Thursday, June 2, 2011

Recentering Academic Development

Over the past two weeks academia has been buried in a blizzard of reports, which is a symptom of the current pandemic of concern about the state of U.S. higher education.  These reports include
  • the Education Trust's Priced Out, about the extent to which rising tuition and funding cuts are hurting low-income students
  • a dull but worthy report from UVa's Miller Center calling for a stronger focus on degree completion
  • an analysis by the Richard Vedder shop of UT-Austin's recent data dump on faculty productivity, arguing that higher ed's funding problems can be fixed by getting rid of a large number of the least productive faculty
  • the widely discussed "What's It Worth?" report from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce that correlated differentials in wages with college majors.  It turns out that engineering majors make more than studio artists! Lower wages also unsurprisingly correlate with "womens' work" and with professions that care for and develop people rather than manage money and commodities. Though the study was reviewed in some quarters as a sign that correct market incentives would force students out of their 'fluffy majors" and toward gainful employment, Patt Morrison's disussion with the report's lead author, Anthony Carnevale, and the comments on her web page, suggest instead (1) a backlash against the injustice of the labor market and (2)  defenses of those non-technological majors that are directed at forming cultural, social, and historical knowledge, solving social problems, developing personal capabilities, and helping the individual student understand his or her future possibilities in society.
Which brings us to the real star of the show, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska's book Academically Adrift, which was widely reviewed a few months ago.
Many reviews hooked it into the current trend of bashing colleges to justify massive, absurd cuts in their public funding. Their study does suggest that students aren't learning enough in college.  But their real story is much more powerful than that. They replace stock metrics like degree attainment with specific academic development goals, and measure how well students are doing at mastering these. 

Today the Los Angeles Times published their useful crib of their book.  There you can read the following elements:
  • outcomes are faltering because "many students were not being appropriately challenged," i.e. were not being given enough work. 
  • the main reason is that universities have strayed from the core mission of instruction (I would add research which they do not). "Many institutions favor priorities that can be boasted about in alumni magazines and admission brochures or that can help boost their scores in college rankings." 
  • this amounts to a major paradigm shift in which "Colleges have abandoned responsibility for shaping students' academic development and instead have come to embrace a service model that caters to satisfying students' expressed desires."
  • the correlative is the replacement of academic-instructional with non-academic professional staff, or in other words the administrative bloat that has increased pessimism and cynicism about higher education's priorities among faculty and voters alike.
There's a vicious cycle here, in which senior managers saw alumni and donors willing to pay for a range of expensive services, benefits, celebrations, atomospherics, and derivative products (e.g. high-end medical services) but not for instruction or basic reserach, so they moved university resources very logically towards the service model for students and donors-businesspeople-politicians alike, which increased the quality advantage of those services over that of the core mission, while also requiring the increased hiring of non-academic administrators.

Much of the public is no longer willing to pay for the service-university, where so much of that service is clearly going not to their children or grandchildren or neighbors children but to the usual suspects at the top of a society whose growing inequality has led to their own economic decline.  It could be an entirely different story for the development-university, one centered on the academic development of all of its students, undergrad and grad, through teaching and research alike.

We need to take a chance that a broad majority would pay for that, and offer it to them.

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