Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fixing Higher Education--Guest Posted by Lorne Carignan

Editor's Note: I'm including a post from my friend Lorne Carignan, a lawyer and writer living outside Flint, Michigan. Lorne and I debate many things political and policy. He is "left leaning" which I interpret as a statist--that is, he believes the state can solve many things whereas I believe the state can turn pretty much everything to shit. Still, we agree to disagree. In this case, I agree with nearly everything he says and have some additional thoughts at the bottom of his piece. Enjoy.


Higher education is expensive. Along with K-12, education is usually one of the largest items in states' budgets, consuming as much as half or more of all revenues. It's also a fair chunk of the federal budget. Governments provide funds directly to public universities as well as offering numerous grants and incentives for specific research and development projects.
Governments furthermore subsidize the attendance of students with grants, loans, and tax credits, while parents take out a second mortgage or otherwise find ways to scrape up the several thousands of dollars needed each year to send their child to college. But, of course, all of this money is seldom enough to satiate the ever-widening maw of higher education. Tuition rises each year and schools demand more government funds.
One function of the high cost of education is the amount of time it takes to complete a traditional four-year degree. The raw cost of education is not the only cost of sending a kid to college. Room and board, transportation, entertainment, clothing, and numerous other expenses add up to a substantial portion of the cost of higher education. This cost is multiplied for each year that a student remains a student, which is getting longer and longer for the traditional four-year degree. In some universities, it is taking students six years to graduate with a "four-year" undergraduate degree.
Part of the problem is that the high cost of education forces students to work longer hours, which results in taking fewer classes and staying in school longer. But arguably, a larger part of the problem is that college is a highly enjoyable protracted adolescence where young people live a hedonistic, irresponsible lifestyle funded by mom and dad and easy-to-get government loans. Scholarship quickly takes a back seat to pleasure in today's colleges, and students opt for lighter courseloads so they can allocate more time to extracurricular activities.
In addition to increasing the cost of education, lengthy stays in college increases the time-to-market of trained college graduates. With the ever-increasing pace of technological change and knowledge growth, the job market needs workers to bring state-of-the-art training to the workplace as quickly as possible. In the course of a typical stay at a four-year university, students may well find the first two or three years of coursework obsolete by the time they graduate, particularly if that coursework involves using highly specialized tools and software.
Finally, one of the most disappointing costs of higher education is waste. Too many young people graduate from college with "worthless" degrees -- degrees that do not provide them with necessary professional training to earn a wage that justifies the expense of going to college. Many colleges continue to offer degrees in fields that are already saturated with job candidates and for which there is little or no demand. The result is that, later in life, many graduates are forced to return to college to retrain for another career. This move is complicated by all the cost factors already discussed. But particularly frustrating for graduates is discovering that obtaining a second degree requires completing a number of additional "general education requirements" that were not required in their earlier program. These general education requirements can easily tack another year onto the process of earning a second degree.
What to do?
First, we need to decouple the notion of job training and education. Trade schools already do this for a limited field of vocational occupations. It's an admirable concept that needs to be extended to more traditional four-year programs. Eliminating the general education requirements from degree programs will reduce the amount of time a student has to spend in college. There's no need for a computer scientist to take a certain number of credit hours of humanities, social science, natural science, English, and history. Let them take their computer science courses and get out and go to work!
The ostensible reason for these general education requirements (GERs) is to create a "liberally educated" well-rounded individual, i.e, an "educated" person. The reality is, they are "blow-off" subjects that pad university revenues and students' g.p.a's. They are unnecessary, expensive, and worthless (or nearly worthless) wastes of time and money. Eliminating these GERs would shorten the time to graduation by as much as two years and make obtaining second degrees much more practical for workers in need of job retraining.
Next, consolidate programs at state universities to eliminate redundancies. There's no need for every state university to offer all of the same programs and maintain all of the same departments and faculty when educational functions could be consolidated in one or two schools and adequately serve the demand. Why maintain a half dozen or more state universities that all train teachers along with a host of private schools and community colleges? One or two state universities training teachers would be enough to ensure that the demand for new teachers is met. The same is true for many other degree subjects.
Finally, curtail or eliminate the antiquated and unreasonable "vacations" and "sabbaticals" that pepper the higher education calendar. There's no good justification for completely suspending education during the summer months, allowing a professor to take a year of paid leave, or giving students and teachers several weeks off in spring and winter along with the extended time between terms. The so-called "pressures" of teaching and learning are myths in today's world of graduate assistants and cushy courseloads. The ordinary demands of higher education are no more enervating than those regularly placed on workers in many professions, and often much less. There is simply no justification for these extended breaks and sabbaticals. Students need to get into college, learn quickly what they need to know without unnecessary interruptions, and get out as soon as possible so they can be productive members of the workforce.
These changes would reduce the funding necessary to maintain state universities, reduce the tuition subsidies to parents, make college affordable for more students, make job retraining more practical for displaced workers, shorten the time-to-market of state-of-the-art skills, and make more workers more productive in a shorter period of time.


One problem in American education is that the broad, liberal education from High School no longer exists. My own American History class in High School was ridiculous. My Honors World History class followed U of M's curriculum and was based on original works, but there was no continuity or time line, no perspective. So students getting into college have spotty liberal education. They leave with spotty education, too:

At universities such as Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Berkeley, seniors scored lower on the test, available here, than freshmen, living proof of the broadening relevancy of the old Harvard adage that the university is a storehouse of knowledge because "the freshmen bring so much and the seniors take away so little."

The average foreign student studying in an American college learned nothing about the country's history and its civic institutions, according to the study.

This is a problem, but I'm not sure the solution will come in the public schools or in colleges at this rate. The educational standards are too politicized. The post-modern take on subjective "truth" forbids honestly looking at history, economics and civics. The bias against rote memorization precludes a broad base of knowledge.

Basically, any subject outside of science and math means uneven education. The SATs focus their verbal scores on grammar, analogies, comprehension, etc. But the guts of the content is pretty meaningless. And in the business world, a liberal education doesn't serve one much anyway, but a math, science, finance, accounting, engineering or some other specialized degree will.

1 comment:

sandy said...

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