Saturday, June 14, 2014

Higher education has become an industry, big business ...

Colleges once existed as places of higher learning, but in 21st century America, higher education has become more of an industry than a place of academic discovery.  This shouldn't be misconstrued to think that one cannot receive a quality education at a college, but that doesn't appear to be the priority anymore.  And the money being funnelled into colleges and universities often comes at the great expense of lower and middle class Americans.

Ironically, one of the tools of helping Americans make it to college has become one of the financial millstones around our neck, namely student loans.  The affordability of college has been eased by the availability of money, particularly through loans offered by the federal government.  In 1965, the Stafford Loan program was passed into law allowing quality students the opportunity to further their education and seek better career opportunities.  No one would deny that this program has enabled countless numbers of citizens the chance to better themselves, including myself.  My undergraduate and graduate degrees were made possible through Stafford Loans. 

Because of the federal government's student loan program, colleges and universities around the country saw significantly increased numbers in student enrollment because of the access to money at low interest rates.  Student loans are highly beneficial to Americans who complete college, but the problem is that not everyone completes college, and thus, they do not always have the means to pay back their loans.  Additionally, even when they do complete college, many citizens work in fields that do not pay large salaries, so student loan payments are often a burden.  Depending on what degree a person earns, the 'cost' of student loans goes far beyond the principal amount borrowed. 

Aside from the frustration of student loans from an individual standpoint, colleges and universities have a vested interest in perpetuating student loans because of the revenue loans generate from them.  A school will receive their tuition / fees from the government regardless of whether or not the student ever pays those loans back. 

While some students do manage to work their way through college, they often need more than the standard four years to complete a bachelor's degree.  Again, this actually benefits the university to squeeze out as many tuition dollars as possible from students.

Are colleges and universities doing anything to scale back these problems?  Actually, they are, but the cures to financial problems often come at the expense of the quality education.  For instance, one of the remedies higher learning has implemented comes in the form of online courses.  Students have the option of taking certain classes via the Internet to expedite the completion of a degree.  But do online classes provide as beneficial of a learning experience as physically being in the classroom with the professor and other students?

A University of Virginia professor, Mark Edmundson, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times deriding the use of online classes as a suitable substitute for a classroom experience.  Here is a key excerpt from his article:

"... they [professors] also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.
A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.
Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is."
The concept of an online course has the best of intentions, but in the grand scheme of education, it's not a viable solution.  Edmundson rounded out his article with a thought many teachers have expressed for some time:  "... there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject." 

If professors understand that the quality of online classes is lacking, then why do schools use these so frequently?  Because they are a cash cow for schools.  Students sign up for them because many schools offer those courses at lower tuition rates than a traditional course.  Many schools often provide professors with financial incentives for the number of students who start and complete online courses.  This, in turn, gives professors more motive to inflate grades and ensure students complete the class with a passing grade.  The sheer increase in the volume of students taking online courses makes it difficult for the school and professors not to keep these options available to students. 

Moreover, it can be of no coincidence that traditional universities also feel the pressure to keep up with for-profit online schools, such as the University of Phoenix.  That particular school has pioneered the online course craze, and has created a business model that breeds cash.  As recently as 2009, the University of Phoenix recorded nearly $4 billion in revenue, and almost $600 million in net income.  Because online courses lack the quality of a traditional learning environment, the degree that students earn is often considered to be watered down.  Online courses aren't the only means of attempting to generate cash for colleges.  Colleges have recently claimed to be more concerned about freshman retention rates and graduation rates.
In previous decades, colleges and universities were more selective in their admissions, and thus, the people who weren't prepared for college typically didn't apply.  Because of the availability of the money through grants and loans, a large number of colleges have a financial interest in easing their admissions policies, or simply offering open admission to students.  Whether or not students earn a degree is irrelevant, particularly when the ones that do finish often require six years for a four-year degree.  The additional two years a student needs to graduate can financially offset the loss of money on a sophomore dropout. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, "Among full-time, first-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor's degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2005, the 6-year graduation rate was 57 percent at public institutions, 65 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 42 percent at private for-profit institutions."  This is a troubling statistic, particularly for public universities.  Over 40% of high school graduates going to college aren't going to earn a degree within 6 years.  Of note, colleges who had a 25% or less admissions rate saw 88% of their students leave college with a degree in 6 years.  The supposed concern over lower graduation rates doesn't seem to hold true either.  According to a 2007 study, the percentage of students completing degrees has slightly dropped over a 30 year time period.

The average retention rates from freshman to sophomore year for 2013 is 65.8%.  One out of every three college freshman won't make it back for year two.  Colleges have claimed they are attempting to correct this trend, however the statistics don't show any improvement.  The average retention rate from 1983-2013 is ... 65.8%.  Nothing has really changed in retention rate in the last 30 years.  Whatever higher education is supposedly trying to do to improve graduation and freshman retention is not working. 

One significant statistic that has changed over time is tuition cost.  The cost of higher education has become so high, many degrees aren't cost effective to obtain because there is no return on the money invested.  Tuition, room, board, and other fees do not vary by the major field of study a student selects.  A student who spends four years to earn a degree in social work pays the same as the person who spends four years earning a chemical engineering degree.  However, the earning potential of one outweighs the other.  I'm not ready to suggest there be a proportional tuition based on earning potential, but one can see how this could be a problem.  Colleges want to tout the fact that people with four year degrees earn far more in a lifetime than those who do not have a four year degree.  While that statistic is true, this doesn't take into account the heavy debt most students will incur.  When this factor is calculated into future earnings, the advantage of a college degree is often negated.

Okay, so maybe colleges aren't perfect, but does that mean colleges are all about the money?  Well, I would think so, because, according to a recent article by The Economist, "... the cost of university per student has risen by almost five times the rate of inflation since 1983."

The number of students going to college is going up.  Retention rates are flat.  Graduation rates are down.  The rate of graduates finishing degrees is now measured more frequently in terms of six years rather than four.  Cost of higher education outstrips inflation rates.  Many degrees don't offer a return on investment.  Student loans are more beneficial to the colleges and universities than they are the people who take out the loans.  What other piece of evidence exists that points to higher education being an industry?  Athletics.

College sports have become a money making apparatus for institutions of higher learning, and serve to help market the schools to prospective students.  Even though athletics are a time-honored tradition of schools at all levels, the amount of funding allocated to these programs is mind boggling.  USA Today put together a list of revenue and expenditures for Division I colleges, and it's astonishing how much money is devoted to our entertainment through sports.  Notably, many of the 230 schools listed have government subsidies being funneled to athletic budgets.

The University of Texas tops the list with over $165 million in revenue, with expenditures of approximately $146 million.  I would be curious to know how the profit is spent.  Incidentally, there are 53 schools with revenues of $58 million or greater.  Rutgers University had the highest subsidy, with a shade under $47 million coming from taxpayers and student fees.  This translates to 59.5% of the total athletic expenditures of the university.

If you think this isn't a fair representation of the college sports world, I can understand that.  After all, a great deal of the money spent by athletic programs is generated by ticket sales, licensing, merchandise, etc.  And other than football and men's basketball, most other sports aren't generating revenue.  However, these facts lose significance when you see how much money is generated through contributions to the program.  The University of Texas brought in $37 million in contributions in 2013, which were, no doubt, solicited by the school from wealthy alums.  The Longhorns also spent over $55 million on their coaches and staff.  How can anyone justify this?

I suppose these statistics aren't only reflective of the financial motives of higher education, but society as a whole.  What would happen if schools would scale back their finances directed at sports and channeled more of that into academics?  What if states would redirect some of those subsidies from athletics into better preparing students for the rigors of college?  Maybe redirect some funds to giving professors a much deserved raise.

Higher education doesn't have much incentive to focus on actually educating students, but not because of the professors, or even the students.  The money keeps coming in regardless of whether or not students graduate on time, or even at all.  But I will let colleges off the hook in a small sense, because adults keep selling our children on lies.

Americans perpetuate the following myths about college:

1) Everyone is suited for a four year college
2) Vocational or trade schools aren't honorable work and don't pay well
3) A four year degree guarantees you a job and a great salary
4) Being a doctor or lawyer is the best thing for my child

Maybe the best course of action to make college about education again would be to start putting our young people on a track that leads them to an appropriate career choice.  When Americans begin to do that, perhaps universities will have to make adjustments to their business model.  Of course, it's frustrating that academia has a business model. 


1 comment:

  1. Wow! I could not disagree more with your agreement with Edmundson. I completed my M.A. online and was challenged every step of the way. Myself and the other students in my classes formed a learning community while in our courses through discussions boards that were a required part of our course requirements. Edmundson also assumes that all professors can actually teach and react to their students. I know this is definitely not the case from some of the professors I had during my undergraduate studies at Marshall University. Edmundson is arguing for a model that often times tries to be the "one-size-fits-all" that he decries so much. Very uninformed on his part. Why not go out and talk with those who have taken online courses for their degree programs and provide their feedback as an update to this post? I think you would see that the opinion shared by those who have actually experienced this, and not just one professor arguing for his own livelihood might change things.