Problems in Higher Education

Over at alternet, a liberal/progessive news source, there is an article about the demise of higher education. This author immediately set off my loony-toons indicator with her “big business is secretly subverting higher education” conspiracy, but even beyond that I think most of her points can be directly argued against.  The problems she brings up (if they are problems at all) cannot simply be fixed by 1. remembering that higher education is about expanding our minds and 2. getting more funding for our schools (but no funding from corporations!)  However, she does make a few reasonable observations.

beer-pong
We’re just here to expand our minds.

1. Defunding education:

“For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011.” That’s a loss of more than a third of its public funding.” (Lone quotation was original to text). Just because the percentage of the budget is decreased, does not mean the amount of money going to schools has decreased. For instance, if the funding for public education doubled from 1989 to 2011 (this is hypothetical), then that means funding to schools actually increased over that time period by 25%. (Statistics!!) But we should also seriously question where public education funds are going, if not to schools. I don’t believe Washington state, a known liberal state, is defunding its schools for “corporatism” if it is defunding its schools at all, it’s probably just wasting that extra money, which is on to the next point.

“Newfield explains that much of the motive behind conservative advocacy for defunding of public education is racial, pro-corporate and anti-protest in nature.” This is a huge jump to conclusions. How many elite and liberal schools have to force racial diversity on their campuses? Higher education is, in general, an elite white man’s game (or with current statistics, white woman’s) and to claim that it’s different in that regard to corporate America, or that it’s the fault of conservative forces outside the institution, is ridiculous. To immediately claim a conservative racist reason may be easy, but it has no justification.

humanities-vs-Science

Also, it’s offensive that this author tries to claim that only humanities “train[s] and expand[s] the mind”. Nothing teaches you to think like mathematics and logic, which are also practical in the job market. As nice as it is to think about art, philosophy, and gender studies, those aren’t actually useful skills to most jobs. Trumpeting liberal arts education over any practical education is basically saying “higher education isn’t for getting a job, it’s for learning about culture.” That’s all well and good unless you’re in a suffering job market at graduation time. 1 And to deny the important ways science and mathematics teaches you to think is hurting our students, her acclaimed era of liberal arts education in the 50s and 60s would have required much more in science and math than universities require today.

2. Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).

Oh, this gets me. Why are there a surplus of PhDs? Because people get PhDs in things like philosophy, art, and gender studies. Good luck finding a job in gender studies outside of lobbying. You know why there are PhDs, even in STEM, that will work for adjunct pay (and please note, adjuncts get paid less than graduate students because they have no unions)? Because people get PhDs and then refuse to work outside of academia 2  (or have degrees in subjects where they can’t possibly get a job outside of academia).There is a limit to the number of professors we can have at our universities. And at most universities with graduate programs, the professors only have to teach 1 class a semester! We could solve the problem of adjunct pay, by getting rid of adjuncts all together and making professors teach at least 2 classes a semester. But then there would be even fewer jobs in academia for all those PhDs who refuse to get other jobs. It’s not a pretty picture, but corporatism/universities aren’t doing this on their own.

3. Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.

“The money wasn’t saved [by hiring adjuncts], because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries.” OK, I’m totally with this lady here, and may I also add outrageous housing, athletic, and dining facilities. This point is spot on. This is a huge problem not just in higher education, but also in K-12. The problem is more complex though, it seems the more we pour into schools, the more bloated our administrations get. Consider, again a hypothetical, the example of doubling our school budgets. If we have 50% to administration and the rest to teaching, and then we double our budgets, but give our administration 62.5%, we have increased our teaching budgets by 50% (even though their share now is only 37.5% of the total), but those administrators are still making out even better. I don’t know if this is exactly how it happens, but more funding can easily lead to this. Frugality whenever it comes to non-teaching school projects and administration is the solution. Conservatives believe bloated administration is a reason to cut funding, but unfortunately the administration decides where those cuts actually take place None of the funding “problems” can begin to be fixed without first substantially fixing administration internally.

4. Move in corporate culture and corporate money.

“When corporate money floods the universities, corporate values replace academic values. As we said before, humanities get defunded and the business school gets tons of money.” I do find business school to be particularly insidious, but that’s probably because I’m an introvert in computer science who doesn’t understand the need to go to school for schmoozing. I digress. I’m not really sure the problem with businesses funding business schools? Business schools cost a lot (due to supply and demand in the market) and if corporate America takes up part of the tab, doesn’t that help with funding our schools – less to take away from the Arts and Sciences? But then the author moves directly into her point that anything that is non-Humanities is not mind-expanding and not important to higher education, so businesses should only be funding humanities?

“Serious issues of ethics begin to develop when corporate money begins to make donations and form partnerships with science departments – where that money buys influence regarding not only the kinds of research being done but the outcomes of that research.” Sure, this is a problem, if you view it in the most sinister way possible. But guess what, if corporate money isn’t funding our science research, the government is. Let’s not pretend that government has no self- or political-interests.  I’m sure I could find a large swath of college-educated people across the country who would shudder at the idea of George W. Bush once upon a time being in charge of our university science research.3 And again,this corporate money helps the funding problem. And all the research coming out of America’s universities (in the sciences) is highly peer-reviewed, even by people who are funded by other corporate or government interests.

5. Destroy the students.

graduate

“Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast-food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.” My liberal arts university had a lot of core curriculum. In fact, as a math major, it was because of this core curriculum that I got a “mind-expanding” experience in philosophy, literature, poetry, sociology, history, theatre, and dance. But even if we only consider big state schools, I’m really not going to cry over here about all the sociology majors who also have to take a science and calculus, or, heaven forbid, statistics. Yes, engineering departments may churn out a bunch of over-processed engineer-bots, but those kids are all getting jobs (I know, according to the author, getting a job is not the point. Unfortunately I did not, and I believe most other students did not (by the author’s next point, even), grow up in a family rich enough to allow me the freedom to not consider my job opportunities upon graduation).

“You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt-free.” Government subsidized loans are a form of government funding. It may put most of the burden on the student, but as someone who has unsubsidized loans, those interest rates can be substantial. I read a comment on an article somewhere that “if the government was giving out $500 loans for a loaf a bread, bread would start to cost $500.” And this all hearkens back to administrations building huge housing, athletic, dining, and lounge facilities. If college was just about class and a place to study, sleep, and keep our stuff, college could be a lot cheaper. With the loans and student expectations feeding off each other, it becomes a downward cycle of unaffordability.

donations

So, yes, there are problems in bloated administration and student costs at universities. But this isn’t some kind of corporate take down of navel-gazing education. Administration is a problem with colleges, as organizations themselves, not because of conservative or corporate America. And the burden of cost is partially on all Americans – for raising kids who want the best and prettiest dorm rooms (private bathrooms, please), exercise facilities, dining experiences, and football teams to go along with expanding their minds. 4 However, more funding will not directly fix these problems, and may only make the problems worse. With good peer review, outside funding is not going to warp our research institutions. And telling kids that they should consider job prospects (and that PhDs in some subjects are nothing more than mind-expanding hobbies) will not pervert a good liberal arts institution.

5 thoughts on “Problems in Higher Education”

  1. Also keep in mind that while the athletic programs bring a great deal of money to the school, a great deal of that and other money is often spent on that athletic program. Not that I don’t like or appreciate it, but at the same time as you said if we focus on learning and not so much on the extra stuff things would cost a lot less.

  2. I understand the desire to correct a stupid article, and that the article serves as one’s anchor point for quality of reasoning when one does so. But tossing out poorly-justified speculation to counter poorly-justified speculation seems unproductive. Two examples of which the author should feel particularly ashamed:
    – How could peer review address all sources of bias? Consider that refusing to write up negative results is one of the big ones. Do you have any specific ideas for how to ensure that peer review is high quality?
    – if liberals spend less on worthy goal A, they must be wasting the savings, rather than spending it on worthy goal B? And this without even the briefest attempt to use Google to find out something about budgets? I sort of assume this is just a badly-delivered joke, but it leaves the principle point unaddressed.

  3. I understand the desire to correct a stupid article, and that the article serves as one’s anchor point for quality of reasoning when one does so. But tossing out poorly-justified speculation to counter poorly-justified speculation seems unproductive. Two examples of which the author should feel particularly ashamed:
    – How could peer review address all sources of bias? Consider that refusing to write up negative results is one of the big ones. Do you have any specific ideas for how to ensure that peer review is high quality?
    – if liberals spend less on worthy goal A, they must be wasting the savings, rather than spending it on worthy goal B? And this without even the briefest attempt to use Google to find out something about budgets? I sort of assume this is just a badly-delivered joke, but it leaves the point unaddressed.

  4. I actually did have a note in my draft to look up budgets, but decided to spend that time on my PhD because my point about bad statistics was good enough for me and I’m always pressed for time (and am not getting anything out of blogging here, mind you). It was the original, liberal author who stated that 51% was going to schools and the other to who-knows-where. So I was assuming liberal calling it waste was enough to leave as-is, although maybe some of it is going to other education avenues that someone who doesn’t understand statistics isn’t able to understand either.

    I’m also not saying peer review is perfect, but to act like corporations come in and control all the research is crazy. I’m in computer science, which is probably one of the most industry collaborative areas, and has extremely tough peer review to go through. In fact it is not infrequent for research to go back and forth, showing that previous research was done poorly or incorrectly reported. If that’s not happening in an area, it is up to the researchers to do it, to keep their research strong! No matter who’s funding research, you can’t stop people from lying though. However, this does not mean corporate money is automatically sinister.

    Very sorry to disappoint you, but I am not ashamed.

  5. You claim that Debra Leigh Scott, the author of the article you wrote about, took the position that money was shifted from higher education to waste? Can you cite a single word in her article which supports that conclusion? I was unable to find one.

    You’re right that to act like corporations control all the research is crazy. But that position isn’t in the article, either. There’s not even a suggestion that all research is corporate-controlled. There is a suggestion in your article that, “With good peer review, outside funding is not going to warp our research institutions.” Perhaps you mean “warp” to be synonymous with “completely control”, but if you have the more familiar use in mind of change (generally negatively), peer review doesn’t even touch the ability of funding to set the research agenda. If that fact simply hadn’t come up, ignoring it could be excused as an oversight, but it’s in the very article you’re criticizing.

    I am disappointed. To the extent that your apology was sincere, thank you, and best of luck with the Ph.D.! I was not able to finish my own dissertation, so I know it can present unexpected challenges, and wouldn’t wish arguing with person-on-internet to present too much of a burden to you. Also, apologies for the multiple posts; the browser in Feedly doesn’t seem to provide any visible feedback of a successful submission, and isn’t perfectly reliable about detecting taps. As is so common with person-on-internet, I regarded my thoughts as so vitally important to share that I tapped several times.

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