Archibald and Feldman add that “the prestige game” gives schools no choice but to reduce teaching loads of valued professors in order to keep them; the schools also feel they have to provide career and counseling centers for students, as well as house them in “palatial dormitories.” Archibald and Feldman take such competitive goads as given. As for improving productivity, they feel that online courses can’t fully convey the “gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions” that enhance education in physical classrooms. Surprisingly, they don’t mention athletics, even though the vast majority of varsity teams lose money. Their own William and Mary lays out more than $17 million annually to fund its nineteen intercollegiate programs, which include a 101-man football squad with thirteen coaches, a contingent larger than its philosophy department.
If more graduates are wanted or needed, there’s a simple solution: ensure, through financial help and better teaching and counseling, that more of those who begin college stay to get a degree. If we look at Americans in their early thirties who once enrolled, 56 percent now have at least a bachelor’s degree. An additional 15 percent completed associate’s programs; but less than a fifth of them continued at four-year colleges. This leaves 29 percent who began on one or another campus but never graduated. For those who drop out, the most common nonfinancial reason is that the initial years can be impersonal, aimless, without good advice. At Ohio State, 623 freshmen take Biology 101 in a yawning room, with their exams graded by computers. One section of Economics 201 at Michigan State has 578 students, so most only see the professor from a distant row. My own years in the classroom have convinced me that all young people have capacities to learn and are curious about the world. But our colleges will have to examine many wasteful, perfunctory, and senseless practices if they want to call what they are doing higher education.