Why Public Education Should Be Free (part 2)

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Robert Samuels charges that large public universities have been shortchanging students by charging them higher tuition while spending less of their revenue on undergraduate instruction. Students face larger classes and more classes taught by graduate students, part-time instructors, and other untenured faculty. Some courses may be less available altogether, so that students take longer to complete their requirements, driving up their expenses even more.

How much all the cost-cutting actually affects the quality of college education is harder to say. Samuels is sure that it does, since he believes strongly in small classes taught by fully credentialed professors with job security (and the academic freedom that goes with it). He cites research showing that “students understand and retain information best when they apply new knowledge in an interactive fashion, [but] most large lecture classes at research universities give students very few opportunities to interact with each other, the professor, and new research.” As a retired educator, I agree with him. A good lecture can certainly convey knowledge, but higher education should also give students an opportunity to develop their own thinking processes through engagement with the thought processes of their professors and fellow students. That requires more than a transmission of knowledge packages from teaching authorities to passive learning receptacles, and more than a completely free discussion without informed critical feedback on what is said. It’s never easy, but professionally guided, interactive learning is learning of the most creative kind. Without it higher education becomes a misnomer.

The negative aspects of large classes often become apparent when students take a small class and demonstrate that they cannot speak or interact in an effective manner. Since their big lecture classes have rewarded them for being silent memorizers who try to figure out what the professor will put on the next test, they are unable to think independently or to examine the ideas of others critically.

Now I’ll ask the reader to assume that Samuels is right, that university cost-cutting is jeopardizing the quality of undergraduate education. That raises the deeper question of why a public university would choose to shortchange its own students. I say “choose” because although public funding has fallen, the total revenue from undergraduate instruction seems more than enough to support it.

Samuels develops two different kinds of answers. One is that large public universities give priority to other aspects of their educational mission, namely graduate education and research. They cut costs on undergraduate teaching so deeply that undergraduate revenue subsidizes other legitimate activities. The second answer is even more troubling: that universities are losing sight of the educational mission itself, focusing instead on financial goals that are in tension with educational quality.

In some ways, graduate students seem to benefit from trends in public education. While undergraduate programs bear the brunt of the cost-cutting, grad students get small classes and opportunities to earn money as teaching or research assistants. However, because universities do rely on them so heavily as a source of inexpensive labor, their job duties can interfere with their studies and prolong the process of completing their degrees. If and when they do complete their degrees, they are unlikely to obtain secure college teaching jobs because universities prefer part-time and/or temporary labor. Many students spend years running up debt to complete their doctorates, only to discover that universities now offer very few positions providing pay, benefits and security commensurate with their qualifications. “In other words, most of the graduate students are really untenured faculty on short-term contracts and are being trained for jobs they will never get.”

Research can go hand-in-hand with instruction in a mutually supportive relationship. “We can understand research to be the scientific, critical, and creative investigation of truth, and we can define instruction as the effective communication of that truth.” But after examining university finances, Samuels concludes that a heavy emphasis on research comes at the expense of undergraduate instruction. “Once research becomes the priority at a college or university, the cost of administration and facilities skyrockets, and this increase is paid for in part by undergraduate tuition and state and federal taxes.” And later, “There is…no way of knowing if universities lose or gain money overall from research. However, we do know that money from student tuition and state funding that is earmarked for instruction ends up being used for research, although it is rare for any money that is made through research to end up funding teaching.” One way that research universities can shortchange undergraduates is by releasing professors from teaching and replacing them with less qualified substitutes; another is by hiring professors for their research abilities and overlooking their ineffectiveness as teachers. Samuels is also concerned that some of the research conducted at public universities primarily serves private interests. The purpose of some research grants is to promote corporate products  rather than develop new knowledge, and the research may be highly biased and secretive.

One of the things I’ve learned by studying nonprofit organizations like hospitals and charities is that the lack of a profit motive doesn’t stop such organizations from being financially driven. The decision-makers in those organizations can still want to generate a lot of revenue and earn large salaries. In recent years, institutions of many kinds have become caught up in an effort to generate higher incomes for their best-paid employees, while at the same time cutting labor costs down the line. At the University of California, Samuels found that in just two years, compensation went up almost 40% for professors and administrators making over $200,000 per year, and that “virtually none of the top thousand earners in the UC system have anything to do with undergraduate instruction.” At the other end, undergraduate teaching is increasingly synonymous with low pay and job insecurity, even for highly qualified, effective teachers. “In this system, a small minority of wealthy star faculty are rewarded for concentrating on research, while the people who are teaching the undergraduate courses are often punished with lifetime job insecurity and low compensation.” In addition, administrators are becoming more numerous and better paid than faculty. While universities are often considered “the last bastions of liberal ideology, they actually are leaders in the generation of income inequality and the movement of wealth to a small minority of star faculty and administrators.”

Large universities are also major investors. When their investments do well, they can spend more on programs that add to their reputations, generate more grant money and student applications, and increase compensation for star faculty and administrators. When their portfolios do poorly, they use the losses to justify more cuts in undergraduate instruction. As major investors, universities are also heavily influenced by financial advisors such as bond rating agencies. The advice is based on financial rather than educational considerations: Cut instructional costs, avoid unions, rely less on public funding, borrow heavily to invest in projects with a future return, boost investment returns by accepting more risk, and so forth. The reports of the bond raters bolster Samuels’ claim that universities cut undergraduate spending because they choose to, not because they have to. “For instance, in 2010, at the same time the UC system was claiming a dire financial emergency, Moody’s gave it a high rating for its financial health.”

Economic considerations also help explain why students put up with being academically shortchanged. They need a college degree more than ever to get an edge in a competitive job market. They are, quite frankly, less concerned about the size of their classes and the quality of their instruction than about the ease with which they can accumulate credits and graduate. They don’t like the high tuition, but the fact that they will graduate deeply in debt only reinforces the idea that college is for getting a good job, not becoming a more creative thinker. Many students like large, impersonal classes because they are unchallenging. The tests are multiple-choice, the assignments are shorter and quicker to grade, and average study hours per week have dropped from 24 to 14 in the past half-century. It’s just easier all around.

From the professor’s perspective, it is simply easier to present knowledge and not have that knowledge questioned or criticized. From the student’s perspective, it is easier to just record, memorize, and then forget information; and it is much more difficult to actually think about and examine critically the knowledge presented in a class. In this type of educational cease-fire, students agree not to challenge the teacher, and the teacher agrees not to challenge the students. Everyone is happy, but is this good for democracy or even capitalism?

Samuels thinks not:

In response to this analysis, many people will argue that students go to prestigious institutions because they have great reputations, which allows students to go on to the best graduate schools and get the best jobs. If students at elite institutions do not get an effective education but simply purchase prestige, our country will produce leaders, workers, and citizens who lack the basic skills and knowledge to be effective inside and outside of the workplace.


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