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Woke but Broke: How US Colleges Are Pricing Students, Themselves Out of Business

In Academia, higher education, university on April 28, 2021 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Daily Signal.

Whether their leaders realize or admit it or not, American colleges and universities are on the verge of a crisis. And it’s a crisis, by and large, of their own making.

The National Association of Scholars last month published a report by Neetu Arnold, “Priced Out: What College Costs America,” which finds, among other things, that an undergraduate degree is now prohibitively expensive for many Americans, who have turned to the federal government to subsidize their education.

“The average price of college,” writes Arnold, “has more than doubled since 1980.” She adds that “[n]early 44 million Americans now owe more than $1.5 trillion in student debt.”

That’s a lot of money.

Several factors have contributed to widespread tuition hikes, including university expenditures that, Arnold suggests, aren’t directly related to students or education, but rather primarily to professional administration—that is, to the hiring of more deans and directors and officers to comply with the growing number of federal regulations and accreditation reporting requirements.

That’s just part of the story. The trend of profligate university spending goes back several decades.

After World War II, politicians adopted popular slogans and mantras regarding the necessity of college for all Americans, Arnold explains. The idea, however quixotic, that every citizen deserves a college degree has propelled government spending and set public policy priorities since at least the Truman administration.

The “college for all” narrative motivated passage of the GI Bill, the National Defense Education Act, and the Higher Education Act, which, although designed to make college more accessible, inadvertently drove up the price tag for a university degree.

The ready availability of federal student loans has enriched universities and their administrators on the backs of students, Arnold says. Meanwhile, the quality of education has diminished, and the students are therefore unprepared, or underprepared, for the job market.

Administrators also have reallocated time and resources toward student comforts and amenities, rather than educational rigor and intellectual diversity. However, education, according to Arnold, is “meant to elevate the mind by introducing students to new perspectives and unfamiliar ideas.”

Colleges have become so expensive, she says, in part because they depend on federal money and aid that come with regulatory strings attached. The more government bureaucracy and red tape a university must manage, the more it will spend on compliance officers and offices.

Add to government data tracking and retention of the many reporting requirements of accreditors, and the costs of university administration rise even higher.

Encouraged to take out a massive loan for education that they cannot afford, students burdened by debt delay marriage, family, career, and homeownership to the detriment of society writ large.

We are entering a period in which Americans who still have student loan debt have children enrolling in college and taking on student loan debt.

Arnold says that “universities raise their prices knowing that students will take out loans to pay for the increased price,” adding that students “will bear the consequences for their own bad judgment, but the university will escape scot-free with the borrowed tuition money.”

But what if universities had “skin in the game”?

That question underlies “income share agreements” by which universities subsidize a student’s tuition in exchange for a portion of the student’s future earnings. Such an arrangement demonstrates that the university is truly invested in the student’s future and not just interested in the student’s tuition.

As American colleges and universities have grown increasingly radical and progressive in their political messaging and orientation, they have financially exploited the very groups—the poor, ethnic minorities, and first-generation college students—that the left purports to champion.

“Universities allocate substantial financial resources to fund social justice activities—and even just to provide salaries for social justice administrators,” Arnold writes.

But these costs fall upon young students.

“Priced Out” proffers several fixes and corrections to the current system, including consolidating duplicate administrative offices and roles, facilitating information transparency regarding federal grants and aid earlier in the college admission process, creating vocational curricular tracks staffed by practitioners, and holding institutions financially responsible for debt incurred by students who do not graduate.

Yet more reform is needed. Arnold’s alarming and comprehensive report is just one small step in a positive direction. Universities that take Arnold’s criticisms to heart and adjust accordingly will likely outperform their competitors in the long run.

Given birthrate declines, diminishing international enrollment, and a growing belief among young Americans that a college degree is no longer worth the price, universities must change.

Elite colleges (e.g., those in the Ivy League), colleges with large endowments, and state flagship institutions will probably weather the storm, as it were, but small liberal arts schools are particularly vulnerable in this climate.

Universities that fail or refuse to adapt and evolve could face a grim future—or, worse, no future at all.

Remarks on Neetu Arnold’s Report, “Priced Out”

In Academia, higher education on March 24, 2021 at 6:45 am

Russell Kirk on Higher Education

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, higher education, History, Humanities, Imagination, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 12, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

Russell Kirk isn’t known as a policy wonk. The Great Books, not the mathematical or statistical models of economic technicians, were his organon of choice. He devoted essays to broad, perennial themes like “the moral imagination,” “liberal learning,” and “the permanent things.”

Read his numerous columns about higher education, however, and you might come away with a different impression, one of Kirk as a political strategist with a strong grasp of educational policy.

Kirk wrote on a wide variety of issues involving higher education: accreditation, academic freedom, tenure, curriculum, vocational training, community colleges, adult education, college presidents, textbooks, fraternities and Greek life, enrollment, seminaries, tuition, teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, student activism, British universities, urban versus rural schools, boards of trustees, university governance, the hard sciences, grade inflation, lowering academic standards, libraries, private versus public schooling, civics education, sex education, school vouchers, university presses, and more.

One of his go-to subjects implicates several of those issues: federal subsidies. He believed that federal money threatened the mission and integrity of universities in numerous areas.

For starters, he believed that federal subsidies—and, it must be added, foundation grants—created perverse incentives for researchers, who might conform to the benefactor’s “preferences” and “value judgments.”[1] Recalling the proverb that “[t]he man who pays the piper calls the tune,”[2] he cautioned against financial dependency on outside influences, which, he worried, could impose ideological conditions on grants to advance or purge particular viewpoints.

Moreover, the grantors, whether they were foundations or the government, would, he believed, quantify the value of their funded work according to measurable outcome assessments that were “easily tabulated and defensible.”[3] The intrinsic value of reading Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, or Euripides, however, is not easily assessed in instrumental terms.

More fundamentally, Kirk viewed federal involvement in higher education as a step toward the centralization and consolidation of power at the expense of local variety. He foresaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education long before it occurred.[4] Fearing the growth of an “educationist hierarchy” or an “empire of educationism” corrupted by “sinecures” and “patronage,”[5] he favored small, private, liberal-arts colleges, which, he believed, flourished when they committed to mission and tradition.[6]

“The American college—the small liberal arts college—is worth preserving,” Kirk wrote, “but it can be preserved, in our time of flux, only if it is reformed.”[7] Kirk’s reform was reactionary, not progressive.[8] It rejected the popular focus on vocation and specialization and sought to train “men and women who know what it is to be truly human, who have some taste for contemplation, who take long views, and who have a sense of moral responsibility and intellectual order.”[9] Even if they can’t be calculated precisely, these vague-yet-discernable qualities of literate people are beneficial to society writ large, in Kirk’s view. In other words, there’s an appreciable difference between literate and illiterate societies.

Kirk decried the alarming escalation of tuition prices. In 1979, he wrote, “Attendance at colleges and universities is becoming hopelessly expensive.”[10] Forty years later, the costs of attending college have risen exponentially. Kirk opposed federal aid or scholarships to students,[11] but not, from what I can tell, for the economic reason that the ready availability of federal funding would enable universities to hike tuition rates to artificially high levels. Perhaps, even in his skepticism, he couldn’t conceive of university leadership as so systematically exploitative.

We continue to hear echoes of Kirk’s observation that the typical college student “oughtn’t to be in college at all: he has simply come along for the fun and a snob-degree, and his bored presence reduces standards at most American universities.”[12] Elsewhere, he claimed that “[w]e have been trying to confer the higher learning upon far too many young people, and the cost per capita has become inordinate.”[13] The question of why students attend college is closely related to that of the fundamental purpose of college.

Uncertainty regarding the point of higher education—whether it’s to develop the inquisitive mind, expand the frontiers of knowledge, equip students with jobs skills, or something else entirely—seems more pronounced today in light of technological, economic, and population changes. Moreover, it remains true that “most of the universities and colleges are forced to do the work that ordinary schools did only a generation ago.”[14] Shouldn’t higher education accomplish more than remedial education? Doesn’t it have a greater end?

Kirk certainly thought so—at least if higher education were properly liberal. “By ‘liberal education,’” he explained, “we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’”[15]

Kirk’s surprising wonkishness, and his facility in policy debates, always submitted to this overarching goal: Defending order against disorder, in both the soul and the larger polity.[16] “The primary purpose of a liberal education,” he said, “is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.”[17]

The aspiration of policy wasn’t policymaking. Kirk’s short-term strategies serviced a paramount objective: Namely, to seek wisdom, virtue, truth, clarity, and understanding. You can’t simply quantify the value of that.

[1] Russell Kirk, “Massive Subsidies and Academic Freedom,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1963), 608.

[2] Ibid. at 607.

[3] Ibid. at 611.

[4] Russell Kirk, “Federal Aid to Educational Bureaucracy,” National Review, Vol. 10 (February 25, 1961), 116.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Federal Educational Boondoggle,” National Review, Vol. 5 (March 15, 1958), 257.

[6] See generally Russell Kirk, “The American College: A Proposal for Reform,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1957), 177-186.

[7] Ibid. at 177.

[8] Ibid. (“our age seems to require a reform that is reactionary, rather than innovating”).

[9] Ibid. at 182-83.

[10] Russell Kirk, “More Freedom Per Dollar,” National Review, Vol 31 (April 13, 1979), 488.

[11] Russell Kirk, “Federal Scholarships,” National Review, Vol. 2 (November 24, 1956), 18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russell Kirk, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” Vol. 23 (May 18, 1971), 534.

[14] Russell Kirk, “Federal Education,” National Review, Vol. 4 (December 28, 1957), 592.

[15] Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 398.

[16] Ibid. at 400.

[17] Ibid.

A Discussion of English Departments, Higher Education, and Ordered Liberty

In Academia, higher education, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism on November 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

Focus on Reining in the American Bar Association

In Academia, higher education, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Politics, university on December 3, 2018 at 9:25 am

This post originally appeared here at the blog of the National Association of Scholars.

What the 2018 Election Means for Higher Education

When the 116th Congress is seated in January, political control will be divided, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans in the Senate. What does this mean for higher education? We asked a few NAS members to weigh in.

What does the 2018 election portend for higher education?  The question might be reframed this way: having lost their majority in the House of Representatives, what can Republican lawmakers expect to accomplish in the field of higher education between 2018 and 2020? The answer, in short, is “not much.”  So long, for now, to the PROSPER Act and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Perhaps with some experience in Congress, however, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will learn what makes up our three branches of government—a minor gain for education in this country, but a gain nonetheless.

One promising development involves the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX guidelines that would amend rules regarding sexual-assault adjudications on college campuses to restore certain due-process rights of the accused. These guidelines have now entered a 60-day period of public comment; if they are adopted, they will go into effect in 2020.

Will Betsy DeVos remain the Secretary of the Department of Education through 2020?  Given the number of dismissals and resignations among President Donald Trump’s political appointees, the question is worth asking.  And if DeVos is out, who is in?  President Trump reportedly offered the job to Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, before approaching DeVos.  Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, was allegedly in the running as well.  But would leaders of this stature and reputation give up the success they enjoy at their present institutions to take a position they might hold for no more than a year?  Not likely.

If I had one suggestion for the Department of Education going forward, it would be to strip the American Bar Association of its accreditation authority over law schools, leaving state supreme courts and state bar associations to determine whether graduates of any given law school may sit for the bar examination in their state. This move would require pressure from law schools, state legislators, and state supreme courts. It could unite conservatives and progressives in common cause. As I have stated elsewhere, “In this period of political rancor, reining in the ABA should appeal to both the Left and the Right, the former on grounds of racial diversity and fundamental fairness and the latter on grounds of decentralization and economic freedom.” There’s much more to say about this issue (see, e.g., here). My hope is that it becomes part of the national conversation.

Review of “Cheating Lessons,” by James M. Lang

In Academia, America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Pedagogy, Teaching on September 24, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared in Academic Questions (2014).

A few years ago, when I was teaching composition courses at Auburn University, I had a freshman from Harlem in my class. He had traveled from New York to Alabama to accept a scholarship and become the first person in his family to attend college. He was kind and thoughtful, and I liked him very much, but he was woefully unprepared for higher education; he had trouble comprehending more than a few paragraphs and could not write basic sentences. The university, however, was proud of this recruit, who contributed both geographic and racial diversity to the otherwise (relatively) non-diverse student body.

Encouraged by his tenacity, I met with this student regularly to teach him sentence structure and to help him turn his spoken words into written sentences. Although he improved by degrees over the course of the semester, he was never able to write a complete coherent paragraph.

During the last weeks of class, I informed him that he needed to earn at least a C+ on his final paper to avoid repeating the course. He was conspicuously absent from class whenever preliminary drafts were due, and he never responded to my prodding emails. Shortly before the due date, he materialized in my office and presented a piece of paper that contained several sentences. He asked me questions and attempted to record my responses on his paper. I reminded him that although I was happy to offer guidance, he needed to submit original work. He nodded and left my office. When, at last, he submitted his final paper, it consisted of roughly four intelligible paragraphs that regrettably had nothing to do with the assignment. I inserted these paragraphs into a Google search and discovered that they were lifted, verbatim, from a Wikipedia article unrelated to the assignment. I failed the student but showed him mercy—and spared the university embarrassment—by not reporting him to the administration for disciplinary action.

To this day I wonder if there was something I could have done differently to prevent this student from plagiarizing, or whether his cheating was the inevitable consequence of being unprepared for university study. Many teachers have similar stories.

Academic dishonesty, a topic now admirably undertaken by James M. Lang, has received more scholarly treatment than I was aware of before reading Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Like many of us, Lang grew interested in the subject because of his experiences with students who cheated in his classes. The more research he did on academic dishonesty, the more frustrated he became with “the same basic prescriptions” that were either quixotic or impracticable for one faculty member to undertake alone. One day, Lang realized that if he “looked through the lens of cognitive theory and tried to understand cheating as an inappropriate response to a learning environment that wasn’t working for the student,” he could “empower individual faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they constructed.”

Lang’s goal is not to score points or court confrontation, but simply to help teachers and administrators to reduce cheating by restructuring the content and configuration of their courses and classrooms.

Lang divides Cheating Lessons into three parts. The first is a synthesis of the existing scholarly literature on academic dishonesty that concludes with four case studies, about which little needs to be said here. The second part consists of practical guidance to teachers who wish to structure their classrooms to minimize cheating and to cultivate the exchange of ideas. And the third, which is an extension of the second, considers speculations about potential changes to curricula and pedagogy to promote academic integrity not just in the classroom, but across campus.

Most original are parts two and three, which are premised on the structuralist assumption that systems shape and inform the production of knowledge. The treatment of academic dishonesty as a symptom of deterministic models and paradigms makes this book unique. If the models and paradigms can be changed, Lang’s argument runs, then academic dishonesty might decline: the shift needs to be away from the “dispositional factors that influence cheating—such as the student’s gender, or membership in a fraternity or sorority, and so on”—toward “contextual factors,” the most significant of which is “the classroom environment in which students engage in a cheating behavior” (emphases in original). What’s exciting about the structuralist paradigm—if it’s accurate—is that teachers and administrators have the power and agency to facilitate constructive change.

But what if the structuralist paradigm isn’t correct? What if dispositional factors are more determinative than contextual factors in generating academic dishonesty? Lang’s argument depends upon a profound assumption that he expects his readers to share. It’s most likely that dispositional and contextual factors are interactive, not mutually exclusive: consider the student who is not as intelligent as his peers and who resorts to cheating because of his insecurity and the pressure on him to succeed. Lang is onto something, though: students are less likely to learn in an environment that compels them “to complete a difficult task with the promise of an extrinsic reward or the threat of punishment” than they are in an environment that inspires them “with appeals to the intrinsic joy or beauty or utility of the task itself” (emphasis in original). In other words, “in an environment characterized by extrinsic motivation, the learners or competitors care about what happens after the performance rather than relishing or enjoying the performance itself” (emphasis in original).

How does Lang propose that teachers and administrators structure their courses and curricula to foster what he calls “intrinsic motivation” (as against “extrinsic rewards”) among students? For starters, he urges professors to help students learn for mastery and not for grades, to lower the stakes per assignment by multiplying the options for students to earn points or credit, and to instill self-efficacy by challenging students and by affording them increased opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. In the abstract, these suggestions seem obvious and unhelpful, so Lang backs them up with interviews with accomplished teachers as well as anecdotes about successful classroom experiments: the improvising by Andy Kaufman as he taught Russian literature to prison inmates, for instance, or the unique grading system implemented by John Boyer at Virginia Tech. All the tactics and approaches discussed and promoted by Lang can be traced back to the premise that “the best means we have to reduce cheating is to increase motivation and learning.”

Teachers and administrators are forever trying to motivate their students to learn. It’s easier to conceive of this goal, however, than to achieve it. Teachers everywhere seek to inspire their students to love and pursue knowledge, and despite a plethora of opinions about how best to do so, no general consensus has arisen to establish a definitive course of action for all students and disciplines. Many teachers chose their profession and discipline because they relished their own education and wanted to pass on their knowledge and love of learning to others. Lang’s insistence that teachers inspire a passion for learning is hardly novel; rather, it is the touchstone and stands in contradistinction to the utilitarian, standardized, test-centered, and results-oriented educational strategies that politicians, bureaucrats, and policy wonks now sponsor and defend. In this respect, Cheating Lessons is a refreshing alternative; it’s written by an educator for educators and not, thank goodness, for semiliterate politicians and their sycophantic advisers.

One thing this book is not: a template or checklist that you can follow to construct your own productive learning environment for students. Each learning environment is contextual; one model will not suit every setting and purpose. Because Lang cannot and does not provide step-by-step how-to instructions, Cheating Lessons borders on the self-help genre and is more inspirational and aspirational than it is informational. And Lang’s meandering style—for example, his digressions about Robert Burns and coaching youth sports teams—are disarming enough not only to charm but also to contribute to the impression that Cheating Lessons is “light” reading.

Lang can overdo the playfulness and make exaggerated claims. Early on he quotes a Harvard administrator complaining in 1928 about the problem of cheating among students, an example that’s meant to refute the assumption that “we are in the midst of a cheating epidemic, and that the problem is much worse now than it was in the idyllic past.” Lang adds that he hopes to convince us that “cheating and higher education in America have enjoyed a long and robust history together.” But it’s not as if 1928 is ancient history. Data about academic dishonesty since that time will not convince most readers that there were as many cheating students in the one-room schoolhouses of the nineteenth century, when fewer people had access to formal education, as there are today. Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Lang invites us to “hop in our time machine and leap across centuries” to consider the cheating cultures of the ancient Greeks and of Imperial China “over the course of [a] fourteen-hundred-year history.” But surely the substantial data we have gathered on the twentieth- and twenty-first-century academy cannot be compared to the limited and circumstantial data garnered about these early cultures; surely “illicit communication” by “cell phones” is not comparable to the use of cheat sheets in nineteenth-century China. It seems preposterous to suggest that academic dishonesty in contemporary America exists to the same extent it did centuries ago on different continents and among different peoples with different principles and priorities.

Nevertheless, even readers skeptical of Lang’s structuralist premise and apparent optimism will find much in Cheating Lessons to contemplate and to amuse. Unfortunately, however, even after having read the book I’m still not sure what I could have done differently to prevent my student from cheating.

 

 

 

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