Monday, February 13, 2012

How valuable is a college education?

I noticed in President Obama's talk today on education and the economy the following statement, which I assume to be correct: Tuition at U.S. colleges and universities has been rising more than health care costs.

Along with problems of student drop outs and admission policies, the high cost of higher education is a major problem, especially in these hard times when getting a job is difficult, often impossible, for graduates, even in many "vocationally practical" areas, such as engineering. But the value of a college degree can't be limited to its job-earning potential.

A December letter by Ryan Walker in The New Yorker pointed out that enrollment at colleges between 1993 and 2007 increased by 15 percent and academic hiring of faculty by 18 percent. But what about the high-salaried administrators? Their ranks grew by 39 percent.

Walker, citing a recent study, notes what has been obvious to me as a university professor from the late sixties until 2003: that universities have changed into corporations that build expensive management structures with a swelling corps of high-paid deans, associate deans, assistant vice presidents, et al., most of them far removed from the world of students and learning.

If institutions of higher education would put less emphasis on management and more on the academic core--faculty and students--there might be more quality that's worth the price tag, and the tuition could be lowered if the swollen ranks of the administrators were trimmed.

When I joined the University of Central Florida faculty in 1970, it was a student-oriented school of about 8,000 students; now this same school has an enrollment of 58,000 students, with a largely disenchanted, underpaid and overworked faculty (reliant on many part-timers and exploited graduate students) who are urged to use distance learning whenever possible since classroom space is at a premium; so is attention to the individual student. And the tuition grows each year, sending many students to competing community or state colleges.

No wonder morale there is low--except among the highly paid administrative staff, which continues to grow. But does the student body grow in quality to match the increased numbers of administrators? The answer is obvious. Numbers drive funding, and money is always the chief, often sole, topic at faculty meetings with deans and provosts.

Last year, Anthony Grafton wrote a valuable article on the declining quality of college education in America. The problems he cited are alarming: students, who pay too much, are generally bored by what they are taught. They want to be entertained or amused in classes that will prepare them for a job market that keeps changing or shrinking. Few of the students are intellectually curious enough to open themselves up to new ways of thinking--unless forced to do so.

Gary Gutting of Notre Dame, in a New York Times op-ed piece, suggested that our support for high-priced education makes sense only if we define a college as a place where intellectual culture, what Newman called the life of the mind, is valued and nourished. Otherwise, we as a society should send our young people to vocational and trade schools.

So we have to ask ourselves if institutions dedicated to supporting the work of philosophers, physicists, and historians should continue to replicate themselves all over the land. We must find, Gutting says, instructors who do more than "make a subject interesting": they should be able to move students beyond their own limited interests by opening them up to new interests. The purpose of the teacher is not to fit his or her speciality to interests students already have but to stimulate the minds of those eager to learn to explore new paths.

In other words, we have to return to greater quality. A leaner administration, a creative faculty dedicated to creating enthusiasm for ideas, and students with open minds who want to learn, irrespective of future job prospects. This is, of course, a plea for a solid liberal arts curriculum, which educates rather than trains, which opens the mind rather than catering to everyone who has been convinced that the only way to succeed in America is to have a college degree, no matter how academically sound it is.

If we continue on this quest for universal higher education, the public will refuse to pay the growing tuition costs and demand answers to the all-important question, What is a college education for?

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