Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Outrageous Reality of University

By Professor Doom

     Most people think education is the great equalizer, that in a society where everyone is equally educated to the highest levels, everything will be perfectly equal in all other ways. It’s a silly utopian dream, and a recent article highlights the reality of higher education today, although it misses quite a few things.

The number of Americans between ages twenty-five and twenty-nine holding a four-year college degree rose from one in twenty in 1940 to one in four by 1977. And if the federal government did much to make this happen, the states did more. Led by California, which virtually guaranteed college access to every high school graduate, many states committed themselves to providing high-quality public education at low cost.

     Although this is a well-researched article, I’d have to put a [citation needed] after that “high-quality” part, and I’m sure “low cost” means to the state, not to the taxpayer. In over 25 years of teaching at the college/university level, I’ve never had a single administrator tell me to improve quality. Improve retention, improve the number of butts-in-seats? More times than I can count. But cover more material, ask more of the students, anything like that? No way, and having seen so many faculty let go or at least punished for trying to provide a quality education, I’d really like to see some evidence of a commitment to high-quality education, to contradict what I’ve seen with my own eyes.

“…highly selective colleges like those of the Ivy League, students from the bottom income quartile in our society make up around 5 percent of the enrollments. This meager figure is often explained as the consequence of a regrettable reality: qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply do not exist in significant numbers…”

     Yeah, no kidding, rich people go to the nicer schools. I reckon the author would be surprised to learn that rich people tend to stay in nicer hotels, drive nicer cars, and eat nicer food. Yes, this is reality, but it’s a reality that’s been around for thousands of years now.

“…Their numbers, which Hoxby and Avery estimate at between 25,000 and 35,000 of each year’s high school seniors, “are much greater than college admissions staff generally believe,” in part because most such students get little if any counseling in high school about the intricate process of applying to a selective college—so they rarely do…”

     I can’t help but suspect the article has some sort of agenda here. There are 20,000,000 college students right now. The existence of 30,000 low income students that aren’t applying to top tier schools is pretty minor, only accounting for around 0.15% of college students. That’s what “do not exist in significant numbers” means, after all. Maybe the poor shouldn’t go deep into debt for these top tier schools, maybe the guidance counselors realize that poor families just don’t have the resources to send their kids across the country, much less pay for all the other expenses associated with college, and so it makes more sense to get the promising student to apply to the local college, where he’ll have a much better chance of getting a scholarship. The whole point of each state setting up a local university system was to serve the local citizens; I don’t see the author’s cause for alarm about this aspect of the system only working for 99.85% of the population.

      We’re only talking about 0.15% of college students here. This may be the reality of higher education, but there are many larger issues to consider than the possibility of some tiny minority not being sent to the top schools.

As a result, the cost of public higher education has shifted markedly from taxpayers to students and their families, in the form of rapidly rising tuition.

     The article justifies this, but I have to disagree. The cost hasn’t really shifted, so much as gone up so extravagantly that families have to pay more. For example, about $14 billion was spent on Pell Grants in 2007, but by 2011 it was over $41.5 billion. That’s a huge increase over 4 years, the amount of time to get a degree. The reality is the money flowing into higher education isn’t going anywhere near higher education. Instead, it’s mostly supporting a huge administrative bureaucracy, gigantic money-losing sportsball programs, and bloated remedial programs in giant lecture halls that don’t actually help students….as longtime readers of my blog already know.
These are indefensible realities in a nation that claims to believe in equal opportunity. Yet some people look at this picture and say that the whole idea of mass higher education was misguided from the start—that the United States should have emulated instead the European model of test-based tracking by which a select few are chosen early in life for university training that leads to public service or the professions, while the rest are channeled into vocational schools or the trades.

     While I’m not necessarily advocating for the European model, the author is revealing a bias. Yes, it is a “select few,” that go into the obscure academic training, but the selection process is self-selecting: those that want to go, and can demonstrate an interest and aptitude, can go. For free. Do we really need to send everyone to school to learn the mating habits of the Southeastern Swamp Centipede? What’s so bad about only “letting” the people that want to learn such things do so?

      In the United States, the model is “those that want a check, and can click off a box saying they want a degree, can go.” It’s a different process, and has led to schools basically emptying out after check day, when the checks are delivered, and to nomadic bands of students that go from school to school, collecting those checks.

      That’s the reality of higher education in the US: bands of fake students taking fake courses in (often) fake institutions, while the administrative caste skims off the top, in layers so thick that it’s more fair to consider that only a thin layer on the bottom is going to the actual students being educated.

Too few are challenged or given guidance and encouragement. Cheating is common, including at elite private colleges and the so-called public flagships

     Yeah, no kidding. The “Butts in Seats” payment model means that anything that would conflict with having butts in seats (like tossing cheaters, or challenging students to learn anything) is removed from campus. The reality is that higher education is no longer controlled by educators, but instead by an administrative caste who is, quite literally, paid based on the number of butts in seats.

In 2012, thirty-six private university presidents earned more than a million dollars—some a lot more—and many supplement their salaries with “service” on corporate boards. Especially in straitened times, these excesses are, to say the least, tasteless. They make presidential homilies urging students to put aside selfishness ring hollow. But they contribute only marginally to the college “cost disease.”

     Finally, the article starts to get close to the reality. Yes, the millions of dollars thrown away on ridiculously overpaid Poo Bahs is only a drop in the bucket, but it’s indicative of a system that is out of control…there’s just no need to pay this kind of money in a wildly noncompetitive system where the customers are willing and, through the student loan scam, able to pay anything for a high falutin’ degree of minimal worth.

     A few dozen million-a-year Poo Bahs aren’t much…but then you must figure in the vast administrative bureaucracy…there are more administrators on campus than there are faculty, and it isn’t just the Poo Bah who gets ridiculous pay. The gentle reader is invited to look at the median pay for college administrators in 2012, and see with his own eyes that a salary of $200,000 or more was common enough then—even assistants typically broke $100,000!--and is assuredly more common now. Toss in that all too often nobody can even tell you what rare, special, skill these people have to justify the pay, and I think the reality of higher education becomes all the more obvious. Toss in tens of thousands of these grossly overpaid deanlings, and it becomes ludicrous to say this contributes “only marginally” to the cost of higher education.

     The general theme of the article is that the rising cost of college is hurting “the poor” the most, and I suppose it is. The author’s unwillingness to consider that the student loan scam, which was instituted primarily to help poor people pay for college, has, in fact, caused the cost to rise ever more. Thus, it would be far more reasonable to get rid of the thing hurting students. Does the gentle reader suspect the author will come to this conclusion, or will the author instead think the solution will be to pour more government money on higher education?

     Next time we’ll find out.

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