'We Are Creating Walmarts of Higher Education'

As colleges feel pressure to graduate more students for less money, professors worry that the value of an education may be diminished.
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Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Universities in South Dakota, Nebraska, and other states have cut the number of credits students need to graduate. A proposal in Florida would let online courses forgo the usual higher-education accreditation process. A California legislator introduced a measure that would have substituted online courses for some of the brick-and-mortar kind at public universities.

Some campuses of the University of North Carolina system are mulling getting rid of history, political science, and various others of more than 20 “low productive” programs. The University of Southern Maine may drop physics. And governors in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin have questioned whether taxpayers should continue subsidizing public universities for teaching the humanities.

Under pressure to turn out more students, more quickly and for less money, and to tie graduates’ skills to workforce needs, higher-education institutions and policy makers have been busy reducing the number of required credits, giving credit for life experience, and cutting some courses, while putting others online.

Now critics are raising the alarm that speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down. “We all want to have more students graduate and graduate in a more timely manner,” says Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. “The question is, do you do this by lowering your standards?”

About 100 university faculty-members from all over the country plan to meet in January in New York under the umbrella of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a national movement that aims to “include the voices of the faculty, staff, students and our communities—not just administrators, politicians, foundations and think tanks—in the process of making change.”

The group says the push for more efficiency in higher education often leads to lower quality, and that reforms are being rushed into practice without convincing evidence of their effectiveness. Some of the association’s members point out that there has been little research into the effectiveness of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for example, even as the number of students enrolled in them skyrockets. One of the first major studies of MOOCs, by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, found that only about four percent of those enrolled complete them.

Meanwhile, to save money, more conventional classrooms are filling up with part-time faculty, often hired two or three weeks before they’re due to begin teaching, according to research by another organization, the New Faculty Majority Foundation.

“We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate,” says Karen Arnold, associate professor at the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at Boston College.

Steven Ward, a sociology professor at Western Connecticut State University and the author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education, likens the new world of higher education to another American business known for its low prices. Ward calls it the “McDonaldization” of universities and colleges, “where you produce more things, but they’re not as good,” Ward says, reviving a term first used in 1983 by the sociologist George Ritzer to describe a dehumanizing drive toward efficiency and control.

One of the biggest threats is the move in many states to allocate funding for public universities based on measures such as graduation rates, rather than simply enrollment, say Fichtenbaum and others. They say that will compel faculty to pass more students, including some who may not deserve to be passed.

“I have no doubt this is going to create a subtle pressure to pass students who wouldn’t otherwise,” says Fichtenbaum. He says the pressure may be even greater for part-time faculty, or those who don’t have the job security of tenure. Advocates for change say the faculty who resist it have an obvious stake in a status quo that doesn’t work.

Performance-based funding is only one of the efforts aimed at creating more college graduates, pushed by policymakers who are frustrated by this statistic: only 56.1 percent of college students graduate within even six years. Among those leading the charge are advocacy groups, philanthropic foundations, and President Barack Obama, who has called for the United States to retake the lead in the share of its population with university degrees.

“The idea that the system is working fine, and we just need to get students through more quickly, is false.”

But there is too little known about whether efforts to create more college graduates are affecting the quality of what is being taught, says Debra Humphreys, vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“There are a whole bunch of policies—like getting students through more quickly—most of which don’t pay attention to what they are learning,” Humphreys says. “It could be making a bad situation worse if we don’t look at the impact of not only how many students get through, but what they learn.”

She says there is certainly need for improvement in higher education, but the focus on increasing the quantity of graduates may be diverting attention from innovations that could improve the quality of their education.

“The idea that the system is working fine, and we just need to get students through more quickly, is false,” says Humphreys, a former professor of women’s studies and English.

Innovations such as so-called learning communities—in which groups of students take courses together—may help motivate students and make them less likely to drop out, which would in turn lead to more graduates. But assuming that “one change to the whole system” will achieve that goal is false, says Humphreys, “especially with the student body so unprepared and so diverse.”

The best ways to help students succeed include providing them with “a critical mass of interesting peers, interactions with professors and outside-the-classroom experiential learning,” says Boston College’s Arnold. Yet, “At the same time we know this, we are moving in the opposite direction.”

Take MOOCs. “Thousands are looking at this. But few are finishing the courses,” Arnold says. “In the end, education is an interpersonal endeavor.”

Mayra Besosa, a lecturer in Spanish at California State University-San Marcos, is more blunt. “Anything that creates distance in the teacher-student relationship will hurt the student,” Besosa says.

In the end, says Humphreys, when it comes to “getting students through more efficiently, more quickly and with the learning they need, we need to pay attention to all three. Otherwise, at least one will suffer.”


This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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Timothy Pratt

Timothy Pratt is a writer based in the Atlanta area. He has written for Reuters, The New York Times, the Associated Press, and The Economist

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