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Higher Ed on the Rocks

Anthony Grafton has a thoughtful piece in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books that reviews a series of recent books on the university system and draws some sobering conclusions.

For most of them [today’s students], in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into…

Is the higher education bubble about to pop? I don’t know. The more thoughtful writers warn against monocausal explanations. Bowen and his colleagues, for example, test the effects of student loans on attrition rates. They conclude that it is not clear that debt is a primary cause of student failure. Still, these developments are interwoven, in the experience of many students if not in the intentions of legislators. Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect. You work at Target or a fast-food outlet to pay for your living expenses. You live in a vast, shabby dorm or a huge, flimsy off-campus apartment complex, where your single with bath provides both privacy and isolation. And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops.

It’s no wonder, in these circumstances, that many students never really internalize the new demands and standards of university work. Instead they drift from course to course, looking for entertainment and easy grades. Nor is it surprising that many aren’t ready when trouble comes. Students drink too much alcohol, smoke too much marijuana, play too many computer games, wreck cars, become pregnant, get overwhelmed trying to help anorexic roommates, and too often lose the modest but vital support previously provided by a parent who has been laid off. Older students—and these days most are older than traditional university age—often have to work full-time and care for children or parents, or both. Those likeliest to encounter these problems are also the ones who haven’t been schooled since birth to find the thread that can lead them through the labyrinths of the bureaucracy. They aren’t confident that they will see an invitingly open door, where a friendly adviser or professor is eager to help them, and they don’t have parents hovering, eager to find that helper for them.

This is sober analysis of one of the most troubled and important institutions we have. Grafton doesn’t side wholeheartedly with either those who attack the system root and branch or those who want to defend the status quo.  He’s struggling to develop a fair minded and honest perspective on a complex system that does some things brilliantly well and others abysmally.  I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but I find that engaging with his thoughts helps me develop my own — and often, leads me to question some of my assumptions.  We need much more work like this as our society looks to reform and restructure postsecondary education.  Read the entire piece here.

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  • will

    As a university professor in a humanities field, one of the key problems I see is that inadequacies of K-12 education have been kicked down the line for colleges to remedy. That means students lacking adequate training in writing and math struggle to get that from introductory college courses. Many students outside selective colleges don’t read for fun. They lack a broad knowledge base. So things have to be taught at a basis level, even with intelligent students. It’s a vert poor use of resources

  • Luke Lea

    Perusing an 1895 edition of The Yale Review, I recently ran across this essay, “Misunderstandings About Economic Terms” written by Arthur Twining Hadley. Hadley was the president of WRM’s alma mater at the time, the first president of Yale who was not a minister, according to Wikipedia, who guided it through a period of expansion and consolidation.

    My point? Well, read the essay and then ask yourself: what leader in American higher education today could write an essay half so well, demonstrate analytic and synthetic skills a fifth as strong, or say something of one-tenth the enduring value as Hadley?

    One of the things that ails the American university system today is a lack of leadership. We need a new Conant, a new Hutcheson. Where is he or she?

  • WigWag

    Israel offers an interesting wrinkle on higher education that just might provide a better approach for the United States.

    As Dan Senor recently pointed out in his book, “Start-Up Nation,” Israeli University graduates seem to be particularly well-suited to the creation of new ventures. How does Senor explain the entrepreneurial inclinations of Israeli graduates?

    He thinks that part of it stems from the fact that Israeli students are older than either American or European students when they begin their academic studies.

    Prior to beginning their college course work the vast majority of Israelis have done their military service which may be two, three or four years in duration. This means that many Israeli students don’t enter university until they are in the early 20s. It’s no wonder that they are less interested in carousing, drinking or smoking pot; they’ve outgrown most of that by the time they are ready to get started with their education.

    According to Senor,

    “In the military, young Israelis learn to be leaders and make high stake decisions early in life. The Israeli army is also deliberately understaffed in its senior positions to ensure that it remains nimble. Military personnel at the junior level are trained to make quick decisions to ensure that no time is lost. Young people are taught to not disobey but challenge people in senior positions, and this follows Israelis into their start-ups.”

    It is also interesting to note that a much higher percentage of Israeli students pursue degrees in engineering, software design and the hard sciences than American students do.

    I wonder whether it might make the American college experience more valuable if our students started their studies at a later age.

    For more on Senor’s thoughts, go here,

  • Anthony

    “Engaging with his thoughts…leads me to question some of my assumptions” while not over looking evidence that America’s public schools (K-12) are coming up short.

    WRM, Anthony Grafton’s piece reads forthrightly and points to what has (in many places) conspicuously become environs for routine job holders (tenured/researched id instructors) and bureaucratic academic administrators; institutions where academics (core curriculum and student value become secondary to tenured academic and administrative employment) and student outcomes (except for selected few) have become subordinated to other institutional interests.

    Most alarming WRM is that these attrition outcomes are taking place in the midst of widening labor-market gap vis-a-vis those with at least a bachelor’s degree and those without (in 1975, those with a bachelor’s degree earned approximately 60% more than those with a high school diploma; now, the gap is approximately 100%).

    Human capital and its importance to 21st century America has to become integral, once again, to texture and flavor of the American university/college experience.

  • Corlyss

    “For most of them [today’s students], in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline.”

    Gee! What was his first clue? My dad told me that very same thing when I asked 50 years ago why the [heck] I should tack on 4 more years of bondage to the school system when I had already run out of patience with it at 15. As long as you aren’t studying the hard sciences, that’s all a degree has meant, for at least those 50 years.

  • Richard Treitel

    I concur with WigWag (or is it Dan Senor?) that we must challenge the assumption of “Your education finishes when your first job starts.” That structure worked very well for me, but I know others who would have done better, or did do better — including two Israelis — by returning to education after some years elsewhere. Going further, I encourage every teenager and her/his parents to challenge the assumption that more years of college are automatically better. It’s hardly surprising that presidents of four-year colleges promote this assumption! But after learning the basics (which might stop before the 18th birthday) I’d rather trust people to design their own educations than urge them to follow the beaten track and call them “drop-outs” when they don’t.

  • Kris

    “Students drink too much alcohol, smoke too much marijuana, play too many computer games”
    Preposterous! This is clearly impossible!

    More seriously, I found Kenneth Anderson’s take enlightening. (See especially the section starting with “I’ve suggested”.)

    Wig@3, I’d propose that not only are those Israelis who enter university more mature (as you state), but so is their entire cohort. That means that a perhaps significant number of people who don’t belong in university (by ability or temperament) are mature enough to recognize this fact, and thus don’t dumb down the system.

  • Jimmy J.

    I attended college 1950-54. There were still some WWII GI bill students and some from the Korean conflict began arriving. They were almost all serious students who raised the level of competition for grades.
    40-50% of freshman classes flunked out the first year. Those who remained were properly motivated and mostly qualified to continue on.

    In the late 60s when I was recruiting college students for Naval aviation training, we considered a college degree prima facie evidence that the enlistee had the ability to learn and the work/study habits to master the flight training. However, not all of the recruits made it through flight training because it was hard and there was no “grade inflation.” As it should be.

    In 13 years in the Navy and 25 years as an airline pilot, study habits learned while in college were invaluable to me through the constantly recurring classes and check rides. I was thankful that I had to work hard to make it through college – it developed the habits needed over a lifetime of work.

    It appears to me that grade inflation and over promising have created a situation where the students expect too much and are ill prepared for the rigors of work place competition. However, the colleges have boxed themselves into a situation where they need the students’ revenue just like any company with a product for sale. Tough grading and flunking those who should not be there doesn’t work for their business model. I see little improvement in the future unless student loans become less ubiquitous and the model has to change.

  • Barrow Jeffrey Genius

    To me; I belived that every student must put GOD first in all is life span in other to succed greatly in all he does. And also remain a good christian in is soceity. To tell you the truth; Jesus Christ in the BIBLE is the almight GOD in the whole universe. Pray for wisdom and understanding when you read your BIBLE.

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