Monday, November 7, 2011

Reports from the Crisis in Higher Education from Middle America...

Historiann has tagged me and other academic bloggers to write a piece that addresses Tony Grafton's article at the New York Review of Books, where he goes over the different explanations that one can find in recently released books as to who is to blame for the crisis in US higher education. As Historiann explains,
Grafton concludes that given the tremendous diversity of the American “system” of higher education, we need more fine-grained and close-up studies of how higher education is working–or not working–for American students, administrators, and faculty, and the larger communities they serve. . .
and therefore she has call us, the academic bloggers, to contribute to the project. I am currently a tenure-track, Assistant Professor in a mid-sized religious university at a mid-size city in the Midwest.

My university has a well-earned prestige in the region, as a rigorous liberal arts institution where students receive an individualized attention from faculty. It is true. Most classes have 30 students maximum (and many have less than that). Principal faculty, for the most part, has a 3/3 teaching load (9 credits each semester). There are research requirements, but it doesn't pretend to be an R1. We have access to interlibrary loan privileges, a modest budget each year to buy materials either for the classroom or for our own research, around $1000 a year of conference money. We don't have many "stars", but we don't exactly look for them. The concept of a "good fit" is certainly problematic in many ways, but search committees usually look for candidates who have a research agenda but also is committed to teaching and challenging the student. The administration backs, as much as it is possible, the product it sells. While many 100 and 200 level classes are taught by instructors, most of the instructors are full time (salary + benefits) and they are not allowed to teach upper level courses. Since I started working there in 2007, I've received some kind of raise every year. I even got a tiny raise at the end of the 2007 - 2008 academic year, in the middle of the economic debacle. That simple act did miracles to raise people's morale.

What about the student population?

Usually, they are good students. There are some brilliant kids, and a few that probably shouldn't be there. For the most part, they are good, solid students that come from good high schools. As happens in many religious schools, my university has a core curriculum of mandatory classes. The core curriculum is extensive, and is one of the ways the university markets itself. So students choosing to come to my institution know what to expect. They are responsible, respectful, and open to academic challenges. Of course, not everybody is there for their love of the humanities (or the religious affiliation). Most of them choose the institution because they (accurately) believe that if they get good grades as undergraduates here, they will be accepted in good law and medical schools around the region. Few of them aspire to Harvard. Most of them aim for Ohio State, Indiana University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue and other good private and public regional universities. There are no fraternities and sororities, but there are plenty of student organizations and activities going on on campus. Certainly, some fraction of the students drink. While I do not advocate for binge drinking or engaging in dangerous behavior, I don't think that framing the problem as a dichotomy between good students that spend most of their waking hours studying or engaging in some kind of intellectual activity vs. future alcoholics that only want to have fun is particularly helpful either.

To sum up: I love my job, I like my colleagues and my students. My Dean is awesome and I don't have major complaints about the administration. So am I Pollyanna? Am I the luckiest person in the world, somebody who got hired at an institution that resembles no other one in the United States? I am certainly lucky, since I was hired at an institution that matches my personality and professional aspirations. Do I think there is no crisis in higher education in the United States? Not so fast... my university is not a bubble. Because it is not a bubble, it is not immune to every dominant discourse that a big sector of the population seem to believe like an article of faith. So I do wonder how sustainable the model my university provides is. Here are some observations about my institution and the community that surrounds it (i.e. the middle and upper middle classes that send their sons and daughters to my university).

- Assessment has come, and it's not going anywhere. While it is not done in a confrontational way with the faculty, it certainly increases everybody paper time. And I would say that some of the activities I've had to do have been beneficial: designing a syllabus with clear student learning objectives and adding a rubric to how the final essay will be graded has help me and many of my students a lot. The problem is that when you go to the next level and identify problems, you probably will have no support to tackle them. So we can map and identify a lot of things, but if you can't support fixing the problems then everybody is going to be very grumpy over this mandate.

- In the realm of secondary education, the technological fetish is alive and well for those who can afford it. Private high schools and affluent public high schools boast IPads for each students, Smartboards, wi-fi in every building, etc...I have nothing against them per se, but the idea is that they enhance the educational experience, and nobody has proven me that so far. What's more, even if they were beneficial (which I doubt), it clouds the fact that you can get an excellent education without gadgets. In my university, let's just say they seem pretty interested in the technology fad.

-More worrisome, though, is what I see happening in middle class public schools throughout the area. My region has excellent public high schools in affluent neighborhoods, problematic high schools in the inner-city and, until today, wonderful public high schools in middle class neighborhoods. I am not sure that will last too long. Why? Those middle class high schools were funded with a combination of state funding, property taxes and specific tax levies that raise money for the school district. With the state funding decreasing, last year was the first time that the tax levy was voted down. What you heard was a variation of "lazy teachers that should do more with the money, why do I need to fund art activities, how is that giving my son a valuable skill". This is, from the parents, to the teachers and the administration that so far had made your public school one of the best in the state. A combination of state budget cuts and a constituency that adopts the most narrow minded approach to education has the potential to destroy some of the Jewels of the Crown of the public education system in my state. It is scary and depressing, and I am wondering how it will affect the students we receive at my institution.

- Like in many tuition-driven institutions, rankings and reputation are extremely important at mine. Part of the reason students come to my university is because it's private (and therefore, according to the myth, you get something better than for what you pay far less). In 2006, The New York Times published the article In Tuition Game, Popularity Rises With Price. The article described how a group of private colleges had started, in the early 2000s, to raise their tuition as a way to attract students:
Applicants had apparently concluded that if the college cost more, it must be better.
The ruse was successful. While, as far as I know, my institution never engaged in this, it attracts students because it is private and quite expensive: tuition is around $30K. Of course, it offers a lot of financial aid, but even that has its problems.

-Like many non-elite private colleges, my institution has substantial merit-aid financial support in order to attract good students. I've noticed lately, however, that students work more and more in order to afford the institution. 14 hours a week is not unheard of. Furthermore, a sudden financial emergency in the family could leave them out of the picture. According to critics, the system is not sustainable.

- As much as I'd like to believe that each class that accepts my institution offer and becomes a student constitutes a bunch of enlightened humanists, reality is that students come to my institution because of its desired outcomes: admission into good professional schools, a degree from a university with a good reputation. They do care about studying, but they are not here for the opportunity to read Plato and all the humanities courses they have to take. And I wonder how much of a good job does the university in connecting the dots: they are successful because of the liberal art programs that the institution offers to you. My institution is obviously not the only one that can provide an education in the region, and students transferring to other universities is a reality. Not a huge one, but it happens. Furthermore, since my institution accepts many AP credits, I've seen the opposite of what was mention in Grafton's article: students that finish in 3 years instead of four because it is much cheaper. It makes me sad, since I feel we are robbing the student of a full year of college life, which can be life-changing for many.

So what do I take from all of this? I do worry about the sustainability of the model my university offers. Playing with raising tuition prices and offering deep discounts to the good students, is not an easy game. Do you increase the size of the entering class? How much? For how long? Where are they going to sleep? Who is going to teach them? I am also afraid of a change in mentality from the parents.

I would like to finish, though, with the following reflection. At its best, my University is a conservative institution. I don't mean conservative as a political term. In that sense, it's pretty open and you have a variety of opinions across the political spectrum, both in the student population and within the faculty. What I mean by conservative is a university that never challenges the status quo. Because of it's model, it reproduces inequalities that appear in secondary and elementary education. Its student population is not very diverse. It is mostly white and middle class, from the suburbs. Even its physical location reproduces the suburban mentality: located right near a sketchy neighborhood, students stay for the most part confined within campus limits. I have a hard time visualizing my institution as an agent of social change, as an example of the supposed possibility of social mobility within a capitalist society. And it makes me sad to think that an old-fashion religious school, with its emphasis in the humanistic tradition, could appear so revolutionary.

Historiann suggested that we tagged more contributors. I am specially interested in The Two Body Problem and Fie Upon This Quiet Life. Both of them work at religious colleges, and I am curious to see how their perspective aligns with mine (or does not align). So I hope you'll join us.


  1. Thank you,that's a very illuminating account, clear and rich with detail, of what sounds like a basically strong local culture--and of some reasons to worry about its future.

  2. Thanks Toni. Yes, that's what it is, a strong local culture. Many students come here because his/her parents and relatives came, so it is a tradition in that sense too.

  3. Thanks for the tag. I'll have to read the article and give it a little thought. From what I read in your post, though, my institution sounds fairly similar, except we have a higher teaching load (4/4). There are some real cynics at my school, and there are some high flying idealists. But more on that in a specific post. It might take until the weekend to get there, but I'll certainly try. :)

  4. Hey Spanish Prof - I had some time to write a post for you tonight on the article you mentioned. So when you have time, check it out. I sound like I teach in Camelot or something. I don't know... it's close.

  5. hmm I'd love to write about the role of religion at TTLAC but would have to be completely sure of my anonymity

  6. Any ideas on how to achieve such a thing?