What colour is the sky on Planet Consultant?
An OpEd by a S.R. Goodman, Educational Consultant, in the Washington Post calls for Hey, Profs, Come Back to Earth.
Er, we were here. Where were you?
First some choice quotes:
"...increasingly resentful of paying sky-high tuition for colleges they see offering their kids a menu of questionable courses and politically absurd campus climates that detract from the quality of a university education."
"If colleges don't tone down the politics, and figure out how to control ballooning costs, they run the risk of turning off enough American consumers that many campuses could marginalize themselves right out of existence."
"They're flabbergasted by courses with titles like "Pornography and Evolution," "The Beatles Era," or "Introduction to Material Culture," as well as educational values that appear only tangentially related to the reality of their lives."
"While the median income for a family of four is just a little over $62,000, middle-class families are regularly expected to come up with nearly $200,000 per child for four years of college."
"321 colleges and universities are sitting on endowments of $100 million or more"
"I'm not arguing that universities should teach only engineering, business and computer science. Liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions. But that tradition seems to have been stood on its head. There is a world of difference between challenging students to think more broadly and trying to shoehorn them into a more narrow spectrum of thought, which many parents feel is happening."
"Recently, I was advising an Eagle Scout who was justifiably proud of his accomplishment and wanted to highlight it on his college applications. But I worried that the national Boy Scouts' stand against homosexuals as scout leaders might somehow count against him in the admissions process at some schools. So I suggested that he get involved in an AIDS hotline to show his sensitivity to an issue often linked to the gay community."
Where shall we begin.
- Colleges are not politically active; the level of activity on campuses is at a 50 year low. Students are apathetic in bulk, and if the faculty appear to be stirring things up it is out of frustration at this apathy. Young people should care about something.
- Yes. Universities are expensive. First, state support for public universities is down from ~ 50% of their budget to typically less than 15%. This money has to be replaced from another source. Namely tuition. The arithmetic is brutal, if you want cheaper schools, then either you need bigger classes, or you need higher workloads on the faculty. The private schools are expensive because they have better faculty to student ratio and lower teaching loads. The State Universities with high tuition are holding down the faculty teaching loads to let the faculty do research. If that changes, then the faculty leave. You get different faculty, possibly even better teaching, but not better education, and a loss of a national resource.
Oh, and state funding is earmarked - it typically does not broadly subsidise tuition but is targeted (eg a powerful rural legislator may direct funding to Dairy Science - and that is appropriate; but doesn't help the cost of running a psychology major).
- Why are costs increasing so fast? 1) Benefits, especially health care. 2) Infrastructure costs - buildings put up rapidly to accommodate student number expansion in the 60s need maintenance or replacement now. 3) Unfunded mandates. Federal and State regulations need staff for compliance. This drives up administrative cost. There are secondary issues like cross-subsidies of other activities (notoriously athletics) and research (usually a gamble - spend to get research going so research income and prestige goes up, leading to payback in the long run)
- So what about the big endowments? Well, first of all, universities are racing to pad those out to compensate for income lost from State funding. Several universities are considering going independent. The constraints associated with State funding are just not worth the hassle. Secondly, endowment can't be spent arbitarily. It is for the most part seed money, with only the income from the endowment spendable (so the $100 million only buys you $4 million income per year).
Further, endowmenet has restrictions - some is for buildings (which then cost to run); some is for such specific things as undergraduate tuition scholarships (or, athletic scholarships! those count too).
- Liberal arts are not taught to showlight the marketplace of ideas or value of unpopular opinion. They are taught to so that students learn to think, to challenge received knowledge, provide context for the world they live in and to learn to learn.
The "stupid title" course are fun to pick at; but you know what - pornography is a very large and very lucrative industry, and one that is very sexually dimorphic. Maybe there are evolutionary drivers for male fascination with pornography, and maybe it is worth trying to understand what is going on there. Similarly the Beatles are now art history; up there with Mahler, Armstrong and Mozart.
- The purpose of a university is not to propagate the values of the parents; that is a task for the parents. If you don't like that, don't go to university and maybe the opportunity cost you recover makes that a cost effective decision. If that is what you value.
- Oh, and university admission committees don't look down on Eagle Scouts. Certainly not on sincere committed Eagle Scouts, doing it because the embrace the values of Scouting. Admission committees discount students who became Eagle Scouts only because they thought it would look good on their CV. The young man Mr Goodman advised should get involved in an AIDS hotline, should do so IF he sincerely cares about it and thinks it is important enough to spend his time on it; not as empty piece of resume padding. That shines through an application and makes admission committees wonder just what sort of student they're getting.
Grr. Universities are not perfect. But they're doing a much better job than bleedin' Educational Consultants.
Parents, stop gaming the system; prospective students - be honest about your abilities and interests and go take classes that interest you, not ones that reinforce your parents prejudices. There is nothing that makes some of us cringe more than the student majoring in "something practical" just because the parents insist that that is what they ought to be doing.