Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Future of Education: Right-Sizing?

By Professor Doom

     It takes little effort to realize that what’s going on in higher education today: instead of focusing on education, our universities and colleges instead focus on growth. More students, more buildings, more, more, more, moremoremore. Administrators believe everyone should be in school, always and forevermore.

     Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe human beings should, if they do desire, gain the education they desire…but this is already available. Public libraries have been around for ages, and the internet offers pretty much all the knowledge of humanity for free, or nearly so. Despite that, I still believe universities, institutions of higher education (whatever that means), still have a place in the modern world. Professional training centers also make much sense; there are many practical skills that are best learned by having a real human being, a teacher, right there with the student, helping him understand how to do things properly. Universities and classrooms aren’t even remotely the only way to learn, not that an administrator will admit it.

     But how many such institutions do we need, and how large should they be? This is an impossible question to answer, of course, but I do fear that the student loan scam has caused a massive over-investment in our higher education infrastructure. It isn’t just multi-hundred million dollar building projects on mostly abandoned campuses on North Dakota or billion dollar projects in population-losing Michigan that concern me, this phenomenon is widespread. I’ve seen so many pictures of those fake, empty cities in China, and people laugh that China could engage in such wild fraud…but nobody is laughing at what’s going on in our institutions.

      Many Americans thinks this country is immune to the level of fraud in China, but people don’t realize something similar is going on here. As an academic, I’ve been on quite a few university campuses, and I’m often surprised at how empty they seem, at times when they should not be empty. Yes, I know that on weekends, and between semesters, campuses tend to have few people on them…I imagine Disney World isn’t crowded at 3am, either. On the other hand, I’ve been on campus, at noon, when classes are in session, and almost all the classrooms are completely empty…I then pick up the school paper and read how the campus is “filled to capacity”, justifying slapping up another building named after another Poo-Bah. 

      I realize many of my gentle readers might find such a claim hard to believe. I’ve honestly thought about taking pictures, but a picture does a poor job of indicating time of day…I just don’t think such pictures would be convincing.

      Anyway, almost every administrator I spoke to talks of growth, growth at all costs, growth, growth, and only growth is all that an administrator cares about. I fear the student loan scam has already financed higher education past the point of no return, but let’s focus on what an administrator has to say.    

     This administrator is at least a little different. Occasionally an administrator stops rubbing student enrollment reports on himself long enough to consider that, maybe, we’ll reach a point of unsustainability, and this one comes close. The author I’m quoting is William Patrick Leonard, executive vice-dean at SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea. 

     Hmm, “executive vice-dean”.  In this blog I’ve quoted deans, assistant deans, associate deans, senior associate deans, and there are quite a few levels of deanlinghood suggested by those titles that I haven’t touched on. Honest, higher education could be much, much, cheaper if we didn’t have legions of administrators sucking up all the money.

     Speaking of money, I’ll bet you a lot of it that Mr. Leonard won’t be advocating a reduction in administration as a fix to higher education. Granted, having read the article, I have an unfair advantage, but having never heard an administrator suggest anything besides reduce the quality of education, I would have bet the same had I not read the article.

    Anyway, allow me to comment and clarify what he has to say:

Many tertiary institutions in the United States are facing an uncertain financial future.”
--“tertiary” means anything past high school.

     Absolutely true. Because all institutions expanded, and expanded, and expanded, counting on endless growth, many of them are now in very serious trouble—the simultaneous hyper-expansion of all our institutions has put them all in an unsustainable situation. It isn’t merely the weaker economy, although the steadily weakening state support is certainly a factor. The problem is there are only so many suckers you can put into this system, and we’ve just about got them all, now…and kept building as though the growth could possibly continue. Our institutions now have the capacity to “teach” perhaps 60,000,000 students without really pushing classrooms past capacity, more like 200,000,000 when you factor in all the bogus online coursework. We’ve only got 300,000,000 people in the United Sates. I honestly don’t know the capacity, but every campus I’ve been on could support triple the population it has now (assuming admin would hire faculty at half the rate they hire more admin), and there are around 20,000,000 college students now.

     Trouble is, we’re massively overbuilt, and the maintenance costs alone on all those huge buildings (not to mention the legions of administrators that fill them) makes it difficult for the institutions to survive if revenue drops even a little. We’re at the point now that our institutions are simply cannibalizing each other’s students.

     Class sizes are as large as they can go, teacher pay is as low as it can go…and we no longer can count on insane growth. So how do the administrators expect to pay for themselves in the face of these problems? Raising tuition still more is also a problem:

Government officials, college students, parents and other traditional supporters appear to be less willing to accept unquestioningly ever-increasing subsidies and tuition fees than they have been in recent decades.

     The administrator is correct. People are looking at the $80,000 or so that 4 years of tuition costs, and saying “no more.” What the administrator is leaving out, however, is that it’s not merely the cost that’s a problem…it’s the FACT that most of the “education” being sold is worthless. 

     I’m teaching loads and loads of differential equations this year, section after section, while decades ago, when I taught at a school with a famous engineering program (and 25k students), there were like 3 sections for the whole department. Why the change? Because my students need the course for their petroleum engineering degrees—such a degree merits a very high paying job, right now, thanks to the (probably short term) shale oil boom. I wish students the best and hope I’m wrong about the longevity of shale oil, but I promise you, the students paying this money are doing it because their degree at least might be worth the money. Don’t tell admin, but I bet the students would pay more, because they’re learning something they at least sort of need.

Even the elite University of California, Berkeley’s plan to increase tuition fees by 5% through to the end of the decade has drawn unprecedented criticism.

--hey, if there was any investment today that offered a safe 5% return, so that parents could keep up with tuition, this might not be so bad, right? Question: how does the government keep insisting inflation is 1.5% when all the big ticket items and most of the smaller items keep going up far more than 1.5% every year? I remember being a stockbroker in the 80s, trying, and failing, to sell 10%+ CDs all day long. Good lord I wish I had those CDs now. Anyway…

     Many institutions load their students down with junk degrees like Gender Studies, and parents and citizens are starting to realize, there’s just no need to spend that kind of money for degrees of no value in the marketplace…if their kids want personal growth, they can just go to the library read Gender Studies books, as many as they want, for free.

     So, the administrator is right that “people are unwilling to pay more tuition…” but he left out the blindingly obvious answer of “…because most of higher education is worthless.” Eh, I can forgive the guy for missing a detail. “Quality of education” has never been an administrative priority.

     Instead of considering the obvious reason why people are unwilling to pay more tuition, the administrator considers other possibilities that’ll keep our bloated higher education administration comfortable. It’s an interesting look into an administrative mind that, at the very least, is capable of far more than simply saying “we need more GROWTH!”

     We’ll consider his answer, next time.



  1. 10% CDs when inflation was raging was worthless. :)

    1. Eh, inflation was in the area of 10% at most in the late 80s...on the other hand, CD's today aren't coming close to the rate of inflation (the real rate, not the government-reported rate, which is almost unrelated to "inflation" as it was defined 20+ years ago)..

    2. Exactly!

      They re-engineered inflation statistics to remove food and fuel and so we have raging inflation with ups and downs while the bankers offer ZIRP for savings. And the Federal Reserve (sic) prints money like a crazed drug addict. :)

  2. Here's a recent news item related to this:

    Why is it that, while tuitions keep rising, the general public isn't questioning this?

    1. Good link, I might have to base a post around it. Thanks!