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Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?

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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.

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