Tuesday, February 28, 2006

No Tuition Left Behind

Okay, so if this wasn't a boring enough blog, I am going to finally explain just what has happened to higher education in the last decade. Because, if anything should be obvious by now, it should be obvious that I have a very bad feeling about where higher ed in general is going. This is not a slam on my specific University, but hopefully will illuminate national trends that I see as being endemic, serious, and worth fighting.

So, What the Hell Happened to Higher Ed in the Last Decade?

1. The states have slowly defunded universities. So, if a university recieved 35% of its operating budget from the state in 1996, it's entirely likely that they recieve 25% now. I do not see this as being as apocalyptic as some academics do, but it's clearly had an effect in universities.

2. The universities have generally not responded to the defunding very well. What they've generally done are a few things: they've raised tuition, increased the number of courses that are taught by TAs, and increased admissions. Most have not, however, cut any major programs, or even let go of senior faculty, who in many cases do not teach any courses anymore, but who still command salaries in the six figures! It's common to see profs who make this much each year who teach one seminar annually. Let me now consider the other solutions universities have put in place...

3. They have raised tuition. Great God almighty have they raised tuition! In our state, there are universities that charge double what they did ten years ago for an education. Can you name another institution that has doubled its cost in ten years without adding any noticeable value?

4. Moreover, they have slowly replaced full-time faculty with TAs, who are cheaper, but who have no real experience teaching. So, as a student, you're paying twice as much to be taught by TAs. Many schools have added "perks", like free concerts by Snoop Dogg or whoever to give the school a "summer camp" feel. But, I cannot think of any area where educational content has improved. TAs save money, but actual contact with senior faculty could have a real impact on a student's education.

5. They have increased admissions. Many universities actually make this a goal: "5,000 more students in the next 5 years, or bust!" But, what happens is that they're covering the debt with more students, who are coming in less and less ready for college. So, we now we find that at least 50% of our incoming students cannot make sense out of things that they read. 50%! Just ten years ago, I think you could expect students to enter college with proficient literacy. But, not any more. And yet, in order to keep the machine running, there is an incredible emphasis placed on "retention", which is a fancy way of saying "pass them through, ready or not!" So, incredibly, they come out of university unable to read! According to the Department of Education, only 31% of college graduates can read proficiently.

What students pick up on is that, increasingly, it really doesn't matter what they do here. If they work hard in a course, they get an A. But, if they don't even try, they'll at least get a B. As the standards have dropped, the "curve" has declined significantly. Instead of refocusing our attention on educational quality, or even figuring out what the hell students should be learning in a university, and then enlisting the public in our struggle to return to those standards, universities have generally tried to make higher ed more "fun", because students who have fun give higher reviews to their professors, and more importantly, pay for four years.

It is "No tuition left behind", and it is failing. At this point, some of us believe that there is no real difference between High School and the first two years of university. The idea that this declining quality, this "deal" with the students- "Give us your money and good reviews and we promise not to make you work too hard"- won't be noticed, when our graduates go into the corporate world needing remedial reading and writing courses, is just crazy. Again, if there's anything important to what I write here, it's simply this- Education cannot be both a moral good and a marketable good and expect to survive.


Hiromi said...

Your blog isn't boring, but it sure as hell is depressing.

What is the reading level of your students like? The ones that read, I mean.

Rufus said...

Yeah, Claire's been saying it's getting depressing too. It's funny too, because I'm actually a very silly person usually. But, I'm getting a lot of black moods lately, very much related to my being a true believer in learning and being way too idealistic about it.

I would guess that no more than %50 of my students can sit down, read an article, and comprehend its meaning. Usually, it's about that many when we make them do it for a grade. Judging by the exams, I'd guess that no more than 10% have ever read the text, and perhaps less than that ever read books at all outside of class.

This also contributes to my black moods. I think I'm going to make an attempt to post good news about my life more often.

Believe it or not, I'm actually very affable in the classroom. Humorous

Hiromi said...

"I would guess that no more than %50 of my students can sit down, read an article, and comprehend its meaning."


I guess the people I hang out with are carefully pre-screened or something, because this is just shocking.

I'm also one of those unhappy people who believe in learning for its own sake. You know, for fun and self-improvement. Outside my little circle, people find this weird, and we don't really have much to say to each other.

Rufus said...

What bothers me isn't that people don't know anything. It's that they're self-righteous about not knowing anything.

As for the 50%- which you'll notice I got right on the nose- my problem isn't really that 50% come out of High School unable to do the reading that they need to in Univeristy. That's deplorable as well. But, what really bothers me is that big State Mall Universities take pretty much everyone who applies. The attitude seems to be: "Well, they might not be ready for College, but they're ready to pay us the tuition!" It's a very cynical business model that measures academic success solely in getting them in and keeping them for four years. And, in general, I suspect that it makes college miserable for the other 50%.