Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Hacker and Dreifus have written a highly readable and often compelling description of the status of education received by students working towards a bachelor’s degree, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do about It. The style of the writing is highly anecdotal. Facts and figures are presented, but at the level that you might expect in a good newspaper article rather than in an academic document. This approach yields lively and interesting text. The existence of the question mark in the title suggests that they are dubious of the quality of the education being provided. The authors have strong opinions on what is the appropriate curriculum for eighteen-to-twenty-two year old students. I do not agree with them, but that does not detract from the important information they provide.

To resolve the question mark in the title, it is necessary for the authors to specify what they consider to be “higher education.” In their view the only worthwhile endeavor for post high school students is four years of a liberal arts education. They refer to this as “pursuing the life of the mind.” Anything that would lead to specialized knowledge or furtherance of a career goal is dismissed as “vocational training.” We have discussed this contention in detail here, and need not dwell on it now.

The contention that colleges are “wasting our money” brings the cost of education immediately into focus. As the authors point out, a four year degree at a major college can end up costing over a quarter of a million dollars. The reason why education costs that much is only vaguely related to the expenses accrued in teaching courses to the students.
“Here are a few more tuition prices for the 2008-9 academic year: Dartmouth College, $37,250; NYU, $37,372; Barnard, $37,538; Haverford, $37,525; Penn, $37,376; University of Chicago, $37,632; Williams College, $37,640; Mount Holyoke, $37,646; Pitzer College, $37,870; University of Southern California, $37,890. Notice anything odd? The margin of difference among them is less than 2 percent—1.7 percent to be exact. Since these schools differ in characteristics and locales, what accounts for their fees being so close? Barnard and USC are urban, where expenses tend to run high, but Pitzer and Dartmouth are semirural. Williams has triple the per capita endowment of Mount Holyoke, yet their sticker prices are only six dollars apart.”
The schools have concluded that they must compete with other schools on the size of the tuition bill, not on who is most economical. Parents are still willing to pay top dollar if they think they are going to get top quality in return. Unfortunately, they associate low cost with low quality. If the Ivy League schools raise their tuitions, then others will also in order to be perceived as being in the same league. That is the mechanism whereby comparable colleges end up having comparable tuitions.

Colleges will claim that the tuition they charge comes no where near to covering the cost of educating the students. The biggest cost is the salary of tenured professors. It is true that a school will have to pay top dollar for a respected professor, but that professor actually spends little time teaching. Professors are recruited because they bring fame and/or fortune to the college. Whether or not they are good teachers is rarely a concern. The author quotes some figures from Yale University where an average professor earns $174,700 per year. At Yale
“....professors in departments like economics and psychology teach two and one. So in one semester they have only one class.....Yale also gives them what it calls a ‘triennial leave of absence.’ After five semesters of teaching they have a fully paid semester off. So the workload [teaching] of Yale’s professors works out to 213 annual hours in a classroom or their office.....Yale’s hourly rate is $820.”

The authors counter objections to this line of reasoning by pointing out that most of the heavy lifting in grading papers and running study sessions is actually done by graduate students. They dismiss the time professors spend on research as irrelevant for undergraduate education.

So—professors get paid a lot and spend little time teaching. That might be acceptable if undergraduates encountered one of these highly paid individuals every time they entered a classroom.

The authors devote a good deal of space to the subject of contingent teachers. This term refers to part-time or temporary teachers who are not on a tenure track and are not on the same pay scale as professors. Contingent teachers come in a variety of flavors: instructors and lecturers, visiting faculty, adjuncts, and teaching assistants. The quality of these teachers may be quite good, but for the tuition that is being paid one has the right to demand that lofty professor.
“ we write this in 2010, the bulk of the undergraduate teaching at our nation’s colleges and universities is performed by part-timers, a fact we note in both sorrow and anger. Twenty-first century freshmen are finding that many, if not most, of their basic classes are likely to be conducted by contingents....In 1975, the first year the U.S. Department of Education kept statistics in this area, only 43 percent of college teachers were classified as contingents. Today it’s nearly 70 percent.”
Cost is the driver here, as well as professorial prerogative. Most professors don’t wish to spend their time teaching undergraduates. The number of professors to teach all the necessary sections at one class per semester would be enormous. The consequent response is to give the professors what they want and demand, and hire temporary staff and pay them as little as possible. The Yale example has a professor earning the equivalent of $820 an hour. The authors found temporary staff whose equivalent earning was almost down to the minimum wage. They also found examples of advanced undergraduates picking up some of the teaching load.

Professors are not treated well in this volume. The authors provide an interesting chapter on the subject of tenure. Tenure is supposed to protect professors from being persecuted for espousing unpopular opinions. What it ends up being is a guarantee of lifetime employment.
“We have scoured all the sources we could find, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors, yet we could not find any academic research whose findings led to terminating the jobs of college faculty members.”
Faculty members do get in trouble because of their opinions, but it is always in an arena separate from their school teaching and research. The authors also conclude that if the powers that be wish to get rid of you they will terminate you whether you have tenure or not. The conclusion is that tenure serves no useful purpose. In fact, it produces a highly negative effect on both research and teaching.
“So long as we have the lifetime safeguard, the centerpiece of academic culture will be the tenure quest and not the education of students or, indeed, the pursuit of knowledge undistorted by fears and careers.”
An assistant professor hired on a tenure track has to work very hard to impress the resident professors in his field. Prolific publishing and bringing in money in the form of grants are very good things. Spending a lot of time with undergraduates, or challenging a cherished notion of a full professor is a very bad thing.

The authors’ solution is a good one: hire everyone on multiyear contracts. The protections of tenure can be built into the contract, but only for the duration of the contract. As professors get older the terms can be modified so that either teachers are encouraged to ramp down towards retirement, or they are paid consistent with their current productivity.

There is also an interesting chapter on college athletics. Not surprisingly, the authors view them as a waste of money, both for the students and the university. Students enjoy the school sports teams if they are there, but indications are they would have just as satisfying a college experience without them. Supporting sports teams can be very expensive and the athletic departments almost always lose money. If the intention is to promote more contributions from alumni, there is little evidence that sports have the desired effect. They do provide the negative consequence of costly non-academic competition between schools.

What do the authors say we can do about this state of affairs—other than only studying the liberal arts? What is the “what we can do about it” promised in the books subtitle? The one practical bit of advice they provide is that ultimate achievement in life is not a function of how much money one paid in tuition. One can do just as well graduating from a less expensive school and taking some courses at a community college.

The authors provide a number of lofty and impractical goals that would disassemble our colleges and universities and rebuild them almost from scratch. Besides eliminating competitive athletics and tenure, they would also like to eliminate “vocational training” and research. They wish to lower costs sufficiently that students can afford to go to college without taking out loans, and to aim for universal college education. It is hard to see how this is likely to happen in any reader’s lifetime. Universal college education is a good goal to aim for, but the authors have not provided a viable path forward.

The authors provide much useful information about what are the problems, but their solutions are at best impractical, and at worst—silly. One of their most memorable lines in complaining about “vocational training” seems to suggest that society really doesn’t need more scientists and engineers.
“The worry is that our workforce—including college graduates—isn’t ready for a high tech age. At this point, we’d only ask, if our economy needs more scientists and engineers, why students aren’t enrolling.”

1 comment:

  1. Hello Rich: Thank you for giving our book such a thoughtful reading. Best, Claudia Dreifus


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