Book Review: Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker & Claudia Dreifus

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After 4 years as an undergraduate and another 4 doing research at Duke as a graduate student, I feel I’m beginning to understand how academia works.  In an effort to further edify myself on the inner workings of academia, I read Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus.  The authors’ primary goal is to compare what higher education was originally designed to do against what it looks like now.  They make some good points, but sometimes take their ideas too far in my opinion.  Here’s a rundown of their main points:

Put the “education” back in higher education

The focus of higher education should be on education.  On first read, this may seem to be a reflexive statement, but it reflects a pervasive issue at colleges and universities.  Professors’ jobs consist of research, teaching, and service, with most of the emphasis on the first two.  As long as those activities are in balance, everything is right with the world.  But currently it seems that many professors’ careers are off-kilter.  At top-tier universities, research is paramount.  MIT, Harvard, and their ilk recruit those who are the best scientists and academics but not necessarily the best teachers.  As such, education for undergraduates suffers to the point that professors try to get out of as much teaching as possible.  It becomes difficult to find enough faculty to cover all the courses.

My personal experience with this is that research mentors are minimally supportive or sometimes outright hostile to students who want to take time away from their thesis projects to teach.  At many institutions, there is no support system to receive training in pedagogy and course design.  If a student decides to pursue a position at a liberal arts institution or community college, they have to navigate those waters on their own.  Academic PIs breed more academic PIs, so don’t expect many of them to make inroads into industry, education, or other not-strictly-academic institutions.

While this problem is a great disservice to the undergraduates, I strongly disagree with how little value Hacker and Dreifus place in research.  They audaciously question the importance of other’s research in a manner reminiscent of Sarah Palin (did you know they do research on flies?).  While I think there is a need to encourage more teaching from the faculty, I would not curtail others’ research.

One method to get around this problem at larger research universities is to allow researchers to keep working and hire more lecturers.  Like buying carbon offsets, the lecturers would be able to pick up the teaching slack without rocking the research boat too much.  Plus, the lecturers would be able to experiment with their teaching, something that fits within an academic paradigm but falters because professors often have too little time to tinker with their teaching.  If we are going to place such emphasis on research at universities, we need to split the roles of the faculty.  There should still be cross-talk and contribution, but let’s let the researchers research and the teachers teach.

Reigning in student debt

If your son or daughter is considering a private school or an out-of-state college, you will soon be hearing a $40,000+ per year ca-ching from your bank account.  If you don’t have $160,000 gathering dust in your bank account to cover these costs, then you and/or your progeny will have to take out student loans, in which interest greatly increases the total price tag.  Graduate degrees are more hit-or-miss.  For the most part, masters programs cost money (at five times the per credit price) while doctoral programs pay money (sometimes through a teaching requirement), though if they pay it may not be much.

However, this is only half of the student debt story.  It would not matter how much debt students rack up if going to college guaranteed them a salary large enough to pay off the loans quickly.  If we all earned $100,000 straight out of college, loans could be paid back in as little as 2-5 years.  Ignoring the current high unemployment among recent college graduates, very few students earn a six-figure paycheck after graduation.  A good friend of mine earned a BS in psychology and then went on to earn a masters degree to become a middle school counselor, all paid using student loans.  Not only does she earn a public education salary, but she has less job security if governments keep tightening budgets for education.  Assuming she stays gainfully employed, it will take her 30 years to pay back her loans.  Meanwhile, like the rest of us, she wants to buy a house and start a family at some point, but it will be that much harder with these student loans sapping her paychecks.

The authors of Higher Education? are correct that we need to make college more affordable.  Graduation from college increases earning potential and job stability, but should we force students to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to get there?  Maybe there should be a way to scale the cost of school to the earning potential of careers for a given degree.  State schools are also a much more viable alternative to the more costly private schools, but I acknowledge that they are a very different experience than smaller, more intimate campuses.  More work-study programs would help students pay off tuition while still in school.  These could even be developed into career training programs to give students paid, part-time internships in research, education, sustainability, and outreach.

Restructure tenure

Tenure has become a sticking point in education over the past few years, mostly in K-12 education.  Reform proponents say that we should value teachers based on their effectiveness, not on how many years they’ve spent in the classroom.  While we kick around this idea for public school teachers this lens is never applied to academia.

After professors have tenure, their job security is around 99%.  They are still expected to perform their duties, but if you look at the reviews on ratemyprofessors.com it is clear that they don’t have to teach well to stay a teacher.  With tenure, there is no incentive to improve teaching and undergrads are left to memorize, regurgitate and accept whatever grade the professor hands down to them.

The problem with reforming tenure is that you’ll never have the faculty’s cooperation.  Such a measure would likely lead to insurrection on college campuses.  While tenure may be indestructible, it does need reform.  More incentives are needed to persuade professors that teaching is worth their time, either through direct compensation, further research dollars, less time spent on committees, more sabbatical time, etc.  Recruiting faculty interested in and with a successful history in teaching could also help to improve the academic culture.

Splitting research and teaching responsibilities would also get around this issue.  Research professors could debate their tenure terms with the university, and teaching professors could do the same.  I still believe we need to actively assess teaching and encourage good practices, so maybe as a trade-off for less job security (80-90%, say) would be additional resources to improve.

Treat adjuncts fairly

Adjunct instructors and graduate students do a great deal of teaching at colleges and universities, but if they cobble together a full schedule of courses they still can’t make a comfortable living.  I wholeheartedly agree with the authors of Higher Education? that if universities are going to rely on adjuncts and graduate students to do the nitty-gritty teaching jobs, they should earn money and benefits that make it worth their time.  Moving many of the adjuncts to full-time teaching positions could also help to resolve this issue.

Take caution with “techno-teaching”

Many schools are moving their classroom content online with courses that never meet face-to-face.  The Internet is a fabulous way to disseminate information to a broad audience.  Moreover, schools can make a hefty profit on online classes because they don’t have to invest as many resources in maintaining a classroom, and teaching online can be scaled up more easily that in real life.  I doubt many students would be interested in taking a macroeconomics course inside of a 70,000 seat football stadium.

The caution in all this is not to let teaching quality falter.  Students should still be expected to engage with, not memorize, the material.  If you receive credit for a course, then you should know something about that subject when you finish.  Many institutions are ironing out these difficult wrinkles and their peers need to take note of their progress.  All schools bear the responsibility to their students to utilize the online classroom as a tool for teaching, not profit-making.

Define the purpose of academic learning

One major point of contention I have with Hacker and Dreifus is on the purpose of higher education.  The authors maintain a classical view of the university life where students broaden their minds through a liberal arts education.  This ideal is sensible; however, they draw the line at vocational training.  They posit that students should not contemplate jobs and careers until after college and to do so between the ages of 18 and 22 is meaningless without further exposure to the world and new ideas.

While there is value in a liberal arts education and understanding how art, social science, basic science, and the humanities function, it’s a missed opportunity not to train students for the workplace.  If you find that you like biology, why not explore what it means to be a biologist?  Learning teamwork, cooperation, technical writing, organization, and time management are essential in many careers.  The earlier we start to grapple with these skills, the more easily we can move into the professional work environment.

Overall, the authors make some good points with ample facts and figures for support, but they take many of their recommendations too far.  Universities were created to expand minds and prepare students for the real world with new perspectives.

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One Response to Book Review: Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker & Claudia Dreifus

  1. Pingback: The Purpose of Higher Education | collegebiology

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