The Priorities of U.S. Higher Education Defy Understanding

The next president of the University of Maryland, apparently. Wait---that was the previous post!

The out-of-control costs of higher education are one of many systemic problems that plague America, and it is one that I confess baffles me completely. I do not understand why tuition is so high and continues to climb. I do not understand why universities pay professors huge salaries for minimal teaching duties, and I don’t see what expensive buildings and beautiful surroundings have to do with education. I don’t understand why students pay outrageous sums to be educated then take trivial and absurd courses, like the now-cancelled Columbia University undergraduate course that was to consist of hanging out with the Occupy Wall Street gang to endear oneself with course’s OWS-loving professor.

Most of all, I do not understand the persistence of the myth that a college education can, does, or should qualify a graduate for good job, when it appears that a large percentage of students, if not a majority, leave the campus unable to write, think, or name the men on Mount Rushmore. Decades ago, as an administrator at major law school, I was shocked to discover that the school held remedial reading and wring courses for some first year students, one of them a graduate of Yale.  Do you think the problem has improved since then? A college education in the U.S. is a poor and declining product that is over-priced and over-hyped, and I don’t understand why people are willing to go into debt to purchase it, and why the manufacturers haven’t cut costs, improved the product, and lowered the price.

Well, maybe I do understand. Like so many other problems, the reason for this one may be no more mysterious than the fact that those in charge are irresponsible, incompetent, and unaccountable.

This week brought the news that crews will begin demolishing the president’s house at the University of Maryland, and begin construction of a new 14,000-square-foot mansion that will cost the school at least  $7.2 million. The palatial new digs for Maryland U’s president is being built in the midst of the university’s pleas for donors to contribute funds to rescue Maryland students who may be forced to drop out because of their family’s financial plights.
Meanwhile, the current president, Wallace D. Loh, has said that he will cut eight varsity sports teams in June to save an estimated $29 million over the next eight years. Do you understand this?

University officials have answered complaints about the exorbitant construction cost by arguing that the expenditure is necessary and will “pay huge dividends” by attracting the supporters and major donations needed because state funds make up less and less of the institution’s overall budget. Now I’m back to not understanding. I thought universities were about education, not building pretty houses. Why is where the president lives so central to fundraising?

The entire higher education culture is apparently off course and drifting into the rocks. There is no commitment to substance, just show. The degrees are meaningless; grades are inflated to justify the obscene tuition costs, and administrators believe, probably correctly, that donors care more excited about real estate than nourishing minds.

I understand this: university leadership that can argue without shame that spending over seven million dollars on the president’s home—and I don’t care how many fancy receptions will be held there—is more important than putting the money into teaching students has abandoned its commitment to education.

But I know what they’ll say.

“You don’t understand.”

20 thoughts on “The Priorities of U.S. Higher Education Defy Understanding

  1. “The entire higher education culture is apparently off course and drifting into the rocks.”

    Boy, you said it.
    It’s nice to see this topic being mentioned here. It’s one about which I feel especially passionate, and I probably should be doing a lot more to agitate for a change in the direction of that entire culture.

    I could go on and on about higher education, but for the moment I’ll just speak to your comment about a college education as a job qualification, when graduates can’t write, think, or name the Presidents. What burns my hash is the fact that I thought my college education would demonstrate that I in fact am capable of thinking critically, writing effectively, and am acquainted with a reasonable number of meaningful facts. That’s why I was willing to pay obscene amounts of money I don’t have to obtain it. I thought those things would be job qualifications, but now the sorry state of fellow graduates means that my degree doesn’t say any of those things about me, no matter how true they happen to be. All that the truly educated and committed college graduates have to demonstrate their qualifications are their words and their minds. And who’s paying attention to those?

  2. I have asked these questions about what is driving up college costs. Here is what I have found.

    (1) Not faculty: Faculty salaries haven’t been going up much, probably not as fast as inflation. Tenure track faculty are being replaced by throw-away adjuncts and lecturers who are paid less and the remaining tenured faculty are getting sub-inflation rate raises. To put things in perspective, some NCAA coaches make more than the top 100 faculty at my institution and it only takes 2.5 student’s tuition to pay my salary and benefits.

    (2) Administration: As with the rest of US business, management is getting bigger and bigger. Vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, assistant associate vice president, Deans of this, but not that special interest group , specialty analysts and advisors, and the staffs for all of the above are growing much faster than inflation.

    (3) Luxury accommodations: Students don’t want to live in a dorm anymore. They have a master suite at home and they are not going to share a bathroom. They also need a wellness center (not a gym) with a climbing wall, Jacuzzis, saunas, and a massage parlor (well, not yet, but next year…). These cost a lot of money and that gets tacked onto the tuition.

    (4) Sports and recreation: Sports are very expensive. Facilities, coaches, trainers, ‘scholarships’, and travel all add up. For nonrevenue sport without an expensive facility costs (say volleyball) you are looking at $8000/player. Don’t say “But my school’s sports MAKE money”, they don’t.

    (5) Specialty centers and museums, cost a lot of money and have to be funded somehow.

    (6) Manicured campuses and newly renovated buildings: Students don’t want to go to a campus where the buildings look old.

    The result is that at my school, only ~1/3- 1/2 the budget is spent on education. But it gets even worse. The state schools in my area charge ~$15,000/year in tuition and fees, but they get funded by the state even more than that. In fact, if my school was given the same layer of state funding that the state schools get, the students could go at no additional cost. I don’t mean tuition, I mean tuition, room, board, and books! My median class size is 7 students, but the big schools that teach sections of 600 students spend twice as much. The difference is the amount of sports, activities, foundations, centers, museums, and other academic activities they have. From the numbers I have seen, my guess would be that the average state school spends less than 1/4 of their budgets on educating students. With such a reality, education is not a major emphasis. Now, things such as the mansion should make more sense.

    • The B.A. of today is the high school diploma of the 1970’s. That is why employers require it. You can normally expect some degree of literacy from college graduates.

      • And you can’t expect some degree of literacy from high school graduates? Forget the priorities of U.S. higher education; if that’s the case, what the hell is wrong with U.S. secondary education? Basically, what you’re implying is that something that we used to provide to children as a matter of civic duty we’re now blowing off until they’re eighteen years old, and providing it for an outrageous fee once it’s too late for it to really do them any good.

        • Wait a minute. You can expect literacy from a college grad, but the odds are that you’ll be disappointed. You should see the raw comments I get here and how I have to edit them—and my guess is that the Ethics Alarms readers are at the top of the charts.

          Law School teaches the basic skills now that were once required in high school—analysis, rhetoric, reasoning, writing, argument—that’s the best reason to go to law school.

          • So, Michael is saying that high school has failed so spectacularly that college is now necessary if a person is to simply be literate. And now you’re saying that college has failed so spectacularly that law school is necessary for a person to be able to formulate a coherent argument.

            Doesn’t that just devalue law degrees? Shall we continue following this trend until everyone in the country has two PhDs, $200,000 in student loan debt, and can’t construct a proper sentence?

            • Yes, it devalues law degrees, just as artificially making college educations more common (and making grading a joke) devalued college educations. People who care about really being educated and getting credit for it will go where they have to.

              And yes, you have defined the worst case scenario end-point. Or we could start being rigorous in elementary school again, kick out disciplinary cases, and let teachers teach.

              • And the latter is indeed my view. Until we fix education at lower levels, we’re just going to continue reinforcing the idea that more education is the solution to bad education.

                In the meantime, I think it’s a little simplistic to say that “people who care about really being educated and getting credit for it will go where they have to.” There is nothing I care about more than my education, but I no longer see value in institutions of higher learning, and even if I did, I absolutely cannot afford a graduate degree. What’s more, I don’t see that obtaining one is a rational choice. If a BA from NYU qualifies me for exactly nothing, what cause have I to believe that an additional degree will be the thing that opens wonderful career possibilities to me?

                People who care will go where they have to – within their means and according to what is rationally justified. But should anyone have to mortgage their entire future on the chance to obtain an entry-level position, after spending eight years in school acquiring inferior skills? Why is that “where they have to go”? Can’t prospective employers come up with some other method for determining whether a candidate can complete a thought? Give me a written test of critical thinking skills. Anything. Or just, you know, talk to me and make a judgment as to my intelligence and character.

                  • Unfortunetly, most positions are all but filled before the interviews even begin, at least at my company. They see an resume online that they like and bring them in for an interview that is mostly just newhire paperwork.

  3. Can’t prospective employers come up with some other method for determining whether a candidate can complete a thought? Give me a written test of critical thinking skills. Anything. Or just, you know, talk to me and make a judgment as to my intelligence and character.

    They soon will if the value of the college degree drops below what the value of the German mark was in 1925.

    It seems that the only present-day degree that I know of that has any value would be the U.S. service academies, and only because of the high standards maintained both for initial entry and continuation.

  4. With the housing market being as it is, I’m sure El Presidente could pick up a fairly substantial house in the area for far less than building this palace at the taxpayers’ expense. Surely there’s someone in the business department that can help him out. Or do they teach these things anymore?

  5. I see a few issues- we started requiring diplomas/degrees in the 70s because IQ tests were seen as discriminatory. The credential, not the ability, became the qualifier. As the credential became more important, it’s value increased, introducing corruption. High schools and colleges are afraid to fail students, grades are inflated, etc. As financing became easier for higher education, people were looking at the monthly expense vs the actual costs- like desperate people buying used cars at ‘buy here pay here’ lots. Because the money’s cheap and it’s easy to qualify, students were shopping for more bells and whistles- just like people did with the housing market. The schools learned to manipulate the financing and started calling it an ‘investment’.
    Take away the easy financing and many of these schools will become ghost towns. They’ll either fold up their tents or become very innovative.
    Having one kid in college and another getting ready has really opened my eyes to this racket. Maybe I’m not seeing it right, but it’s clearly a racket.

  6. 1. In my opinion, most people will pay anything to attend college not for the education, but for the degree. These days, so many people earn BAs that you’re uncompetitive in the job market if you don’t have one. This is the unfortunate but inevitable outcome of a hiring meritocracy: Competition for jobs inflates qualifications requirements. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the universities for this reality.
    2. I have yet to meet a college professor who is paid an exorbitant salary for teaching. If anything, your average university professor is underpaid. Many professors (according to their disciplines) could do better in the private sector, yet they remain at educational institutions.
    3. I attend University of Maryland, and I can tell you that this whole “President Loh’s mansion” issue has been blown way out of proportion. First of all, President Loh had nothing to do with the plans for the new President’s Residence. These plans were in place under Loh’s predecessor, Mote. Moreover, the Residence is primarily for fundraising functions, not housing Loh. Various functions held at the Residence are expected to raise much more money than will be spent building it (and multiple bidding contractors asserted that a rebuild would be cheaper than renovating the outdated building). Finally, everyone should understand that THE REBUILD WAS FINANCED ENTIRELY BY PRIVATE DONORS, not by the university. If you don’t believe me, check out this article by the school paper:

    • 1. But if the degree doesn’t denote an education, then degrees are progressively worthless.
      2. Professors spend few hours actually teaching, and many don’t even grade their own papers and exams. Many are poor public speakers. they change their courses little from year to year. I don’t see by what standards you can say they are underpaid. It’s a cushy job by any standard.
      3. I didn’t write that Loh was necessarily at fault. I mentioned the fund-raising argument, and as former university fund-raiser, I think it’s ridiculous and dishonest. And if private donors gave money to the mansion, that’s money that could have been raised for educational purposes. These are not persuasive rebuttals

      • 1. I agree that bachelors degrees are losing their value the more people have them. What solution do you propose, however? Restrict who can go to college? Moreover, not all bachelors degrees are the same. The U. Chicago graduate with a decent GPA will probably outcompete the average University of Arizona grad in the jobs hunt. Institutional prestige and academic performance still matters. The diploma of a respected school still denotes education (which is why schools spend so much money bolstering their image). You haven’t given any evidence to support the alarmist cries of grade inflation, beyond some unconvincing anecdotes. I sincerely doubt that Yale graduates many illiterates.

        2. You make sweeping generalizations. Most professors don’t receive large salaries, and teaching is just one component of their jobs. Plus, it’s become common practice for universities to hire non tenure-track professors. These professors lack job security, may be inches away from the poverty line, and slave for years in the hope of attaining a coveted permanent position. The way some universities (including UMD) treat much of their faculty is the real ethics concern here.

        3. You assert that “if private donors gave money to the mansion, that’s money that could have been raised for educational purposes.” True, but do you understand the concept of investment? A $7.2 million donation to the mansion’s construction becomes $40 million in revenues for education over the next several years. If you don’t want universities to fund-raise effectively, don’t complain that their tuition is too expensive. Loh already lives in a house off-campus that he purchased himself. The President’s Residence is meant to serve as a ceremonial event space for fundraising. The old Residence wasn’t even handicapped accessible.

  7. Also, those questioning the need for nice buildings on a well-groomed campus would do well to remember that a university is more than just a giant schoolhouse. It’s an entire community, and classes only comprise a portion of what a campus does for its student body. Activities, events, lecturers, facilities for enriching mind and body–All of these thing make universities community-oriented places.

    If I’m to spend four years living where I learn, I want livable dorms and a gym and mowed grass. I understand that this raises the price of college, and for those unable or unwilling to pay, there are other options out there. Online education (the ultimate in practicality, I imagine some might argue) is becoming more and more mainstream. It’s also possible to save money by earning lower-level credits at a community college. In fact, the utilitarian, no-frills higher education you are claiming to desire sounds a lot like what community college already is.

    Our system of higher education is far from perfect, and I agree that its rising expense is troubling. Nevertheless, try to reign in your righteous indignation and sweeping indictments. I suspect more college students would prefer today’s system of higher education to that one you would want for us.

    • I’m sure more college students would prefer a system that involves as little education as possible, with guaranteed A’s, and facilities that would do the Astors proud. So what? If multi-million dollar mansions are what you want to pay for, fine: then don’t make me listen to bellyaching about crushing student loan burdens and high tuition.

      Online education is education in name only, and a viable substitute only because the colleges are doing so little at so great a cost. Criticism of irresponsible misuse of public funds is not righteous indignation, but responsible citizenry. Money is scarce, and the fact is that a neatly mowed lawn never taught anybody anything.

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