Why Higher Education Isn’t Better

There has been much talk bemoaning the state of higher education. Some blame professors, some blame students, some blame parents. Such complaints miss the larger picture and the larger social trend that has negatively affected higher education. When I hear these misguided complaints I think of this quote:

When instead school systems consolidated, when some children were channeled into more “academic” and others into “vocational” tracks, when professionalizing educators increasingly monopolized decisions about methods and curricula and spawned a distinct class of administrators, and especially when taxpayers decided they would prefer to buy bigger cars and houses for themselves instead of paying for smaller classes and better-compensated teachers for their children, almost all of the characteristics necessary for pragmatist education vanished.
— James T. Kloppenberg. “
.” Indiana University Press. p. 29.

That is so very true about higher education today and similar things could be said about most of our institutions. I have seen these trends that Kloppenberg mentions escalate since I began working as a lecturer in 1998. The split into two tiers of education — “academic” and “vocational” — is an old one and no entirely without merit. I wish to focus on the other two trends Kloppenberg mentions — the “distinct class of administrators” and funding priorities — two ways in which we have the wrong priorities in higher education.

The Wrong Priorities On Staffing

The problem in higher education today is not the professor-student ratio, it’s the administrator-student ratio. Two decades ago there was one administrator for every 70 students, now it is one administrator for every 20–25 students. And does not count the huge increases in “other professional staff,” where colleges are creating jobs with nebulous responsibilities. There are now as many as .

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At the same time, administrator salaries are significantly increasing. It is now typical for a college to pay its president the equivalent of what they pay adjunct faculty for 80–100 course sections. With adjuncts teaching over half the classes at many schools, the increase in tuition is not because of costs of faculty. The proliferation of administrators and staff and their inflated salaries is driving tuition costs up while what benefit they provide to the schools and their students is unclear.

I want to share one anecdotal illustration about this “distinct class of administrators.” I am aware of one university (I do not teach there) where the university president is paid $249,000 a year. Two-thirds of that school’s courses are taught by adjunct professors who the university pays an average of $2,460 per course. That means that an adjunct professor would have to teach 101 courses before the school would pay them the same as they pay this one administrator. If the adjunct taught the maximum allowable six courses per academic year, they’d have to teach for 17 years to get paid what the president gets paid in one year. This is not uncommon in higher education today.

Even more incredible than those statistics is that no one even thinks to question the assumption that the college president provides more value to the educational process than do 101 adjunct taught courses. Some colleges and universities pay their presidents, chancellors, and vice-presidents far more than a quarter million a year.

The Wrong Priorities On Students

There is another disturbing trend in higher education that was noted as far back as 2010. The New York Times published an article entitled that speaks to some of the same complaints I have made.

Yes, you read that right, colleges are spending more money on recreation activities for young people who allegedly are students. These schools now spend more money on leisure activities than on academic activities for their students. Granted, with tuition escalating so much college is an expensive vacation, but that is what it is becoming. I am not surprised by the study’s findings. I have seen this extravagant spending on recreation for students first hand. Here is a photo I took of a university’s construction project.

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I will not name the university (I do not teach there) to protect the innocent, but this same university that is building this six-figure megaplex has in the past year: refused to increase faculty and staff pay to keep up with inflation, cut teaching assistant positions by one-third, has not upgraded 50-year old classrooms or replaced faulty electronic equipment, and it has decreased the level of student aid while increasing student tuition. But they found millions to build a gentrified health club, complete with “bar and social area.”

Most colleges and universities now see their students as customers to be coddled and satiated and academics is being left behind. Higher education is sold as a commodity and the commodity marketed as an experience similar to how a resort would market itself. Instead of spending money on helping students learn, colleges and universities spend money on helping students play. This has led to the bizarre situation where .

Colleges and universities are now measured less on academic performance than on “student satisfaction.” Hotels should be measured on customer satisfaction. It is time to stop treating higher education as a kind of resort. Too many administrators are more worried about avoiding student complaints than about upholding academic standards. Professors are put in the difficult position of having the job of enforcing academic standards but not being adequately supported by their institution when they do and students complain. Colleges have de-emphasized learning and academic standards in favor of what they call “retention”–a “get their money and keep them in school” mentality. Students should be required to perform or lose their place, not coddled to keep the tuition dollars flowing.

For those students who do perform, there should be a reward. College should be free for students who can demonstrate academic ability and can fulfill academic requirements once they are in college. That’s the system most other nations have — the ones passing us in level of higher education quality.

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Philosophy professor reaching out beyond the ivory tower. . I also run and .

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