Institutions of higher education are under sustained attack by self-described “anti-woke” culture warriors, and those attacks understandably generate a protective response from those of us who value scholarship. That instinctive defense, however, shouldn’t morph into claims that all is well on the nation’s campuses.
All is not well. I say that as someone who spent the last 21 years of her work life on a university faculty.
Unfortunately, the current, contending critiques of college life are unproductive, because they occur within different realities. The crazed Right (DeSantis, et al) attacks scholarship itself, insisting that, to the extent instruction fails to support their preferred world-view, it is illegitimate.
They are wrong, and they are dangerous, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in the groves of academe. I recently came across an enumeration of those problems —a litany with which I entirely agree.
The linked Persuasion essay begins by reminding readers of the multiple, manifestly important contributions of the nation’s “more than 3700 colleges and universities.”
But then come the admissions:
But yes, higher education is deeply screwed up. College is way too expensive, costing twice as much, in real dollars, as it did in 1990, nearly three times as much as it did in 1970. Half of students—half!—fail to graduate within six years. Teaching sucks, and always has. Too much of it is done by adjuncts and other contingent instructors, who now make up three quarters of the faculty. There are far too many administrators—deans and deanlets and directors and diversocrats—peddling far too much administrative bullshit. Academic standards are abysmal. Between 1963 and 2013, average GPA rose from 2.5 to 3.15, even as the number of hours spent studying fell by half over roughly the same period. Selective institutions, the ones that produce our elite, are wildly class-stratified. At the top 200 schools, two-thirds of students come from the highest quarter of the income distribution, less than one-sixth from the lower half; at 38 schools, including most of the Ivies, more students come from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%.
it’s relatively easy to generate complaints, but the author, William Deresiewicz, also offers “fixes.”
First, make public college free. We used to do this. (We still do it for K-12, and no one thinks twice.) If you’re old enough, you remember when people were able to put themselves through school with a part-time minimum-wage job. The University of California, the greatest public system in the world, charged no in-state tuition before the 1970s. Neither did the City University of New York, home to City College, known for decades as “the poor man’s Harvard.” The idea that free college would be a giveaway to the rich, because only the rich go to college, gets it exactly backwards. Part of the reason that only the rich go to college—or, at least, go disproportionately to college—is because it costs so much….
Next, reverse the tide of adjunctification by tripling (at least) the tenure-track faculty. We shouldn’t have adjuncts at all, except for the limited purpose—to enable working professionals to teach the occasional course—for which they were originally intended. Adjuncts are paid like baristas, worked like farmhands, and treated like Kleenex. Their use is bad for students, bad for morale, and bad for recruitment into the profession.
There’s more. As he says, we need to make sure that professors actually know how to teach. (Doctorates focus on research, not pedagogy.) Cost-cutting would include dramatically reducing administrative staffs and capping the salaries of the remainder at the level of senior faculty. He’d eliminate intercollegiate athletics altogether– “Let the NBA and NFL (and WNBA and NWSL) pay for their own minor leagues.” And, finally, no more “amenities”: no luxury dorms, no climbing walls, no dining halls with carving stations.
His most important “fix,” in my opinion?
Most obviously, the “input” has to be improved. As of now, some 40-60% of entering students—another stunning figure—need remediation. Colleges, in other words, especially community colleges, are being tasked with giving freshmen the education that they should have received in high school. Improving K-12 (a monumental undertaking of its own) would also help reverse another dismal trend: credential creep. If a high school diploma actually meant something, employers wouldn’t feel the need to ask for quite so many bachelor’s degrees, and fewer people would have to go to college in the first place… And, of course, we need to rebuild vocational education—trade schools, training kids for high-skills, high-wage manual labor—in both high school and beyond.
In other words, let’s step back and remember what colleges are for–not job training, but intellectual exploration and expansion– inquiries that allow humans to learn and grow and successfully navigate an information environment produced by those who are “flooding the zone with shit.”