Higher Education in America (part 3)

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The second of Derek Bok’s “urgent priorities” for higher education–besides increasing the number of students earning college degrees–is improving the quality of instruction. While most of the highest-ranking universities in the world are in the United States, that in itself does not establish the quality of American undergraduate education. “The impressive global rankings of American universities reflect the accomplishments of only a handful of institutions, and even the high regard in which the latter are held is largely due to the excellence of their research rather than the quality of education they provide.” Bok fears that an increase in the number of degrees granted could come at the expense of quality. “Efforts to increase the percentage of young Americans with college degrees (and lower the costs of educating them) are attracting far more high-level attention than attempts to maintain and increase the amount they learn along the way.”

The diversity of institutions described earlier makes it hard to achieve a generally high standard of quality. For-profit colleges have come in for special criticism. They specialize in providing job preparation for students of modest means who rely heavily on federal grants and loans to pay the tuition. Critics charge that they recruit students too aggressively by overselling what they offer, then leave too many students underprepared and overindebted. “Six years after entering a for-profit institution, students are more likely to be unemployed and out of school than students of similar qualifications who entered not-for-profit institutions.”

Results for community colleges have also been somewhat disappointing. Although two-thirds of their students start out with the intention of transferring to a four-year college, no more than one-fourth actually do so. “The most careful study to date suggests that even six years after entry, only 36 percent of students entering community colleges have either earned an associate’s (two-year) degree or gone on to graduate from a four-year college.”

As economic inequality continues to worsen, “America could easily end up with a two-tier structure of undergraduate education: an expensive, quality tier primarily for those who can afford it, and a low-cost, heavily vocational education of marginal quality for all the rest.”

However, Bok sees lots of room for qualitative improvement in the comprehensive four-year colleges as well. He believes that a movement is already underway to implement new methods of instruction based on a growing body of research about what works. In particular, he welcomes a movement away from lecturing, “a method repeatedly shown to be one of the least effective means of developing higher-level thinking skills or helping students to achieve a deep comprehension of challenging subject matter.” Instead, professors should “spend much of the time in class having students grapple with problems raised by their readings.”

Bok also sees great pedagogical potential in online education. Students can interact online with their instructor and one another, access source materials more easily, conduct experiments and participate in simulations. Instructors can monitor online discussion groups and assignments and adjust their teaching accordingly. Much of this potential remains to be realized however. As it stands now, only the most highly motivated students complete online courses very often; teachers haven’t resolved how to prevent cheating and give reliable grades; and a portion of the population still lacks broadband access. Effective design of online courses is also a big challenge. Bok quotes Lawrence Bacow: “To date, no sustainable platform exists that allows interested faculty either to create a fully interactive, machine-guided learning environment or to customize a course that has been created by someone else….”

Another concern is what students are actually studying, considering the range of goals that higher education is supposed to achieve:

For almost a century, undergraduate education in the United States has pursued three large, overlapping objectives. The first goal is to equip students for a career either by imparting useful knowledge and skills in a vocational major or by developing general qualities of mind through a broad liberal arts education that will stand students in good stead in almost any calling. The second aim, with roots extending back to ancient Athens, is to prepare students to be enlightened citizens of a self-governing democracy and active members of their own communities. The third and final objective is to help students live a full and satisfying life by cultivating a wide range of interests and a capacity for reflection and self-knowledge.

Bok clearly regards the liberally educated person as both a better citizen and a better worker. He cites research demonstrating the value that companies and business leaders place on general abilities like “thinking critically, communicating effectively both orally and in writing, acquiring a sensitivity and concern for ethical issues, and learning to understand and work effectively with people of different cultures, backgrounds, and races.” He is concerned about the amount of coursework undergraduates complete in vocational specializations, citing research indicating that science and engineering majors show declining proficiency on many of these abilities over the course of their education.

Bok then questions whether traditional college course requirements are serving the objectives of higher education very well–so many credits in a major, so many credits of electives, “leaving only the limited time left over to achieve all the other purposes the faculty chooses to adopt.” That time left over is often spent meeting a “general education” requirement by taking a smattering of survey courses in various departments. The system works for the faculty, since each academic department in guaranteed a certain audience for its courses, but maybe not as well for the students. “It is possible that some of the requirements agreed to by the faculty are uneasy compromises that threaten to produce the worst of both worlds–making enough demands on students’ time to represent a burden but not enough to afford much chance of actually achieving the hoped-for results.”

Having recently reviewed Robert Samuels’ critique of higher education, I find it interesting to compare his perspective to Bok’s. They agree on a number of things: that universities often spend too much money on things that are marginal to educational quality, that the things that really matter are often less visible and harder to measure, that the time students are required to devote to their studies has been dropping, that an emphasis on research sometimes detracts from undergraduate instruction, and that instruction relies too heavily on the lecture method.

Samuels goes on to make a much stronger charge, that undergraduates are being fundamentally shortchanged, since tuition is going up but the portion of revenue spent on undergraduate instruction is going down. Samuels seems more concerned than Bok that the percentage of undergraduate classes taught by traditional tenure-track faculty has fallen to about one-third, and that many of the part-time and adjunct instructors who have replaced them are less qualified in academic degrees and experience. Bok is more ambivalent about this trend, saying on the one hand that “the use of part-time instructors…has also been found by some analysts to contribute to grade inflation, higher dropout rates, and other adverse effects on quality,” but on the other hand that “student course evaluations find that part-time and adjunct professors are usually rated at least as highly as the regular tenure-track faculty.”

If we place a high value on both Ph.D. programs and years of postdoctoral study and teaching experience, don’t we also have to worry about turning more classes over to less credentialed and experienced teachers, whether the students can tell the difference or not? I believe in course evaluations, and I believe that students can tell if teachers are organized, clear in their presentations, and fair in their testing, among other things. But the depths of a professor’s knowledge is much less obvious to them. I received surprisingly good evaluations as a young teacher called upon to teach subjects I knew very little about. I taught from a much more substantial knowledge base in my later years, but I’m not sure that my students knew enough to tell the difference.

Another issue where Samuels is more critical than Bok is class size. The non-lecture methods recommended by both writers require professors to give much more attention to the students’ individual thought processes, by engaging students in class and evaluating their oral and written arguments instead of just grading standardized tests. But only Samuels explicitly calls for smaller classes to facilitate such engagement.

Of course, highly qualified professors teaching small classes cost money. Both authors would like to reduce the costs for students, but Samuels is more willing to call for increased spending on undergraduate education to help bring this about. In a way it is easier for him to do so, since he believes that undergraduates are currently being overcharged in order to subsidize research and graduate education. One result is the production of more Ph.D.’s than can find the jobs they’ve been trained for, since the same universities that train them prefer to hire cheaper labor instead. So while Bok would improve the quality of instruction primarily through pedagogical and curricular reforms, Samuels would accomplish it more through a fairer redistribution of educational resources.

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