Time To Fix Higher Ed

Whenever there is a conversation in Washington about competitiveness you can almost guarantee that it will quickly default to “fixing K-12.” And usually along the way someone makes the statement, “We all know that K-12 is broken, but thank God the United States has the best higher education system in the world. But as I argued last year in a post “The Failure of American Higher Education,” we don’t. I argued that there was disturbing evidence that many colleges were failing to adequately educate their charges. I cited findings from national tests that showed that among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40 percent were proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy, respectively.

Now a new book reinforces these findings. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Professors Richard Arum and Jospipa Roksa, argues that many students now get through college taking easy courses, doing little homework (50 percent less than students did in the 1960s), and failing to learn key skills. The book is based on a study by Arum that showed that in their first two years of college, 45 percent of students made no significant improvement in skills related to critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication. After four years, 36 percent had made no substantial improvement. In other words, one-third of college graduates wasted their money – unless you define spending 4 years not doing much work and getting to go to football games for free as not a waste.

The reason is not really a mystery. Faculty are not rewarded for teaching; they are rewarded to publishing academic journal articles. If faculty actually do hold their students to high standards, they often pay the price in low student evaluations. So it’s much easier to have a mutual pact – students won’t be pressed to work hard and faculty won’t have to put in the time it takes to really teach young adults how to think, write, analyze and communicate. Students can party, faculty can write their articles.

When I wrote the blog last year, I received a large number of emails from university and college personnel. What was perhaps not striking was that the faculty responses were almost uniformly critical – I didn’t know what I was talking about, they actually were working hard, it was the students that were lazy. I especially enjoyed the email from one faculty member saying that he did mark up student term papers but almost none of them picked them up after the semester was over. It never seemed to occur to the faculty member that perhaps he should mark up papers earlier in the semester and demand that students rewrite poorly written papers if they wanted to pass. But that would require more work.

But what was striking was the fact that I received a considerable number of emails from provosts, college presidents, and even the chancellor of a system that largely agreed with me. Uniformly they agreed that education levels were not what they should be at college.

This is not to say that all colleges or all faculty do a poor job. There are many colleges where teaching is the main activity and where students and faculty are held to very rigorous standards. There are colleges that have taken new approaches. For example, at the University of Charleston in West Virginia, the focus is on student learning instead of faculty teaching. The curriculum requires students to be proficient in six areas deemed critical to a liberal arts education: citizenship, communication, creativity, critical thinking, ethical practice, and science. Their comprehensive set of assessment tools lets the college prove students’ return on their investment.

So what to do? I have a simple, no-cost solution that could be implemented by executive order of the President tomorrow and would go a long way to fixing the problem: require that as a condition of receiving any federal support that colleges and universities participate in and report their scores for the National Survey of Student Engagement. Each year the NSSE asks freshmen and seniors at participating schools to answer questions about their educational experiences – their classroom participation, interaction with faculty, and time spent on various enriching activities, for example. The survey helps universities know where they rank compared to other schools and where improvements are most needed. The survey could also provide valuable information to prospective students and parents. Yet currently most schools refuse to make public their scores because they are worried unfavorable scores will deter students from enrolling. Requiring this information to be available to parents, students and employers would start to make the “education” process in higher ed more transparent, and put pressure on higher education to pay attention to quality. It’s not a silver bullet but it is a bullet that would begin to move higher ed in the right direction.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.
  • Randy Jackson

    Is the higher ed system broken? You bet. But the top reason students aren’t learning is not that:a) Faculty are rewarded for publishing;b) Faculty are too heavily involved in research and don’t care about teaching; orc) Faculty don’t work hard enough.The top reason, in my opinion, is that student teaching evaluations are given far too much weight in faculty evaluations. I know this seems contradictory to most people, but here’s what happens. To be eligible for merit salary increases, promotion, tenure, etc., faculty need very positive teaching evaluations. But they learn in very short order that high scores on student teaching evaluations come not from presenting challenging, rigorous, and demanding material and courses (and course work), but from being entertaining and “making the material accessible”, which very often translates to dumbing down the material. In the long run, the outcome of this regression to the mean results in fact results in a mean that itself declines, and students emerge from universities unprepared.In more than two decades of university classroom experience, I learned that if I prepared an “easy A” type course, and spent class time on enhancing my popularity, I could get extremely positive evaluations. I refused to do this more than once, however, given the disapproval I saw in the face of the man in the mirror. What evaluations did I get in response to challenging, rigorous, and demanding material and courses? The typical evaluations would include about 5-10% who would say the course (and instructor) was the best ever! Around 40% would be lukewarm (e.g., a 4 on a 5 point scale), and about half would say the course was too difficult, was too demanding, was based on an expectation of too much in the way of pre-requisites, and took too much of their time (after all, they had other courses, too!). Combined, this results in a below average evaluation, contributing to little if any merit salary increases, no promotions, and no tenure. And no tenure means you are job hunting. It’s a bit like a tradesman doing an apprenticeship and never obtaining a union card, except that a negative tenure decision means starting over elsewhere or finding a new profession.There are excellent students and excellent professors in today’s university classrooms. The problem is that the incentives that are embedded in the faculty evaluation structure are at odds with the goals of preparing students to compete successfully in a global economy.Are there faculty who aren’t good teachers? Are there professors who care more about their research than about instruction? Are there lazy professors? Of course the answer to all of these is yes. But the proportions are surprisingly small. If there is interest, I’ll address the research/instruction balance in future posts.rj

  • Rob Atkinson

    Randy I agree that student evaluations are a problem. I saw the same dynamic when I taught. Why bother with the hassle of bad evaluations when you can avoid then, or lessen at least, by demanding less of the students. Rob