Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?

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Wolfgang Volz/laif/Redux
Killian Court in front of Building 10 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 2002

American universities crowd the tops of many world rankings, and though these ratings are basically entertainment for university administrators and alumni, they do reflect certain facts. A number of American universities offer their faculty salaries and working conditions, laboratories and libraries that few institutions elsewhere can match. They spend more not only on their staff, but also on their graduate and undergraduate students, than their peers overseas. Though their fees seem enormous by European or Asian standards, they have worked hard in recent years to keep them from deterring poor students by offering more generous aid for undergraduates and by paying full fees for all doctoral students. At every level of the system, dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems.

Yet American universities also attract ferocious criticism, much of it from professors and from journalists who know them well, and that’s entirely reasonable too. Every coin has its other side, every virtue its corresponding vice—and practically every university its festering sores. At the most prestigious medical schools, professors publish the work of paid flacks for pharmaceutical companies under their own names. At many state universities and more than a few private ones, head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.

At competitive private colleges and universities, admissions directors reserve places in each class for the children of alumni and potential donors; for athletes, many of whom will make less use of their academic opportunities than their classmates do; and simply for those who can pay. And at universities that boast of their commitment to undergraduate teaching, too many professors gabble through PowerPoint slides twice a week and entrust the face-to-face teaching of actual students to underpaid graduate students and Ph.D.s on short-term contracts, who do their best to impart basic skills in writing and quantitative analysis while earning only a few thousand dollars a course.

It’s not hard to see why colleges and universities resist simple evaluations. There are now almost five thousand universities and colleges—both two-year and four-year—in the US. Millions attend them, including around 40 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old Americans and a great many older students. Postsecondary education stretches from the tree-shaded Olympuses of the Ivy-plus private group and the imposing quadrangles of the great public universities to urban community colleges that run twelve hours a day, surrounded only by vast parking lots that are never big enough to accommodate everyone. It’s private and public, mass and elite, ancient and ivy-covered, contemporary and cutting-edge. No generalization could do justice to this vast and varied scene.

Many—perhaps most—books on the American university fall into two categories. Jeremiads seem to pop off the presses every week. A fair number of them conform to a single type, one that embraces books as varied in their origins as The Faculty Lounges (2011), a blast at professors written by a distinguished journalist, Naomi Schaefer Riley, and The Fall of the Faculty (2011), an attack on administrators written by a distinguished political scientist, Benjamin Ginsberg. Instead of examining these complex communities from multiple points of view, they single out one group of actors as villains. Instead of offering detailed accounts of particular colleges and universities, which could give a sense of the rhythms and textures of academic lives, they pile up stories clipped from popular media and Web pages; describe individual experiences, often egregious ones, as if they marked a general rule; and recycle anecdotes already worn smooth by the handling they have undergone in previous polemical works.

Even so, not all their arrows miss their targets. Riley provides a well-informed and depressing account of the mistreatment of adjunct and contingent faculty. Ginsberg rightly points out that numbers of administrators and professional staffers have grown far more quickly than numbers of faculty, pushing up the costs that students and their families pay without enhancing the academic side of their experience. But when Riley dismisses most research as worthless because a few senior academics say it is, or Ginsberg dismisses the entire class of administrators as idlers interested only in the next pointless conference in Hawaii, both take flight into a realm of higher snark that is fun to read but ultimately unhelpful.

The other set of books is very different. Seriously researched, rich in data, and sometimes adorned with dozens of tables that the uninitiated may find cryptic, works like The Chosen (2005) by Jerome Karabel, Unmaking the Public University (2008) by Christopher Newfield, Crossing the Finish Line (2009) by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson, and Academically Adrift (2011) by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa focus on particular aspects of the system. They excavate a world of ugly facts and unsatisfactory practices that has the gritty look and feel of reality—a reality that has little to do with the glossy hype of world university ratings.

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.

Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

Results varied to some extent. At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. In general, though, two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.

Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.

In Britain, as Simon Head has shown in these pages, teachers in university departments are subject to mechanical standards of productivity that are much resented.* But for undergraduates an established system of outside examiners keeps programs across the country honest, ensuring that standards are maintained, even if most students are weak, and providing opportunities for the ablest at every level of the system. American higher education has no comparable system of assessment, and the opportunities that it provides at every level depend on the generosity and engagement of individuals.

In many ways, universities have reshaped themselves over recent decades to support the current version of student life. Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research. When they make a discovery, they receive a reward: exemption from time in the classroom. Even those who don’t discover America, as the Italians used to say, spend as much time as they can in the lab or the library. Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.

In theory, budgetary constraints have forced these measures on reluctant deans. In fact, though, they also make it easier to recruit and retain star academics, whose salaries and research support are costly. It’s a lot easier to convince a Deep Thinker to move to Old Siwash and cogitate for a few graduate students than it is to convince the same Deep Thinker to come teach 120 kids a term.

Even in these supposedly tight times, finally, well-paid administrators and nonacademic professionals proliferate—as do the costly extracurricular activities that they provide, from bonding exercises for freshmen to intercollegiate sports. The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

Is this a crisis? Arum and Roksa say no, since students and their parents continue to seek and pay for places at colleges and universities, and government and graduate schools continue to accept their products, and corporations continue to hire them (and to spend more than $50 billion a year to train their employees in the skills they need). But those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations. Acquire any sort of college education, and you’ll make more money than you would have if you didn’t. But don’t expect you’ll make what you would have if you had studied applied math at Stanford. And no one knows how long families will be able and willing to pay for four years of largely symbolic training that steadily becomes more expensive and loses impact.

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Many reform proposals are circulating—mostly the sort that will make matters worse. In Texas, where the debate about public universities has reached an especially sharp pitch, articulate and well-funded critics demand that faculty teach more students at lower cost. But there’s only one way to accomplish that: pushing still more undergraduates into enormous lecture halls where they have no personal contact with the professor, while putting smaller groups entirely into the hands of harried graduate students and adjuncts. Doing this won’t kindle the young to turn on their Kindles and read in their down time. Surely we don’t want to become even more efficient at turning off our students’ minds than we are already. Online courses, the other popular suggestion, can work well—so long as one also provides competent human supervision online, twenty-four hours a day, which makes such courses just as expensive as the traditional sort.

As William Bowen and his collaborators show in Crossing the Finish Line, our system fails on another level even more unequivocally than it does in generating academic engagement. Recent polemics about graduate education, especially in the humanities, have cited the high rate of attrition—around 50 percent—as clear evidence of a profound failure. Graduate programs certainly need scrutiny and reform. But their losses are hardly distinctive. Attrition is the American way in education at all levels. The whole Rube Goldberg machine leaks at every valve. Fewer than 70 percent of high school students graduate. Just over 70 percent of those graduates will enter some form of postsecondary education. But barely more than half of those who start BA programs will finish them in six years, and only 30 percent of those who start community college will win an associate degree in three years. After that point, most people don’t manage to graduate.

Consider the public universities that offer the vast majority of places in bachelor’s degree programs. A few of them—the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Berkeley—graduate 90 percent or more of their students within six years. Another fifteen or so have six-year graduation rates of 80 percent or higher. At the rest, the numbers are even worse. In New Jersey, the flagship state campus, Rutgers/New Brunswick, has a four-year graduation rate of 52 percent and a six-year rate of 77 percent. 5,835 freshmen begin studies there every year. Of that group, 1,342 will not graduate within six years. Ohio State, Indiana University, Florida State, and Iowa lose a similar proportion of each class. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, historically one of America’s greatest public universities, only 48 percent of undergraduates make it through in four years, though over 30 percent more finish within six years. Yet this is the top, the shiny part of the iceberg that rises above sea level. At some state colleges—and in the for-profit sector—the majority gives up long before graduation day. America, once the world leader in educating its population, is now tenth.

Dropping out may not always be the worst fate: sometimes staying in proves costlier. For whether students lose interest or leave their places, they and their families are now in hock to the eyeballs. During the great expansion period of the late 1950s and 1960s, the numbers of Americans with college and university degrees increased rapidly. So did the practice of requiring a degree for many positions for which the universities provided no technical training. So, finally, did the size of public investment, which came to provide the funds for most higher education. Since states financed a large share of university budgets from tax revenues, tuition charges remained low. Students could borrow the modest amount of money needed to pay their share of tuition, work enough hours to earn what they needed to live on, and still graduate in good order, with only modest debts. If they dropped out, they faced financial difficulties, but not catastrophe, since the amounts involved remained small.

Since the Reagan revolution, however—as Christopher Newfield shows in his detailed study of the California university system—states have transferred more and more of the costs of education from their own budgets to those of students and their families. Flagship state universities set their prices below those of elite private colleges. But they are not cheap by any other standard. At the University of Michigan, an in-state freshman will face total expenses of $25,204, a senior $26,810. At Penn State, an in-state freshman will pay $25,416 for tuition, fees, and living expenses this year. In a great many cases, family savings, student earnings, and scholarship aid fall short of these amounts, and students and their parents must borrow the rest. This year, students who borrow in order to study, as two thirds do, will end up on average owing $33,798 when they graduate—twice as much as the average debt ten years ago. So much for those four relaxed years in college, all too often purchased at the expense of ten subsequent years or more in debt peonage.

Americans, as Malcolm Harris recently pointed out, now owe almost a trillion dollars in student loans, more than they owe in credit card debt. Student debt, he explained, “is an exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits.” The burden is distributed by the reverse of the Matthew principle: to him who hath not, no one gives anything. Poor students and students of color borrow more than white students. They also, perhaps because they know little about them, make less use than they could of the federal Stafford and Parent Plus programs, which are relatively cheap; they are more dependant on private lenders whom Dante would have consigned, with credit card administrators, to the lowest circle of the Inferno.

All this to pay for an education that—as we have already seen—means little, intellectually, to many of those who are courting debtors’ prison to pay for it. The unkindest cut of all, of course, is that those who drop out must still carry the full burden of the loans that so many of them have taken out—even though they will, in all probability, earn less and fare worse in hard times than graduates. Yet even unemployment among graduates has been rising—as have rates of student loan default.

Is the higher education bubble about to pop? I don’t know. The more thoughtful writers warn against monocausal explanations. Bowen and his colleagues, for example, test the effects of student loans on attrition rates. They conclude that it is not clear that debt is a primary cause of student failure. Still, these developments are interwoven, in the experience of many students if not in the intentions of legislators. Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect. You work at Target or a fast-food outlet to pay for your living expenses. You live in a vast, shabby dorm or a huge, flimsy off-campus apartment complex, where your single with bath provides both privacy and isolation. And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops.

It’s no wonder, in these circumstances, that many students never really internalize the new demands and standards of university work. Instead they drift from course to course, looking for entertainment and easy grades. Nor is it surprising that many aren’t ready when trouble comes. Students drink too much alcohol, smoke too much marijuana, play too many computer games, wreck cars, become pregnant, get overwhelmed trying to help anorexic roommates, and too often lose the modest but vital support previously provided by a parent who has been laid off. Older students—and these days most are older than traditional university age—often have to work full-time and care for children or parents, or both. Those likeliest to encounter these problems are also the ones who haven’t been schooled since birth to find the thread that can lead them through the labyrinths of the bureaucracy. They aren’t confident that they will see an invitingly open door, where a friendly adviser or professor is eager to help them, and they don’t have parents hovering, eager to find that helper for them.

Happily, many students not only survive but flourish in the teeth of these obstacles. Many faculty members and administrators do their best to help. University cultures, like politics, are local. Many state schools are floundering—for example, the much-ballyhooed Arizona States. But many manage to cap class sizes and keep professors busy teaching. Dropouts and graduates differ, but they’re not the drowned and saved. Some transfer to other universities. Some join the military, straighten out their lives, and come back, powered by the GI Bill, to graduate too late to be counted with their class. Some find secretarial positions to support their kids, and earn BAs and better jobs in middle life. But those cases are exceptional.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? The system runs, in part, on its failures. Administrators count on the tuition paid, from borrowed money, by undergraduates who they know will drop out before they use up many services. To provide teaching they exploit instructors still in graduate school, many of whom they know will also drop out and not demand tenure-track jobs. Faculty, once they have found a berth, often become blind to the problems and deaf to the cries of their own indentured students. And even where the will to do better is present, the means are often used for very different ends.

In many universities, finally, the sideshows have taken over the big tent. Competitive sports consume vast amounts of energy and money, some of which could be used to improve conditions for students. It’s hard not to be miserable when watching what pursuit of football glory has done to Rutgers, which has many excellent departments and should be—given the wealth of New Jersey—an East Coast Berkeley or Michigan. The university spends $26.9 million a year subsidizing its athletic programs. Meanwhile faculty salaries have been capped and raises canceled across the board. Desk telephones were recently removed from the offices of the historians. Repairs have been postponed, and classroom buildings, in constant use from early morning until late at night, have become shabbier and shabbier.

When critics argued that it made no sense to support football at the expense of teaching, an official spokesman replied: “The university’s direct support to athletics represents only about 1 percent of the Rutgers budget.” Presumably he counted on readers not to know that in any large organization’s budget, the entire amount of money that is not committed years in advance is no more than 1 or 2 percent—or, to put it more specifically, that athletics has swallowed the money that could otherwise have been used to improve the university’s core activities. Christopher Newfield is not the only sober, informed observer who believes that political elites are deliberately attacking middle-class education.

Perhaps it’s not a crisis. After all, as many observers have pointed out, this is the way we live now, and room remains for exceptions and for hope. Still, the dark hordes of forgotten students who leave the university as Napoleon’s army left Russia, uninspired by their courses, wounded in many cases by what they experience as their own failures, weighed down by their debts, need to be seen and heard. Perhaps some of those who write seriously about universities could stop worrying so much about who gets into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and start worrying about the much larger numbers who don’t make it through Illinois and West Virginia, Vermont and Texas. It would also be instructive to see engaged teachers like Anthony Kronman, author of Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2007), a recent polemic against the corruption of the humanities, concern themselves with the concrete situation in which most American students find themselves. Polemics about the death of the humanities, however eloquent, won’t remedy the inhumanities that thousands of students encounter, predictably, year by year.

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud—which, as Huckleberry Finn pointed out to Tom Sawyer, isn’t argument—more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

It must be fun to howl “Read Your Greeks” and denounce evil conspiracies. But public discussion and scrutiny would become much more productive if informed writers captured the texture and flavor of the American university as convincingly as Thomas Ricks, Evan Wright, Elizabeth Samet, and others have done for segments of the military. The novelists discovered this territory long ago. Where are the great journalists? They will find students who manage to do excellent work and many more cases of wasted possibilities, and they might gain some insight into why.

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    The Grim Threat to British Universities,” The New York Review, January 13, 2011.