12 Inconvenient Truths About American Higher Education

Below is an abstract of a speech summarizing my thoughts on some of the shortcomings of American higher education today, although let me note that in the speech (which I gave at St. Cloud State University, in Minnesota), I also talk of the strengths of our system of colleges and universities:

Let me enumerate in a very sketchy way what I believe are 12 “inconvenient truths about American higher education,” which will be forming the basis of longer writings over the course of the year, some of which probably will be mentioned in this space. While not all of these truths are self-evident, I think they all have enough basis in fact to suggest cumulatively American universities have a lot of problems.

Inconvenient Truth #1: College Costs Are Rising Both for Students and Society

We all know that tuition fees, adjusted for inflation, are rising a lot over time, even after allowing for tuition discounting. More important, higher education absorbs more than triple the share of the nation’s productive efforts than it did when John F. Kennedy was president. College costs to individuals are rising faster than incomes, not a sustainable phenomenon.

Inconvenient Truth #2: Too Many Students Pursue Traditional Bachelor’s Degrees

A huge number of students enter college with high prospects of failure, which is reflected in high dropout rates. More persons get degrees than the available pool of professional, managerial, and technical jobs–even when we have a jobs boom. All this has watered down rigor and led to declining academic standards.

Inconvenient Truth #3: Increased College Spending No Longer Usually Enhances Economic Growth

The law of diminishing returns is working–in most doses spending on higher education has a growth pay-off, but too much of it takes resources from productive, market disciplined economic actors and reallocates to a less efficient university sector that, at the margin, does not use the resources terribly productively.

Inconvenient Truth #4: Many Students Study and Learn Little

Arum and Roksa’s great book, Academically Adrift, reaffirms what many long-time professors believe: students today typically read less, study less, etc., than they ought and thus gain fewer critical-thinking and writing skills, etc. during their course of collegiate study.

Inconvenient Truth #5 Undergraduate Students Are Often Neglected

At schools with lots of graduate students and/or research grants, often the faculty emphasis is not on undergraduate instruction. Big classes taught by inexperienced or marginally qualified individuals are often common, and faculty reward systems strongly favor research over teaching, as often do state appropriations in some settings.

Inconvenient Truth #6: Most Students Do Not Graduate on Time

More full-time students entering college fail to graduate within the four-year traditional span than do so. Nationally, at least 40 percent fail to graduate in six years. Dropout rates are scandalously high, especially in public institutions. Again, this probably reflects the marginal preparation of many students as much as or more than financial constraints.

Inconvenient Truth #7: Colleges Hide (or Don’t Collect) Vital Consumer Information

Did Sam Houston State University have a good year in 2011? Who knows? We don’t know whether seniors know more than freshman, whether the students are engaged in their college activities, or whether they fare well after graduation as measured by post-graduate earnings. Moreover, some internal scandals are often largely hidden from students and sometimes even trustees. Transparency is lacking, big time.

Inconvenient Truth #8: Colleges Often Restrict Freedom of Expression

Colleges are supposed to be havens for the free expression of ideas, but political correctness has led some administrations to ban certain types of expression that are permitted in society at large. Intellectual diversity is also restricted by the fact that faculty in many policy-oriented academic areas at most schools have a predominantly leftish orientation, so alternative points of view receive a less extensive hearing by students.

Inconvenient Truth #9: Colleges Are Not a Vehicle for Promoting Economic Equality

The vast growth in higher education over the past four decades has been accompanied by rising income inequality. Elite private schools are dominated by kids from upper-income families, Even flagship state universities like the University of Virginia often have a lower proportion of Pell Grant recipients than swanky Ivy League institutions.

Inconvenient Truth #10: Colleges Are Run to Benefit Staff Often More Than Students

Senior faculty often teach what they want, when they want, and to whom they want, independent of student or societal needs. The multimillion-dollar football coach has been joined by the million-dollar college president and one-third-million-dollar professorial superstar. A lot of resources go to make life pleasant for faculty and administrators.

Inconvenient Truth #11: Federal Student Financial Aid Doesn’t Work

Originally federal aid was designed to increase access by those with low incomes, but the proportion of low-income students amongst new college graduates is lower today than in 1970–before Pell Grants even began and federal student loans were in their infancy. Huge portions of aid go to moderately affluent students who would attend college without the assistance.

Inconvenient Truth #12: Intercollegiate Athletics Are Costly and Increasingly Corrupt

The Penn State scandal, while horrific, is not a unique phenomenon. Big-time college sports (which is not all of intercollegiate athletics, to be sure) have gone amuck. Academic values are subordinated, lying and cheating is endemic, and exploitation of students by rich adults (coaches) is not only accepted, but vigorously enforced by the Taliban of college sports, the NCAA.

Question to readers: Whether you agree with me or not, should I pursue this in regular blogs here or even in a book? Will anyone read it? Will it promote constructive discourse?

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