The Forgotten Student: Has Higher Education Stiffed Its Most Important Client?

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How the prestige game costs students more money for a lower-quality education

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In a much discussed op-ed in the New York Times, an executive director at Goldman Sachs, Greg Smith, skewered his company for rewarding traders who sold bad products to their clients, whom they nicknamed "muppets." It struck a chord because it played on our stereotypes of investment bankers putting profit before people. But investment banking isn't the only institution with a client problem.

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Universities should provide their most important clients, students, with a quality liberal arts or professional education at a reasonable cost for a finite period of time. Unfortunately, many universities do not prioritize their clients' educational needs. College professors are neither trained nor rewarded for excellence in the classroom. Incentive structures and university culture reinforce other activities, such as research, service on committees, and graduate education.

Not Trained To Teach

The system's flaws are apparent from the first day a newly hired professor walks into a classroom. 

After finishing their dissertations, PhDs are hired by a college, based on publication records, the reputations of their references, and the name of their graduate programs. If they happen to have picked up a little classroom experience through a temporary position, it is rarely considered by hiring committees. 

Unlike other educators, college professors receive no formal instruction on how to teach. Newly minted PhDs are expected to teach Introduction to Political Science or Macroeconomics to 35-200 students without training in classroom management, pedagogy, and assessment. They have had no mentorships or student teacher training. Would you go to a dentist who never learned how to drill teeth? 

In addition, their graduate education forced them specialize to such an extent that many find it difficult to convey the wide breadth of knowledge that is required in lower level, undergraduate classes, the very meat of a college education. 

Good Teachers are Not Rewarded 

Despite this lack of training, many do excel at this activity. However, good teachers aren't professionally rewarded. During promotions, teaching quality receives less attention than more measurable outcomes, like publications and service on committees. Terrible student evaluations may sink a tenure applicant at some schools, but mediocre reviews are always acceptable. So, good teachers are forced to put their lectures aside and focus on assembling large binders of research papers. 

This emphasis on publication over teaching has extended down from R1 or research colleges to all levels of schools. State and city colleges who in the past ushered millions of working class kids into the middle class have stepped away from the original mission and have gotten into the research game. Even community college professors are expected to publish in order to get tenure. 

The increasing importance of school rankings and the algorithms behind those rankings have contributed to the neglect of the classroom. College rankings are largely based on reputational evaluations from academics. Faculty have very little knowledge of the quality of other schools, except for seeing references to those institutions with authorship credit in peer reviewed journals. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out last year in the New Yorker, the quality of classroom instruction does not figure into these ranking calculations. As school compete for students and dollars that come with high rankings, they push their faculty to publish more and more. 

The pressure to conduct research, attend conferences, and get publications does not only come from school administrators. It's part of a more complicated incentive structure. Every ambitious academic hopes to move up the food chain of universities to a school with higher salaries and a lower teaching load. To do so, they must publish. 

Cheap Substitutes Take Their Place

As faculty concentrate on research, cheap substitutes take their place in the classroom. This task is often pushed off to adjunct professors for $2,000 to $3,000 per class and no benefits. At many schools, 50 - 70 percent of classes are taught by low-wage adjunct or contingent faculty. Even high school teachers are now taking on the task of college education. Smart high school seniors can rack up enough college credits through AP courses, so they enter college as second semester sophomores. This practice devalues college teaching even more. 

Unlike undergraduate teaching, graduate education is valued, which explains its exponential growth in recent years. Faculty love the small class size of graduate programs. Here, they have an outlet for their narrow research interests. Administrators are happy to set up these programs, because M.A. degrees are big money makers for the university, and PhDs students become the adjuncts who will teach the undergraduate classes. Also, these programs are carrots for recruiting big name faculty. As a result, advanced degrees are overproduced in relationship to real job opportunities. 

With little prestige and few rewards, teaching undergraduates becomes the KP duty of academic life. Even serving on tedious administrative committees is preferable. Others struggle to remain good teachers amidst other demands on their time.

Research and publication is a legitimate element of the academic experience. It's a form of professional development; an energized, intellectually enriched professor might transfer that energy into the classroom. Some research is genuinely a good thing for humanity. However, the responsibility of colleges to provide instruction has been lost in the process.

Some suggest creating two tracks of professors: those who specialize in teaching and those who specialize in research. Both tracks would be equally compensated and rewarded. Those who teach would have fewer research expectations. Those who do research would have minimal teaching responsibilities. While this proposal has been kicking around for years, there is little incentive to implement this program on a large scale.

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Colleges are similar to giant corporations who have lost sight of their client. Rather than the students, faculty serve foundations and government agencies that provide grant money. Universities are no longer creators of knowledgable young people. Instead, they are creators of research papers, which are perversely hidden from the public. This research increases the ranking of the school and the reputation of individuals, but has only tangential benefits for the undergraduate student. The original mission of schools - teaching kids - has been pushed off to adjuncts and high school teachers.

"Publish or perish" has long been a fact of academic life, but this motto has been taken to an extreme. In a few short years, my son will fill out applications for college. As a customer of higher education, I want my child to attend a school, whose primary mission is educating him. I would also be happy if they got him out in four years and without $100,000 of debt

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Laura McKenna is a former political science professor who writes regularly at Apt. 11D.

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