Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The real crisis in higher education

A much-discussed concern about undergraduate education in the U.S. is the expense, which in real terms has increased dramatically over the past several decades. There may be a number of reasons for this, each of which deserves attention. Undoubtedly one of those reasons is that the percentage of Americans obtaining a college education has risen significantly. In the most basic economic terms, increased demand for a good or service tends to increase the price, since more resources must be drawn away from other uses that are of value. Rather than focusing on how to pay for an undergraduate education for all that desire it, I suggest reconsidering why students are going to college, what they are actually getting from it, and what potential alternatives might exist. A problem with higher education, perhaps the most pressing problem, is that there are too many students in college.

I do think that everyone should have the opportunity to go to college, and that this opportunity should not only be available to those whose parents are in the higher end of the income distribution. More generally, young men and women should have some path to success, however they envision it. One person might value intellectual growth for its own sake, another might want to change the world, and another might want a rewarding career and a comfortable income. There is nothing wrong with any of those goals, but college shouldn't have to be on the path to all of them.

To be precise, I am not thinking of higher education in the broadest sense, i.e. any kind of post-secondary education. I mean what Americans typically mean when they speak of a "college education": basically the liberal arts and its offshoots. The purpose of such an education, at least in the view of most of us involved in the provision of the education, is to expose students to different modes of thought and expression and to inculcate greater ability to implement these modes. I think that Reed College's mission statement puts it well: an undergraduate program "balances breadth of knowledge across the curriculum with depth of knowledge in a particular field of study. The goal... is that students learn and demonstrate rigor and independence in their habits of thought, inquiry, and expression." (I think that it is also a good idea for universities to play a role in students' moral and ethical development, especially insofar as these things are complementary to intellectual development on several levels; but that is tangential to this post.) In short, undergraduate education is meant to teach students to think better. This is what I would call a "liberal arts approach" to higher education, and this approach is often used in other fields. The natural or social sciences might be administratively housed in a division of the university that is separate from the liberal arts, but students in all of these areas typically share a core curriculum: the "breadth of knowledge" part is the same. Often it works the same way for more applied areas like engineering or business. In my own university, undergraduate business education is essentially treated as a specialization within a liberal arts curriculum. We're trying to foster the same kind of development in our students, but in a different context and with some specialized knowledge thrown in. That's the goal, anyway.

The potential benefits of this kind of education are many, including preparation for a wider variety of careers, doing things that are more complicated and interesting than what one might otherwise do for a paycheck. But the student can also benefit tremendously from a richer intellectual life, and a more educated populace benefits society at large in a number of ways.

With all that in mind, here is why I say that many students should not go to college:

1. They don't want what we have to give them. Many students see a college education simply as a means to an end. They want to get a good job, but they're not specifically interested in the learning part. This isn't a problem if the student is at least receptive to learning. I've had plenty of students in that category: not especially intellectually curious, but motivated and responsible. They'll do the things I tell them to do because they want to succeed on their own terms, but in the process will get at least some of the actual education I'm trying to impart. Other students are very resistant or even overtly hostile to the demands we place on them to learn to think in different ways. It's not difficult to see why. Higher learning is hard. Not only is it a lot of work, it also involves assaulting the ways of thinking to which one is accustomed. To someone not amenable to the whole process, it can be very uncomfortable.

Then of course there are those that are on board with the liberal arts approach. I wouldn't want to speculate about what proportion of students falls into each category (and they aren't discrete categories but rather a spectrum of characteristics). However, I feel confident in saying that there is at least a significant minority of students that are not interested in the substance of their college education. I would go a bit further to claim that for many students there isn't much chance that we can instill in them a desire to learn, as distinct from the desire to reap some of the external benefits of their education--but that's more speculative and is a topic for another day.

Point number one wouldn't necessarily be a problem if not for point number two:

2. They are not receiving what we are trying to give them. In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roska make the case that a large percentage of college students make little or no gains in the thinking abilities that their college education is meant to foster. I have not looked into this question in more depth--I'm sure there are other studies out there--but Arum and Roska's fundamental claim rings very true to me, based on my own experiences as an educator.

We are devoting a lot of resources, of several different kinds, to the attempt to educate students that is, in many cases, failing. Even for students making significant but small gains--which may be the case for the student that is responsible but not intellectually curious--there is still a question of whether it is worth it in terms of the resources consumed.

Again, points one and two apply only to a subset of students, and in my experience this subset encompasses every demographic group that one might specify. These students, I would say, should not be going to college at all. They should be doing something different. So what should they be doing instead? I have some ideas about that (well, one idea really), which will be the subject of a future post. The problem I see is that, in present-day American society, you have to get a college education in order to demonstrate that you are reasonably intelligent and responsible. Not having the education puts one at a huge disadvantage in the labor market. (Another subject for near-future consideration is how and why we got ourselves into this situation, although I'm not sure I have good answers to that.)

But I think that devising a viable alternative to the traditional undergraduate education should be a priority. The young man or woman that is only going to college as a means to the good career with the comfortable income should have some other way of getting there. We should not be focused on how to pay for college for everyone (although the expense is still a concern, and I don't think that reducing the demand is the only way to address this concern). We should also not be focused on finding innovative ways to educate students that do not want to be educated in the way we think they should be (I'll have more to say about that one later too).

Both of these have been very prominent issues inside and outside of academia--how do we teach better, and how do we make it more affordable--and are not related to each other in an obvious way. The relation becomes clear when we ask not just what students are getting out of their college education, but why they want to go to college in the first place. Both issues should lead us to consider what kinds of alternatives we can create.

So, lots more to come, especially on that latter question.

No comments:

Post a Comment