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How To Overhaul Higher Education
A few modest proposals for fixing a broken system.
Let's get a few things straight to start with. First, higher education as it currently exists is not going anywhere. There are more than 3700 colleges and universities in this country, with a total enrollment of 19 million, and they aren't going to suddenly disappear. Or even gradually disappear. Since around 2013, with the advent of online instruction, people have been predicting that half of American colleges and universities would be gone within 10-15 years (it's always 10-15 years, no matter when the prediction is made). Over the same period, the number of four-year institutions, not counting for-profits (which deserve to die), has actually gone up.
Second, higher education should not disappear. Colleges and universities serve essential functions that are not conceivably replicable without them. Higher ed is not dysfunctional, at least not in the strict sense of the word. It still functions. Students learn; experts and professionals are trained; knowledge is created. Get your appendix removed by someone without an MD, and then we can talk. There are 463 research universities in the United States. If they ceased to exist, where would the work they do be carried out? Your garage?
Third, higher education isn’t Harvard, Stanford, and 12 other schools. Of the nation’s 16 million undergraduates, 78% go to public institutions, 30% go to community colleges, 38% go part-time, and 38% are 22 or older. The vast majority of four-year schools take most of the people who apply to them; a quarter are open enrollment, which means they take everyone. If most of your friends went to selective colleges, congratulations, you’re in the elite. You need to get out more.
But yes, higher education is deeply screwed up. College is way too expensive, costing twice as much, in real dollars, as it did in 1990, nearly three times as much as it did in 1970. Half of students—half!—fail to graduate within six years. Teaching sucks, and always has. Too much of it is done by adjuncts and other contingent instructors, who now make up three quarters of the faculty. There are far too many administrators—deans and deanlets and directors and diversocrats—peddling far too much administrative bullshit. Academic standards are abysmal. Between 1963 and 2013, average GPA rose from 2.5 to 3.15, even as the number of hours spent studying fell by half over roughly the same period. Selective institutions, the ones that produce our elite, are wildly class-stratified. At the top 200 schools, two-thirds of students come from the highest quarter of the income distribution, less than one-sixth from the lower half; at 38 schools, including most of the Ivies, more students come from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%.
So what would I do, if I could wave a magic wand? First, make public college free. We used to do this. (We still do it for K-12, and no one thinks twice.) If you're old enough, you remember when people were able to put themselves through school with a part-time minimum-wage job. The University of California, the greatest public system in the world, charged no in-state tuition before the 1970s. Neither did the City University of New York, home to City College, known for decades as "the poor man's Harvard." The idea that free college would be a giveaway to the rich, because only the rich go to college, gets it exactly backwards. Part of the reason that only the rich go to college—or, at least, go disproportionately to college—is because it costs so much.
If college were free, a lot more kids who should go could go (more dumb rich kids go to college than smart poor ones). Students wouldn't have to take on debt. They could study what they want, which means that the liberal arts would flourish. Rigor could return to the classroom: students would be treated like students again, not customers. The admissions frenzy would abate as public institutions grew increasingly attractive relative to privates, which also would be forced to lower costs in order to compete.
Next, reverse the tide of adjunctification by tripling (at least) the tenure-track faculty. We shouldn't have adjuncts at all, except for the limited purpose—to enable working professionals to teach the occasional course—for which they were originally intended. Adjuncts are paid like baristas, worked like farmhands, and treated like Kleenex. Their use is bad for students, bad for morale, and bad for recruitment into the profession.
At the same time, if we're going to save the college students of the future from the paralyzing classroom boredom that's afflicted those of the past and present, we need to make sure that professors can actually teach. Doctoral programs, believe it or not, include little or no pedagogical training. You are simply expected to figure it out on your own, which, for a very good reason, most do not. Academics are incentivized, exclusively, to do research. Yet only a small fraction produce significant work. The typical professor publishes a tiny number of articles in their entire career, sometimes as little as one. Teaching is their real work, whether their vanity lets them admit it or not. They should be rewarded based on their ability to do it. Genuine scholars, meanwhile, should be given a choice: stop teaching altogether (as many would clearly prefer) or learn how.
Making college free, tripling the tenured professoriate: where are we going to get the money for those things? By soaking the rich, to begin with: raising taxes not just on the 1% but on the 10-15%. But there are also lots of costs that higher ed can cut. I'd start by telling college presidents to fire half of their administrative staff (including, ideally, all of their diversity officers), cap the salaries of the remainder at no higher than that of senior faculty, and, by way of setting a good example, reduce their own pay, which can run above $1 million, by 75%. Then I wouldn't merely cease to give admissions preferences to athletes; I'd eliminate intercollegiate athletics altogether. They are enormously expensive; they distort institutional priorities (in Oregon, my home state, the flagship campus is known as the University of Nike); and they are utterly beside the point. Let the NBA and NFL (and WNBA and NWSL) pay for their own minor leagues. And, finally, no more "amenities": no luxury dorms, no climbing walls, no dining halls with carving stations. Which would be doable, once students ceased to see themselves as having the entitlement of customers. Don't want to go to a school without football, maids, and professional hand-holders? Maybe college isn’t for you.
But institutions can only do so much on their own. Making college better will depend, to a great extent, on what happens beyond the walls. Most obviously, the "input" has to be improved. As of now, some 40-60% of entering students—another stunning figure—need remediation. Colleges, in other words, especially community colleges, are being tasked with giving freshmen the education that they should have received in high school. Improving K-12 (a monumental undertaking of its own) would also help reverse another dismal trend: credential creep. If a high school diploma actually meant something, employers wouldn't feel the need to ask for quite so many bachelor's degrees, and fewer people would have to go to college in the first place. (Analogous things would happen at the master’s level, too, which has been growing even faster and is a scandal of its own.) And, of course, we need to rebuild vocational education—trade schools, training kids for high-skills, high-wage manual labor—in both high school and beyond.
Is any of this going to happen? Some of it already has, at least a little bit. More than thirty states now offer free community college, albeit usually with some restrictions. The Association of College and University Educators, which was founded in 2014 to improve undergraduate instruction at scale, partners with a growing list of institutions—over 450, at last count—to offer faculty a year-long, in-service, evidence-based training in best pedagogical practices.
But to really do this, to make our higher education system something that we can be proud of again, we need a fundamental change of heart. Some years ago, I found myself at Berkeley with some time to kill. I looked around at the magnificent buildings, strolled the lovely quads, thought about the world-class research that was being conducted in the libraries and labs. And then I thought: this place looks like Harvard or Yale, it's every bit as good, but there is a fundamental difference. We built this, not the rich. The citizens of California built it: for themselves, for each other, for their children. Public purposes, public goods, public benefits, public access. That is the spirit that animated a system that, for over a century, led the world. And that is the spirit we need to begin by reviving.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. He is the author of five books including Excellent Sheep, The Death of the Artist, and The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society.
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