The crisis in Higher Education?



Whenever someone starts by saying that the problems with something or other are well known, watch out. That person is certain to follow with enumeration of ill-understood issues and solutions showing little knowledge of the complexities of the situation—and all human situations are complex. The phrase, “The problems with… are well known,” is little more than a means of avoiding grappling with the real issues in favor of canned solutions appeasing the ignorant.

Two people from Third Way (an organization that styles itself as “a vital and daring center, where new ideas grow and orthodoxies wither”), neither (according to the organization’s website) with real backgrounds in education, start an op-ed in The New York Times today with just that phrase, replacing the ellipses with “college.” Students, they say, aren’t learning and “fall deeply in debt.”

Well… though student debt is a problem, I am not sure that its current manifestation is particularly worse than in the past. When I graduated from college in 1973, I had a debt of about $5000, the equivalent of around $27,000 today. Though the rate has been increasing, “Seven in 10 seniors (69%) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2013 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,400 per borrower.” That’s not that much different than what I owed. And I was, I think, pretty much within the norm.

The problem with student debt is lopsided, falling most heavily on the predatory for-profits that have been founded, in part, to take advantage of easy federal money and make large profits. “The official fiscal year 2011 three-year cohort default rate is 13.7 percent: 12.9 percent at public colleges, 7.2 percent at private colleges, and 19.1 percent at for-profit colleges,” according to the New America Foundation. Obviously, we’re not talking about an across-the-board problem here, yet Third Way’s Cowan and Kessler couch it that way: “A mere 21 colleges were threatened with… penalties last year. So the other 6,000 colleges are doing just fine?” No, but the problems faced by public colleges and private colleges are quite different from those faced by the for-profits. Alarm bells concerning the latter do not mean the former are on fire, too.

The writers go on to assume a “central role in supporting higher education” of the federal government. This is itself a little dangerous: The government was given the role of guaranteeing student loans more than a generation ago, but that in no way means that the federal government should see itself as playing a ‘central role,’ certainly not one involving the intricacies of the education offered. Yet the writers want just that. They say they want the government to demand three things from colleges:

1. Adherence to a certain “quality of teaching.”
2. A “right-to-know law” for students and their parents.
3. Sharing in the cost of default on student loans.

In regards to the first point, the writers trot out the No Child Left Behind attempt to require higher “training, evaluation and assessment of teachers,” something that all of us involved in education now see as an abject failure—for quite a number of reasons. They then turn to the Billl and Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization whose meddling in education has led to highly skeptical reactions from educators, citing a study that “found that just 20 percent of faculty members used innovative teaching methods, like team-teaching across subjects, soliciting real-time student feedback in class and using social media to spur discussion outside the lecture hall.” Though I constantly experiment, it is not my experience that ‘innovative teaching methods’ are generally the answer for improved education. Want better results? Make classes smaller. That, and many other old solutions to problems of student performance would probably make more difference more quickly than will any amount of “innovation.” The most important learning that goes on in college, as Frank Bruni has been pointing out recently, it is in the human interaction between student and teacher. This is where real learning occurs.

There’s a great deal that can be done to improve college education in America, but little of it requires increased federal oversight. By creating the image of a crisis (the authors write, “The United States can’t afford the status quo in higher education”), Cowan and Kessler are simply trying to insert greater control over higher education by the federal government. That, obviously, is really their agenda, here.