools” now spend more money on leisure than on academics for their “students.” Granted, with tuition escalating so much college is an expensive vacation, but that is what it is fast becoming. I am not surprised by the study’s findings. I have seen this extravagant spending on recreation for students first hand. Here is a photo I took of a university’s current construction project.

I will not name the university (I do not teach there) to protect the innocent, but this same university that is building this six-figure megaplex has in the past year: refused to increase faculty and staff pay to keep up with inflation, cut teaching assistant positions by one-third, has not upgraded 50-year old classrooms or replaced faulty electronic equipment, and decreased the number and amount of student aid while increasing student tuition. But they found millions to build a gentrified health club, complete with “bar and social area.”

Most colleges and universities now see their students as customers to be coddled and satiated and academics is being left behind. Higher education is sold as a commodity and the commodity marketed as an experience similar to how a resort would market itself. Instead of spending money on helping students learn, colleges and universities spend money on helping students play.

Colleges and universities are now measured less on academic performance than on “student satisfaction.” Hotels should be measured on customer satisfaction. It is time to stop treating higher education as a kind of resort.  Too many administrators are more worried about avoiding student complaints than about upholding academic standards. Professors are put in the difficult position of having the job of enforcing academic standards but not being adequately supported by their institution when they do and students comlain. Colleges have de-emphasized learning and academic standards in favor of what they call “retention”–a “get their money and keep them in school” mentality. Students should be required to perform or lose their place, not coddled to keep the tuition dollars flowing.

For those students who do perform, there should be a reward. College should be free for students who can demonstrate academic ability and can fulfill academic requirements once they are in college. That’s the system most other nations have – the ones passing us in level of higher education quality.

 

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