By Bill Hanna/UMCP
What will higher education be in, say, the next decade? Not, I think, like a decade or so ago. And will the attraction of being a professor in a quality undergraduate/graduate institution change? I think the answer to that is yes. Here are a few of the changes in higher education that I think about.
Evaporating public support: Nationally, state support for universities has declined from about 80% to 20% and tuition plus grants and contracts have made up the difference, but how high can tuition go? And of course how high can student indebtedness go? I sure know some young people who aren’t in college because of the costs. And maybe the brightest undergrad I’ve had in recent years left UMCP because she couldn’t afford the cost. Yes, I tried to get her more funding, but that proved impossible.
My memory of paying tuition at UCLA is vivid. In the pre-computer days, I stood in line for several hours to pay the semester’s tuition of $32! Thank goodness, California picked up the rest of the cost. Yes the times are different now. UCLA charges $12,998 for in-state students, and $42,184 for those out of state. Of course $40k these days is below the mean. Wow, what bargains we have in Maryland, e.g., UMCP is at $9,427 and $29,720! And UMBC is at $10,068 and $21,642.
Tighter state resources, rising costs, high tuition rates and other factors make the current model of financing public higher education unsustainable. The present system may have worked well in past decades, but fiscal changes at the federal and state levels, as well as private market changes, make reform necessary. (NASBO)
A 5% tuition hike is likely in the University of Maryland system next year, top administrators said Thursday. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget calls for such an increase to make ends meet, and school officials say they see no way to avoid it unless the system gets more from the state. Chancellor William E. Kirwan said the $15.4 million increase in Hogan’s budget does not cover rising expenses. Combined with a cut made by Gov. Martin O’Malley in January, the university has a $47 million budget hole. (Baltimore Sun)
Why the increase in running a university? Partly it’s the increase in numbers of students, and some would add the increase in numbers of well-paid administrators. (To make a very high salary plus, become a private college president. Some universities play millions.)
Free Community College: With public support for higher education falling, President Obama’s proposed free two years of community college seems like a dream. But it is not unlike what currently exists in Tennessee (“The Tennessee Promise”) and the City of Chicago. The GI Bill, the Pell Grant, and now this. Of course, funding is a big barrier to implementation and vested interests are another. So the free community college won’t happen tomorrow or the day after. Put aside the many critiques of the proposal, especially the lack of resources to support the marginal students.
Just think what the impact of the free tuition will be for Maryland’s thirteen public universities. Fewer freshmen and sophomores will mean fewer tuition dollars and therefore smaller budgets. I can hear in the distance some campus presidents screaming “oh no” and vowing to fight against the change – or to have the change cover two years at community college plus the four-year public colleges. Of course, the private profit colleges will scream even louder unless they are cut in despite their very poor student completion record. And some faculty members in public and private institutions will have to be let go or furloughed.
A jobs focus leads to the proposal because secondary schools no longer ready young people for many of the available jobs. That’s a comment on job changes and perhaps the quality of secondary education in many parts of the country.
If the community college proposal is implemented nationally in some fashion, let’s hope that the support for the student is more than tuition. Free tutoring, free child care, and more are needed to enable many students to complete their degree – that is, some wraparound.
The non-college alternative: Of course, everyone need not go to college, and certainly not to a four-year college. Yes, college can be a nice experience socially, culturally, and intellectually. I think I profited by going to UCLA some decades ago. But there are lots of jobs that pay well and do not require a framed diploma. Most do require an apprenticeship or internship, and that’s a path we should improve. Germany is said to do that well.
WHAT WE TEACH
The preferred content of our courses – preferred by our department and/or ourselves – has shifted over time towards the more applied. I don’t know whether that’s good for ourselves and/or our country. Governor Scott Walker may be in the mainstream when in his new budget he deleted “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth” from the University’s 100-plus-year-old mission and replaced them with the purpose of public higher education is “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” Trade school! (Walker backed off the change later, when challenged.)
The turn to the applied – jobs for students: The US Secretary of Education calls for information about post-college jobs and salaries. Graduation rates are also sought. So anthropology becomes applied anthropology, and more. Better learn software rather than prepare to understand a culture from the inside. English offers many sections of technical writing plus business writing and writing for non-profit organizations. Urban planning deemphasizes social planning (the impact of plans on people, and the preferences of people) and inserts more statistics and of course GIS. From the provosts’ survey, almost nine of ten respondents agree that their institution is paying increased attention to the ability of their degree programs to help students get jobs.
The jobs focus fits many students’ preferences. The 2014 CIRP Freshman Survey shows that the leading reason for deciding to go to college is “to be able to get a better job.” High ranking is “to get training for a specific career.” At the bottom of the list is “to make me a more cultured person.” Asked what the student considered to be essential or very important, top ranked is “being very well of financially.”
An article by Dan Berrett in the Chronicle of Higher Education asserts that the change took place much earlier, in 1967, when then Governor Ronald Reagan said, “There are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” And taxpayers should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” An LA Times editorial responded, “If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized, then it is nothing.” If not nothing, then a trade school.
But what jobs? The STEM fields appear to be in relatively good shape, but other fields are challenged. I want students to study history, English, philosophy, and more, but why should they bother if getting a job is paramount?
Grads who majored in one of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering or math—might get multiple job offers, while other college grads work at low-paying jobs that don’t even require a degree, because it’s all they can find. And some older college grads have drifted backward in their careers after losing one job and taking another that pays less. (Yahoo Finance, 9 February 2015)
Consider English: the number of English majors at the UMCP has declined by about 40% in about three years. So we don’t need so many faculty members. Triage! And those students who receive advanced English degrees probably don’t have jobs well linked to their education.
Few English majors, few students serious about their English. Shakespeare who? Indeed, how many students use who or whom? So English departments increasingly introduce résumé writing and proposal writing into the classroom. (Question from a student: what is that line above the “e” letters?)
Of course, English majors and others in the liberal arts get jobs. One study showed that of the top eight job types for the liberal arts grad, four are in the field of teaching. (You know, that underappreciated occupation often blamed for the achievement gap.) Let’s hope school funding holds up. The same study shows that in the peak earning ages (56-60), liberal arts grads earn about 74% of what is earned by the physical and natural sciences and mathematics.
Who Teaches, AND How
Decline of Tenure: We all know there has been a dramatic change in tenure. Once upon a time, the vast majority of faculty members were tenured or on tenure tracks, whereas now the opposite is emerging. Increasingly dominating the lectern or PowerPoint projector are part-time faculty members or those full-time but not on tenure tracks. The contingent faculty member comes and goes, sometimes without a desk where he or she could meet students. Rarely are these “outsiders” integrated into the department even though they may teach half the classes or more. But the academic units and universities sure save money. Instead of a tenured faculty member teaching four courses during the year for, say, $80k, those courses might cost $20k.
Professor Everybody: My subtitle is the title of Jeffrey R. Young’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He points out that the exclusivity of the professor in teaching college and other courses has significantly declined. These days, more and more people with some or imagined expertise are teaching. Thanks to online education, anyone can set up an account on Udemy or other site, upload a series of lectures, and get paid for site access. Credentials? Not a requirement so long as the teacher is filling a perceived need and therefore attracting students. Surely some high school students could offer a Udemy course on hacking; no need for the higher education degree. But so could a computer science professor. And the potential student certainly doesn’t have to enroll in an institution of higher education for perhaps thousands of dollars when he or she can find a Professor Everybody course that appears to meet the needs. Udemy has more than five million students!
Much has been written about how Uber is disrupting the taxi business by letting people moonlight as taxi drivers using their own cars, and how Airbnb offers an alternative to hotels by helping people rent out their spare rooms. But little attention has been paid to emerging platforms that let people use the knowledge in their heads to teach occasional courses online, for a fee. … The … more immediate threat to colleges is indirect. These sites that let anyone teach courses might just change the way people think about the value of education, about the nature of expertise, and about what teaching is worth. (Young)
My area of teaching has been urban studies and planning, but maybe some students would learn more by taking a Udemy course from a smart kid living in a poor urban neighborhood.
What about a credential? After all, taking a course from me leads to a transcript that the student can show to others to claim some expertise. What about that B.A. or B.S. or more? Surely the employer’s shortcut using a credential rather than finding out the candidate’s abilities will be in decline. That’s especially true because the high grades have less meaning these days.
High Grades: Once upon a time the awarded grades were close to a normal curve, but that’s a memory from long ago. These days, getting a grade below a B is rare in many classes. That inflation has some positives. First, more students are likely to graduate, which is a goal at the national level and within campuses. Second, it avoids the complaint problems that too often follow from issuing a low grade. I’ve spent many hours dealing with student protests (most recently by a student who argued her case a dozen times to my chairman and me), always maintaining the issued grade but not succeeding in convincing a student that a C grade is fair whereas a B grade is good – and good is not average.
The contingent faculty members appear, based upon my small non-random sample, to be generous graders. Maybe I would be too. After all, they are not embedded within the academic unit’s culture, and to be rehired they don’t want student complaints to dominate student feedback. (Ah student feedback; its validity for judging the quality of teaching is problematic.)
Performance-based funding: Some universities have turned to this form of funding which rewards units that retain and graduate students and perhaps also raise outside funds. Maybe that will make faculty members and advisors work harder, but another possibility is to grade higher. We all know that the normal curve of ABCDF grading disappeared long ago. We are proliferating Lake Wobegon.
What if a faculty member or academic unit doesn’t score well with performance-based funding? I guess there is always Bill Gates and some others. But a new alternative is crowdfunding. A man who walked 21 miles to and from work was crowdfunded for about $300k, so why not the neuroscientist or specialist in Plato? I guess we’d better become experts at self- or project-promoting. Hustlers!
Where to cut: Detroit, Michigan, is not the only place where benefit cuts are a significant factor. From NASBO: “If employee benefit cost growth is not reduced, all new funds going to higher education—and this increasingly means student tuition revenues—may have to go to pay for employee benefits, rather than increased capacity or quality.” Hum: health, retirement, more.
We can, of course, also cut tenure and tenure-track lines. Adjuncts are cheaper, so we can teach more courses with contingent faculty. And done right, MOOCs are cheaper. Maybe we can record a good version of a course and repeat offering it – perhaps long after the instructor has left.
From teach to hustle: Once upon a time, professors spent a major portion of their time teaching – in and beyond the classroom. Yes, research was important, but not so heavily emphasized. No more! Already, the research money brought in is a very significant factor in hiring, promotion, and tenure. Some universities make the link quite explicit. Departments rise or fall on the basis of the money brought in. In a survey of provosts by the Institute for Higher Education, nearly half of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that too many teaching institutions now overemphasize faculty research. But that’s the road to success.
Academic success lies in publishing academic journal articles that make incremental contributions to theory, not in summarizing the broader contributions of the community of scholars. Specialization, not generalization, is the signal of academic rigor. The conventional rules of academic tenure and promotion steer all in that direction. (Hoffman)
Over the past months I’ve been receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. My doctor is a nationally known expert in his field. He has a short window to see patients, but most of his time is devoted to research. It’s clear he knows his field, but he seems almost awkward at times when dealing with patients. A fund raiser contacts me at home and also while waiting to see the expert. Hustle! I have seen another Hopkins doctor, this time at one of the satellites Hopkins purchased a few years ago. He seems to be smart and knows his field, but he is a patient-focused clinician during the week. He knows whom to contact, and even calls other doctors to make sure my treatments are appropriate and coordinated. It’s a research/hustle vs. clinician split. I think this split is expanding in many fields, including within our universities’ departments: some mostly research, some mostly teach – with the balance shifting towards the former. Seniority goes to the former, and increasingly the latter are not on a tenure line. The split seems to me not to be in a healthy direction.
If I turn back the clock and think about a career, I wonder if I would be less enthusiastic about a career as a professor in a first-rate university. I like to teach, but teaching is less emphasized now. I like to explore ideas with students, not to prepare them for a career. I like to conduct research, but much of it unfunded. I’m not much of a hustler, but that’s a part of the job now. Maybe I’d try to get a job at a high-quality liberal arts college where the focus – I hope – is intellectual explorations with students. And I’d still want to do research, but not necessarily hustle for money to do that research. I wonder how many of my colleagues feel the same way.
Some years ago, I began to worry about the changes and wrote a poem, which is below.
Our students are crying
As budgets cut deep.
So my colleagues are helping…
But they’re helping themselves (!)
As they write their proposals,
Tease-whores on a street.
I think of the words
That I used to admire,
Ones like “teacher” and “educate.”
Such words now seem funny
Or tragically sad
‘Cause I know colleagues’ thinking;
It sure makes me mad:
A teacher’s day is never done
Until the grant is in the mail
Or the contract’s on the scale.
Let’s make money,
Let’s make hay;
Nothing counts but a big payday.
Keep ‘em out.
That we don’t care
Is not in doubt;
They’re not what our job’s about.
One more time;
There’s a money tree to climb.
Without a sense of guilt or crime.
Perhaps no more;
Now we have the hustler-whore!
Association of American Colleges and Universities, Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment, 2014.
Berrett, Dan. “The Day the Purpose of College Changed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 January 2015.
Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (CIRP), The American Freshman, The American Freshman 2014
Hoffman, Andrew J. “Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 February 2015.
Inside Higher Ed, The 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, 2015.
National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), Improving Postsecondary Education Through the Budget Process, 2013.
Young, Jeffrey R. “Here Comes Professor Everybody,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 February 2015.