June 1st, 2006

Commentary: My College Education

My College Education

Looking at the Whole Elephant

By John Merrow
Published: June 2006

In a well-known fable, several blind men are asked to describe an elephant. One says, “An elephant is flat, like a pancake,” another that it’s “like a big snake.” Their descriptions are accurate but limited, based on whichever part of the beast each happens to be holding—the car, the trunk, and so forth. America’s “system” of higher education resembles an elephant: huge, lumbering, and difficult to describe, particularly for a reporter who’s spent nearly three decades reporting primarily on the schools. At times I’d grabbed hold of a part of higher education, reporting on student debt, profit-making institutions, part-time “freeway-flyer” faculty, and teacher education. But like much of America, I’d paid a disproportionate amount of attention to elite colleges (I reported on admissions at Dartmouth for NPR in the ’70s, Williams for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in the’ 80s, and Middlebury for PBS in the ’90s).That is, I had at various times grabbed hold of an ear or a trunk, but I had never thought much about the entire enterprise.

So what did I learn from making Declining by Degrees, my attempt to look at the whole elephant? Full disclosure: Going in, the list of things that I did not know about higher education was long. I did not know that nearly half of all college students go to community colleges or that “public” institutions do not receive most of their support from their state legislatures. I was not aware that most colleges and universities accept 80 percent or more of those who apply. Or that most new hires on most campuses are either adjunct or part-time. Or that few colleges or universities make an effort to systematically measure what (or whether) their students are learning. Or that most college teachers have had no training in teaching.

Once my colleagues and I knew these facts, and once we realized that higher education was not a “system” in the generally understood sense of the term, we began looking for themes that ran across the spectrum of institutions. from community colleges to elite universities.

The themes that emerged reflect what I learned:
I) Teaching and learning are declining in importance relative to getting a degree, because higher education is generally seen as a commodity to be purchased.
2) Institutions’ presidents and admissions offices spend a lot of energy chasing money or prestige or both.
3) Many instructors and students have arrived at the equivalent of a non-aggression pact-”Don’t expect too much of my time because I have research to do, and I won’t ask much of you but will see that you get a decent grade.”
4) As a nation, we are reneging on our commitment to access for all, so that today, when it comes to higher education, an individual’s economic status is the best predictor of his or her educational destiny.

Today the message to would-be college students is unambiguously anti-intellectual: You go to college to get a degree and consequently a good job. It’s all about the money. The shift in the expectations of students and faculty began around the time that America learned that college graduates made more money than high school graduates-as much as a million dollars more over their working lives. We saw billboards around Kentucky proclaiming that “Education Pays,” basically encouraging kids to go to college to nail down that good job.

And so the mantra became, “Since having a degree means you are going to make a lot more money, then you pay for it.” We learned that, in the waggish formulation, state-supported institutions are now more accurately described as state-located, because legislatures everywhere are cutting support, forcing institutions to raise tuition.

What we’re witnessing, University of Arizona President Peter Likins told us in early 2005, is a gradual slide toward privatization. Arizona, one of the four institutions where we determined to major in business. They often remain impervious to the efforts of their professors to expose them to new ideas and new information. Our student financial-aid system reinforces this college-as-investment message by making less money available in the form of grants and more in the form of loans. The message is that those who go to college are consumers and customers. And if they want to “purchase” a degree that means little in terms of educational achievement, it’s their right. In such an environment, professors, colleges, and universities are apt to give the customers what they want, not necessarily what they believe students need to know in order to live full lives.

Here’s a quiz for you. Name the presidents of any three of America’s 4,000-plus colleges and universities.

Readers of Change can probably pass that quiz, but odds are that most citizens would flunk it. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to take points off anyone’s grade. How could the public be expected to know the names of higher education leaders, who are largely silent on the great issues of the day? Today’s presidents get their names in the paper by saying something outrageous (for instance, Harvard’s Lawrence Summers’ politically inept comments about women and science). living too lavishly (former American University President Benjamin Ladner). or making millions (Lynn University’s Donald E. Ross).

Only three university presidents have spoken out against treating intelligent design as science: The leaders of Cornell University, the University of Idaho, and the University of Kansas. Maybe Rawlings of Cornell felt he could speak out publicly because his job was interim. He wasn’t worried about being fired, didn’t want the job on a permanent basis, and parochially didn’t have to spend most of his time raising money. The two other presidents made their views known in a less public way, in letters to their employees. Granted, even speaking out by letter was courageous in Kansas, where the state board of education has mandated including intelligent design in its science curriculum.

It hasn’t always been this way. Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, who led that institution for 35 years, declared, “Anyone who refuses to speak out off campus does not deserve to be listened to on campus.” Many 20th century university presidents were public intellectuals who also served as ambassadors and heads of major national commissions: Clark Kerr of the University of California, James Bryant Conant of Harvard, Jill Kerr Conway of Smith, Kingman Brewster of Yale, and Robert M. Hutchins and Edward Levi of the University of Chicago. Reporters knew to call them for opinions on burning issues of the day.

Perhaps today’s college presidents are not educating the rest of us on what matters to our national future because of their preoccupation with dollars. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s survey of university presidents confirms our observation that they devote much-perhaps most of their time to seeking money from legislatures and private donors. Five of the six issues that presidents consider most pressing have to do with money, and the sixth—retaining students—is only marginally related to teaching and learning.

I believe that the silence of higher education’s leaders on critical issues is contributing to higher education’s declining prestige. But they are nevertheless paid handsomely. Another Chronicle survey lists the $5,042,315 paid to Lynn University President Donald E. Ross in 2003-2004, an astonishing 112 times more than the $45,000 Hutchins made at Chicago in his best year, ] 951. Even adjusted for inflation, for leading a 40-year-old private institution that’s ranked in the 4th tier among Southern universities, Ross earned about 15 times more than Hutchins, who was guiding one of the world’s pre-eminent universities.

Since college presidents need money, they cut comers and save dollars by relying on part-time faculty and teaching assistants. Today about half of all new hires nationally are adjunct or part-time; at the community college in our documentary, the Community College of Denver, about 75 percent of the teachers are part-timers. We introduced the nation to one such professor, Bob Gibson, who was then teaching nine courses on four campuses but has taught as many as II in a single semester.

“Today I make somewhere around $29,000 to $30,000 a year,” he told us, “which is about the same amount I was making 20 years ago as a full-time college professor.” Part-timers rarely receive benefits or participate in institutional retirement plans. Gibson, now in his mid-60s, says he fully expects to teach “up to the end” because he cannot afford to retire.

Christine Johnson, the dynamic and capable president of the college (and Gibson’s boss), says she is unhappy with the practice of over-using part-timers but is forced into it. “It’s a way of both managing costs and discontinuing programs that are, say, low-enrollment programs. If we offer something and there isn’t much demand and it was a part-time person, then we just say. ‘We don’t need you next semester.”’

So institutions are saving money by hiring day laborers. But at what cost? And to whom? George Kuh, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), says students suffer because part-time teachers just aren’t around. “The time that one might spend in quiet solitude or talking with a student in an advising capacity just isn’t there,” Kuh says. “They don’t expect students to do as much of the activities as full-lime faculty do that would contribute to deep learning. In other words, they don’t necessarily ask students in assignments to draw from diverse perspectives, from different points of view, from different courses,” Bob Gibson, who appears to be a dynamic and dedicated teacher, knows his students lose out. About his own teaching he had this to say, “I am pretty much an assembly-line kind of a guy. I wish I could tailor-make my delivery-can’t do it. Too many students, too many classes.”

So what do institutions spend the savings on? The presidents I met were caught up in an amenities arms race that has nothing to do with education: they felt they needed to build dormitories with Wi-Fi, athletic facilities with climbing walls, and stadiums with luxury boxes to attract students. They also try to buy prestige. They aggressively recruit students who will raise their rankings in the U.S. News & World Report-and who arc, of course, predominantly white and middle- or upper-middle class-by offering scholar-ships to the ones with high standardized test scores.

“Merit aid” is the innocent-sounding term for what others call bribery. We met kids who had done well enough on the PSAT to qualify as National Merit finalists or semi-finalists and had consequently been offered significant scholarships by universities they had not even applied to.

States too have merit-aid plans, scholarships to high school students with high averages. regardless of financial need. Some educators maintain, with a straight face, that increasing merit aid docs not reduce the amount of money available to those who need financial assistance. Contradicting that are some hard numbers: several hundred thousand students who could not afford to go to a four-year institution last year alone. Some of these qualified students are in community colleges; no doubt others are in Iraq and Afghanistan or on the street. I don’t know how to measure the costs of denying opportunity to hundreds of thousands of citizens, but it has to be significant.

It’s not a well-kept secret that many teachers and students expect little from each other. We saw evidence of this every-where, but particularly on large campuses in lectures in which the professors seemed not to care whether their students were attentive. My colleagues and I joked about creating a video reel for insomniacs-images of sleeping students accompanied by droning professors. Our advertising motto would be “Safer than Ambien. more effective than Melatonin!”

How bad was it? One man lecturing about the politics of redistricting put up a five-year-old slide of a distant city’s voting districts and explained that the city council had redrawn the lines to isolate minority voters. If any students were interested, we couldn’t identify them. If this man had been concerned about engaging his students, he could have “redistricted” the class to make his point. He could have asked all the left-handed students to stand up, and
then told them they were all, from now on, residents of Voting District One, and so on. This would make the point about artificial voting lines-and it would have kept the students awake.

A political science class provided another powerful example of the deal in action. We found the professor to be
openly critical, even contemptuous, of most of her students. We filmed her walking around her lecture hall giving students back their corrected quizzes. “How could you get that wrong?” she asked one. “You don’t know that!” she exclaimed to another. She was, she admitted, teaching only about 10 percent of the class; the rest didn’t care about the material, and she didn’t care about them.

And the students upheld their end of the devil’s bargain. I took over her discussion class one spring morning and quickly learned that only three of the 20 or so students had bothered to do the reading (two pages!) to get ready for the class. How come, I wanted to know? No one raised a hand to answer, so I resorted to the old trick of staring at a student until she answered. She said she hadn’t done the work because the semester was “almost over.” I was incredulous. “It’s early April,” I sputtered. “The semester has five weeks to go!” She nodded in agreement, as if I had corroborated her observation. With five weeks to go, her semester was almost over!

Here’s the rub: 80 percent of the students in that class received a grade of B or better.

We also spent time in stimulating classes. in which teachers challenged their students-and vice versa. I was particularly impressed by Professor Tom Fleming, who teaches astronomy at the University of Arizona. Fleming gives his students, who have enrolled to satisfy Arizona’s genera] education requirements, radio transponders. In his lectures he explains a basic concept and then poses a multiple-choice problem based on what he’s taught them.

Using the transponders, students choose an answer, and the results show up on a big screen, providing instant feedback for Fleming. The results determine what he does next: if everyone gets it, he moves on. More likely, however, the results will be mixed- some get the concept, but many do not. So Fleming asks his students to talk with those around them, to try to change minds and votes. Then he asks the class to submit new answers. Again the results, usually much improved, show up on the big screen, and Fleming moves on to review the basic concept. In the words of Lee Shulman, an authority on teaching, “Tom has turned a large lecture class into a small one.”

But doesn’t that approach mean he covers less material, I asked him? “I cover about 80 percent of what I would normally cover if I just lectured,” he acknowledged, “but that’s a reason-able tradeoff, because the students retain the material.”

Shulman laughed when I told him about the tradeoff. “It would be a good deal if he covered only half the material,” he said, “because when he teaches that way, students learn, and that’s the whole point.”

It would be nice to think that professors everywhere will imitate Fleming and adopt his credo, “If they aren’t learning, then I am not teaching.” It was heartening to learn that one of the best professors we saw in three years, Austin Sarat of Amherst, saw the documentary and got in touch with Fleming to learn more about using radio transponders. Let’s hope that others do likewise.

We discovered what most in higher education already know: The pursuit of tenure often gets in the way of effective teaching. Before we began filming at Western Kentucky, we asked the provost and others to lead us to some outstanding instructors. They gave us Brian Strow of the economics department, a young man in his fifth year on the tenure track. He was brutally candid about the effects of pursuing that lifetime appointment: he doesn’t require homework or a term paper, doesn’t use a textbook, and gives only multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank tests.

“As an economist, I understand the concept of ’scarce resources,’” he told me, adding that his colleagues told him that he had to focus on his own writing, not on reading essays by students. “I won’t get a raise here based on my teaching. If I want a raise, I have to get my research published.” Strow also compromises on grades, so that a grad of 50 (out of 100) becomes a C. “Thc name of the game here is retention,” he admitted, and his president, Gary Ransdell, agreed. “If he wants to get paid, he better retain students,” Ransdell said.

Strow will probably get tenure, but his students—at least the ones I spoke with—feel shortchanged. They admit to doing very little work, usually an hour a night or less, while getting high grades, but they told me that they actually expected more. One Western Kentucky University sophomore in Strow’s class proudly proclaimed that he was maintaining a 3.4 GPA despite studying less than an hour a night, but then he wondered aloud, “It’s not supposed to be this easy, is it? Shouldn’t college be challenging?”

An Arizona student became our symbol of a dysfunctional system, a poster child for students’ treading water on their way to a diploma. One Tuesday evening—or ‘Boozeday,’ as it is sometimes known—we followed 22-year-old Robin Shalla and friends from his apartment, where they downed shots of vodka, to a popular campus bar, where they chugged beer and downed more shots. “I like to get drunk,” said Bhalla. “Not blackout drunk, but I like to get drunk. You’re able to talk to girls a lot more. And I like girls,” By I a.m., he was “FUBAR,” which politely translated means “fouled up beyond all recognition,” and was asked to leave the bar. When Shalla saw a student he felt had insulted him earlier inside the bar, he rushed the man, intent on fighting. His friends pulled him away, and Bhalla reeled around the parking lot cursing.

When he woke up the next morning, Shalla recalled, “I was so depressed,” he said. “I was just like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” But that moment of reflection soon passed. “If I sat there for days like that, what good’s going to come out of it,” he asked, apparently rhetorically. Shalla professed not to remember the altercation the night before.

Bhalla, a psychology major with a minor in business, had honed his routine: drink excessively on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, procrastinate on homework, then cram. “I was still able to manage to get my school stuff taken care of during the day,” he said. “I wouldn’t be just messing around, watching TV, or hanging out with friends all day.” He stopped going to most of his classes but still made the dean’s list last spring and graduated, in an extra semester, in December 2004.

The afternoon after his FUBAR night, Bhalla sat in a dormitory lounge and reflected on the purpose of college. “You go so you can get a job and make money when you’re older. But at the same time you get life experiences that are priceless, like networking,” He adds, “I’ve made so many connections I never would have been able to make without it. And these are all my friends and people that I know from the bars and from classes and, you know, people that I’ve hung out with that later in life I’m going to be able to call on and be like, ‘I know you have a job with this company. Do you know if they’re hiring, or can you get me an application. Can I use you as a reference?’” Bhalla chose Arizona to get away from the ground rules of home. “My parents always needed to know where I was, what I was doing. ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ And they’d always be hounding me to do my homework. So I always had someone to tell me what to do.” He admits he went “a little crazy” with his giddy new independence on a campus of more than 40,000 students where he could easily be anonymous.

“No one’s going to say, ‘Now, this is what you need to do for the rest of the semester to get a good grade,”’ he explained. “Here it’s, ‘we’re not going to watch you. Turn it in if you want; if you don’t turn it in, we don’t care.”’ And so college became an endless party. Bhalla doesn’t think he was alone. “A lot of people just try and coast by and don’t do the readings. They try and cheat off the homework, copy their friends’. When they go to the test, they just try and wing it or cheat.”

Chuck Tatum, dean of Arizona’s College of Humanities, understands how tough it can be to make the transition from the rigid structure of high school to college life. “In high school there are direct consequences for not doing your homework. You lose points on your final mark. In high school there’s instant feedback. You’re in a class of maybe 25 or 30. Here you walk into classes where suddenly you’re not expected to show the teacher on a daily basis you’ve done your homework. You’re told, ‘There’s going to be a midterm, and maybe a paper and then a final exam. Go forth and make the best of it.’ You’d better believe that certain students can’t handle that.”

George Kuh, the director of NSSE, describes students like Bhalla as “maze smart”-they have figured out what they have to do to get through. Students discover that they don’t have to attend class. “All they need to do is to buy the book and then work with a team of students to figure out what’s going to be on the exam.” Shalla didn’t disagree. “Teachers say, ‘For every class you should do a certain amount of reading,’ but I never do that,” His approach: “Toward the end of the semester I just start scanning, browsing the readings or looking at my notes to see
what the teacher said was important, and then I read those parts of the readings, and I’d usually be fine. And lots of teachers give out, like, study guides that make it easier,”

Richard Hersh, former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, calls Bhalla a classic example of the “mutual non-aggression pact.” He says that many professors see teaching as a requirement they have to fulfill in order to do research. “So the professor goes into class and doesn’t ask much of students, who in return don’t ask much of the professor. The professor gives out reasonably high grades as a way of camouflaging that this bargain’s been struck, his evaluations will be satisfactory, and students don’t complain about grades or about whether they’ve learned much.” In Hersh’s view, the real scandal is low standards that allow students like Robin Bhalla to coast through with minimum effort and do relatively well, “even though Robin has to be held accountable for his own behavior.”

Kuh’s survey reveals that one-fifth of all undergraduates are “disengaged,” going to large universities because they want to be anonymous. “They’ll pick large classes. They’ll go through the distribution of grades in different majors and pick the easiest one. Then they tend to hang together, a mass of people sleepwalking their way through college.” He says these students miss the point of college. Calling this higher education’s “dirty little secret,” Kuh finds it “inexcusable” that colleges don’t identify these students early and intervene to get them to change their behavior.

At the end of a three-hour interview, Bhalla was asked if he regretted anything he had done at Arizona. “These are the years that I’m not going to have back,” he said. “And I don’t want to be 30, 50, looking back and wishing I’d partied then because I can’t do it now.” After graduating, Bhalla moved to Miami and began working for a pharmaceutical company.

We saved the most important lesson for the end of the documentary:

We spent two years on college campuses and what we saw is disturbing. The future does not look bright. The country needs a renewed social contract so that anyone with talent and determination can go to college, and colleges need to pay more attention to teaching and learning. We don’t have much time, because, while American higher education is declining, much of the industrialized world is moving up, fast.

But what’s to be done, and what comes first: more support, or proof of better performance? Back in the 19th century, an Ohio town along busy rail lines was concerned about train safety, so according to legend the town council passed an ordinance: When two trains approach each other, both must come to a complete stop and neither may start up until the other has left. That recipe for a guaranteed stalemate seems to describe the relationship that exists between higher education and government. Higher education argues for more money so it can get better, while government says, in effect. no more money until you get better.

Most control over higher education lodges in the state, but if you happen to believe that the federal government can solve higher education’s problems, then help is on the way in the form of the high-level National Commission on the Future of Higher Education, established by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

But let’s look at the track record. Federal efforts to police schools of education by requiring them to publish (and raise) competency exam pass rates of their graduates have been a farce. Education school competency rates are all hovering around 100 percent now, but does anyone believe that the new graduates of education schools are now bri1liant? Another example of government at work is the Bush Administration’s brilliantly named “No Child Left Behind.” NCLB means well, but it has led to a national obsession with multiple-choice testing and test preparation in English and math, to the exclusion of art, music, physical education, and the humanities. Unfortunately, the improvements that states have reported on their NCLB tests have largely been contradicted by the neutral and well-regarded NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests.

It’s easy to conjure up a three-step scenario in which I) the Administration’s higher education commission issues a blue-ribbon report that recommends (or demands) improved graduation rates and other external measures of “quality,” 2) Congress and state legislatures pass laws requiring improvement and 3) graduation rates go up almost immediately. Victory is declared. I promise you that it won’t be long before another pesky documentary filmmaker (maybe even us!) demonstrates that the government-mandated improvements are illusory.

With or without forceful national leadership, higher education will have to improve one campus at a time. Happily, this improvement is underway on some campuses. Efforts like the NSSE and the Collegiate Learning Assessment provide tools for campus self-assessment. Many universities are creating small learning communities on their campuses, a proven way of making a huge and impersonal campus seem like a small college. Arizona and many other colleges and universities offer free teacher training for instructors, sometimes sweetening the pot with free laptops and other inducements.

However, absent forceful academic leadership on many campuses, no one should be surprised if the federal government, state government, politicians, rich trustees, or religious leaders attempt to fill the vacuum.

We need national and state leadership that recognizes the societal value of education. The ownership society encouraged by President Bush may make sense when it comes to homes. cars, and big-screen television sets, but that mind-set corrupts education. It’s offensive and immoral when the best educational opportunities go to those with the most money. Society is now paying a large cost because so many graduates leave campus laden not with learning but with debts. and those debts prevent them from becoming teachers. social workers, and nurses.

Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” has a wonderfully enigmatic line, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”
I feel that way about American higher education.

So did we describe the elephant that is American higher education accurately? Or did we spend too much time behind the elephant, as a few have suggested? In our effort to describe the beast, we were impressed by students who squeeze as much as they can from their college experience and by teachers who dedicate their energies to seeing students succeed. Too much is left to chance, however, and too many lives are blighted by our national indifference to what is happening on our campuses during the years between admission and graduation.

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As a college student in 2019, I can say confidently tgat it seems this has only gotten worse! Depressing.

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