The Role of Higher Education Today, Part I

27 Mar

What Is the Role of Higher Education in America Today?

Observations of an Adjunct Professor


Jason Giannetti

Part I

Riddle: Idyll Idol Idle


So, a former student of mine made a formal appeal to the chair of my Humanities department to contest the grade on her final paper.  There is no need to go into the details of the assignment or her reasons for why she felt she deserved a passing grade.  The important fact here is that, after reading the student’s paper the chair agreed with me that the paper was quite terrible and merited the failing grade it originally received.  But, after affirming my initial assessment, the chair of my department and I continued to shoot the breeze about teaching and the varying quality of students at our institution.  In passing she remarked, “I mean, we accept a lot of students here who, were they not in this college, they would be on the street doing drugs, in gangs and crime, or who knows what.”  By this remark I am sure that her heart was in the right place and her intentions were the best.  She meant, I believe, that, though not a stellar institution, our college gives an opportunity to students who might otherwise never have the chance to improve themselves, their situations, their status in society, and, in fact, may be preyed upon by the malicious forces of their underprivileged milieu.  But this little off-hand comment put into stark relief for me the gulf of difference between two (perhaps compatible, perhaps incompatible) views of the function of higher education in America today.

I am going to have to be a tad bit unfair to my colleague by using her comment as if it reflected a full-blown, well thought out position.  That in mind, I would say that her position is that higher education, or at least certain parts of it, are and should be a safety-net and hand-up for at-risk individuals, traditionally oppressed or disenfranchised segments of society, and others who, but for colleges with low admissions standards, would be excluded from social and economic upward mobility and pursuing the American Dream.

My approach, by contrast, is a belief that higher education is a place to pursue intellectual exploration and attempt to satisfy the mind’s curiosity; a place where learning is sought for learning’s sake.  Now I certainly do not deny that higher education is and has been a passage to improving one’s social and economic position in life, but I think that to understand that to be the function of higher education is to mistake an incidental but important externality of the institution for its raison d’être.

Back to my student for just a moment in order to illustrate another, yet tangentially related issue.  The fact of the matter is that her quizzes and her mid-term paper did not earn her a passing grade.  All of her work and her class participation indicated a woeful deficiency in basic reading comprehension, writing skills, and the ability to analyze and synthesize material.  This does not necessarily mean that the student lacked the innate intelligence for such academic skills; it merely indicates at the very least an inadequate primary and secondary preparation for college – something that I am witnessing far more frequently each year.  This particular student is, I am sad to say, better equipped for the demands of college than many of the undergraduates (usually first-year students) that I encounter.  At least this student was able to include in her papers and quizzes complete sentences that were grammatically correct and indicated an understanding of the basic instructions.  More and more students I encounter in college are borderline illiterate.  Unfortunately this is not hyperbole.  Every semester I have an increasing number of students who turn in papers (papers that they were given every opportunity to write, edit, submit for review, and polish outside the classroom) that are unintelligible due to a deficiency in the most basic skills of sentence structure, spelling, grammar, and organization.  And this is happening at a time when almost all colleges have instituted a first-year requirement of an English Composition course consisting of at least one, but often two semesters in length.

The fact that such composition courses have become de rigueur in colleges and universities is itself an indication of a larger problem: the primary and secondary schools are not preparing students with the adequate basic skills required for college.  I teach in Massachusetts, a state that has made passage of the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) a requirement to advance grade levels and graduate high school for almost a decade.  One would think that such standardized test requirements would guarantee a minimum competency among high school graduates, but my personal experience has been that since teaching on the college level (often in community colleges and state colleges as well as private colleges that attract a majority of in-state students) for as many years as the MCAS requirement has been in effect, I have seen my students’ proficiency levels steadily decline.  More and more frequently, instead of facilitating the transformation of facts and information to a new level of sophistication, rigor, abstraction, finesse and elegance, I find that I am called upon to fill in the gaps of the K-12 education: teaching elementary reading comprehension and writing fundamentals.  It is impossible to help students build their intellectual palaces when the building blocks of the foundation are absent.  Or, as the coach of my son’s hockey league puts it, anyone can play soccer or football, but for hockey certain basic skills must be acquired before one can even play a game.  You can’t play hockey if you can’t skate.  Well, college is like that.

Now, this student who was appealing her grade was doing so because she was hoping to transfer to another college or university and her chances of getting accepted were understandably diminished if she had an ‘F’ on her transcript.  This raises another issue concerning the academically underprepared student: the temptation to pass the buck.  I am convinced, though I don’t have the proof, that the only way these students who are barely literate graduate high school and pass college courses is due to school teachers and college professors participating in the dirtiest little secret of education today: mutual non-interference.  By “mutual non-interference” I mean the implicit agreement between teachers and students that a quid pro quo takes place; the student is given an artificially inflated grade and in return that student does not make waves for the teacher.

On the college and university level this arrangement takes on even more sinister proportions because there, as opposed to the system in the primary and secondary schools, a large component of the professors’ promotion often depends upon the evaluations filled out by the students.  If the students receive poor grades (or if they think they are going to receive poor grades) then they often translate that into low marks for the professor.  As a result there is great incentive on the part of the professor to pass the student along to the next professor or institution or employer.  As Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses says, “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high.” (“A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ In College,” NPR, Feb. 9, 2011)  Or, as Professor Paulette Kurzer admits, “You [the students] don’t place demands on me, and I don’t place demands on you.” (Declining By Degrees, transcript, p. 17)

What all levels of education have in common is that students who are satisfied with their grades (deservedly so or not) translates into fewer headaches for administrators (or, as in my case, chairs of departments).  And this means that, even in the best of circumstances where direct supervisors are fair and dedicated to the integrity of the educational process, there is a tacit real or imaginary pressure to keep the students pacified.

But why keep students pacified instead of challenged to rise to the occasion?  One explanation I’ve found in my experience teaching college (and even in my experience at private high schools) is the premium placed on “retention.”  For a variety of reasons schools, both private and public, feel the need to retain their students.  On both the college level and in the lower grades the primary drive behind this is tuition dollars.  Public primary and secondary schools receive budgets per student.  With the rise of charter schools, retaining students in schools (or attracting them from other schools) has become a financial necessity.  In higher education there is not only the financial pressure to keep students enrolled, there are other forces afoot as well: political and institutional.  In Massachusetts, for instance, a 2007 Board of Higher Education task force came up with various suggestions to raise the retention and graduation rates of the state’s community colleges.  Despite the fact that many students do not attend community colleges with the intention of graduating from those institutions, but rather transferring to a different school after a year, this still put the political pressure on to keep students enrolled whether it was in the best long-term interest of the student or not.  In other colleges and universities, public and private, there are pressures created by the various ranking systems that include among the factors evaluated, retention/attrition/graduation rates.  This creates further pressure to find ways of providing second chances for students whose best interest may be to leave the institution, viz. academic probation.  And, it also creates pressure to encourage other students to stay even if they would prefer to study elsewhere.

My student with the grade appeal wanted to transfer into another college.  Who would take her?  Why did my institution accept her?  Admissions departments are under their own pressures to be either selective (again, a factor that can boost the college’s or university’s rankings) or to meet certain externally set goals – like salespeople out to hit their quarterly quotas.  At an institution where I taught, the school had faced numerous successive years of budget shortfalls, maxed-out lines of credit, and looming accreditation ramifications for repeatedly failing to balance the books.  In order to generate more “revenue” the school abandoned its mission to serve female students and it went co-ed.  It also, apparently, abandoned its hard-earned reputation for high academic standards and a rigorous undergraduate curriculum.  The admissions office generated numbers for the projected enrolled students for each new school year and, with one exception, they fell short as did the plans to finally get the school in the black.  A death-spiral ensued – lower revenue streams meant cuts to academic and extra-curricular programs and that meant more disgruntled current students who discouraged their friends from applying and that meant fewer numbers enrolled (not to mention the attrition rate of students who either transferred because they were under-challenged or failed out because they were not prepared for higher education but were accepted due to the low standards meant to bolster the registered-students rate) and that meant lower revenue streams. . . .

Finally the administration made some very radical changes to the entire academic structure.  These changes were largely unilateral (without the input from either faculty or students) and were touted in the name of making the school more attractive to prospective students.  In effect what it did was create a number of pre-professional “pathways” (in the lingo used to sell the plan to the faculty) and this was justified by the president’s claim that in this economic environment students are concerned that they get “a marketable degree.”  In the course of presenting these pathways it was revealed that though the undergraduate tuition was set at roughly $40,000, the average scholarship or tuition-reduction was approximately $20,000.  I thus suggested that we do away with the middleman of education and simply pay half of our students a flat salary of $20,000/year to attend our institution since what they are really interested in is a job.  The other half – those who couldn’t get in elsewhere but have the money to pay for it – could pay full price for the privilege of saying that they go to a college with a marketable degree program.

Unfortunately, this wagging of the dog by its tail has become a common practice across the board and thus we are barraged by advertisements touting “accelerated degrees,” “earn a master’s of such-and-such in only one year,” and undergraduate programs that highlight the internship opportunities and on-the-job training.  Furthermore, at many of the places I’ve taught the fact that numerous first-year students do not continue through to their sophomore year is a another dirty secret: many of those students were not prepared for college but their tuition dollars were not going to let that be an obstacle to their admittance.  In other words, the weaker students basically subsidize the scholarships for the merit students.

This unethical subsidy may seem to be a good business model, but is certainly not a good educational model.  It fails to take into account the countless hours spent by dedicated faculty trying as best they can to mentor and tutor their failing students (not to mention the hours of agonizing over what to do about them and thus writing musings such as this very essay).  It fails to take into account the drag on the more motivated and prepared students.  It fails to take into account the hours of paper work spent going over academic discipline for plagiarism cases and other cases of academic dishonesty; all of which is an inefficient waste of the plentiful resources the college could be applying to actually educating the students.

What this business model does pave the way for is something quite different from the ivory tower of academia.  It lays the groundwork for for-profit institutions of higher education where the bottom line is not the success of the student as a human being, but rather, the bottom line is the bottom line.  Thus the 21st century model of higher education is pre-professional degrees and so-called “vocational” degrees at for-profit institutions.  I say “so-called” because the root of the word “vocational” is vocare: “to call,” or rather, to be called, to find one’s calling.  That’s what, in my opinion, should happen at a traditional non-for-profit liberal arts college or university.  The “vocational” schools are really, with a few exceptions, “occupational” schools where one learns a trade or an occupation, from the root, occupare, “to be busy.”  Thus we see on the horizon the looming specter of The University of Phoenix and its ilk rising like the portent of a new dark ages for the liberal arts, that is, the free arts – the arts that are free from the constraint of the marketplace, business, material necessity, and other limitations to the boundless, useless, invaluable, and frivolous realms of thought.  The liberal arts are, as Aristotle says, “good for nothing” insofar as they are not a means to something else, but a good in themselves, an intrinsic good.

For a brief spell colleges and universities carved out of the work-a-day world an idyll for thinking.  That idyll, like Ozymandias’ kingdom, like Xanadu’s pleasure-dome and Coleridge’s brief vision of it, must come to an end and make way for the stranger from Porlock.

Incipit aetas feuilletonis.








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