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

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. 

Presented by

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

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