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Education

"The Suite Life" on Campus

Higher Education is a national priority.  Just ask President Obama.  We need to invest ever more dollars in education in order to keep our global competitive edge.  We need to make sure that 26 year-olds can stay on Mommy and Daddy's insurance plan so that they can afford to stay (and stay, and stay, and stay) in school.  We've increased the tuition tax credits for low- and middle-income families, more than doubled the money spent on Pell grants and turned the Pell into an entitlement program.  These things are noted and cheered by many politicians and voters who claim to want only the best for American education.  And they make you look churlish if you question the wisdom of these things.

Yet, even for these cheerleaders of federal spending on education, there are occasions for questioning just how wisely our money is being spent.  Predictably, the occasion that is now drawing ire is the turning of a profit.  So coming up for special scrutiny are the ways in which for-profit universities have abused this funding with reports of huge profits and out-sized salaries for executives ($41 million went to the CEO of a holding company of one such university).

But, while not questioning the legitimate need for federal oversight in these institutions, Greg Beato at Reason.com notes the selective scrutiny brought to bear on for-profit universities from Congress, the President, the GAO and the Department of Education.  One particular and legitimate gripe against them is the practice of grade-inflation for the purpose of retaining eligibility for student federal aid.  A practice, I am sure (do note my heavy sarcasm), that never occurs at any so-called "respectable" institution.  But legitimate as these gripes are, Beato thinks the abuses at for-profit universities probably pale in comparison to the ones we willingly overlook in the (so-called) "non-profit" sector.

Everyone kinda knows this, but it is easy to overlook.  We take an understandable pride in the growth of our alma-maters and in the amenities they offer.  Having said that, today's college experience is not your father's college experience.  Heck, it's not even yours or mine. 

Let's start with the one outrageous expenditure that tickled me the most:  the eSuds program.  I think this one jumped out at me because I still carry the battle scars from the "bad old days" when doing laundry meant taking the life of your wardrobe into your own hands.  I remember well the hassle and inconvenience of doing laundry while away at school; the hustling for quarters, the long waits for an available machine, the feeling of oppression as you were tied to a dingy room.  Sometimes we even suffered the indignity of having to creep down into a basement where one might have to wait amid the dank, dark dungeons of mold and accumulated dryer sheets to make sure no one ran off with your unmentionables.  And what did you do while you were waiting there?  Sometimes it came down to the horrors of having to do homework or study or something equally dreadful. 

Mercifully, for today's college student, those days are now over.  At a number of America's finest colleges and universities where, apparently, costs and other pressing matters are so thoroughly under control that there are abundant resources for chasing down Johnny's socks, you can now watch the progress of your laundry on-line.  No need to interrupt the game of Assasin's Creed you and your buddies are engaged in . . . just a quick look at the bubble screen above and you'll be sure to know when it's time to move from the washer to the dryer.  After all, why should college students suffer from the mental distress brought on by panty raiders or other impatient laundry patrons?  With eSuds your laundry can get more attention from its guardian than children can in some daycare facilities.

Now, after a tough day of laundry and gaming, you might need to get a little color in your cheeks and get the blood pumping again.  If you're at Cornell, you're in luck.  They boast the "largest indoor natural rock climbing wall in North America."  And honestly, what is the value of a four-year hiatus in college without access to that?  Some school offer tanning salons--just in case you're in need of a shot of vitamin D. On the other hand, perhaps your youthful yet tired bones prefer the 53 person super-sized jacuzzi at the University of Washington.  I think you might be able to experience some pretty interesting "seminars" in there.  Not sure who will be working on the cures for that kind of seminar, however, because the construction boom of 2000-2009 produced mainly athletic facilities followed up closely by entertainment venues.  There were a few libraries in there too . . . but who goes to those anymore?

Of course, in order to facilitate the operation of this complicated cruise-like atmosphere, you're going to need administrators.   Apparently you need a lot of administrators.  Increases in spending on administration have gone up as much as 600 percent at some universities.  Think of Julie on the Love Boat, but with a background in diversity studies and a hefty salary to compensate her work.   Full professors of this variety, apparently, aren't faring too poorly either, with some making pay that is well into six figure range.  But lowly adjuncts and junior professors (who do the bulk of the actual undergraduate teaching at many schools) might soon qualify for some other form of federal assistance.  Perhaps many of them already do?

Beato notes that, "[u]nder [a Department of Education] proposal, called 'Gainful Employment,' institutions who graduate a large number of students with excessive debt-to-earnings ratios or who fail to repay their loans on time will lose access to federal grants and loans" . . . and that's swell.  But if we continue to pretend that the abuses happening in the "non-profit" world of higher education are merely the legitimate costs of a worthwhile and world-class education, we're going to be guilty of stupidity as well as duplicity.  Moreover, our students will have wicked tans and killer biceps (if they can avoid stacking on the pounds from the gourmet cookies in the cafeteria), but little else to show for the debt they incur while "getting an education."
Categories > Education

Discussions - 11 Comments

Wonderful analogy--Julie the cruise director: Love Boat :: College administrator: Cornell

These collegiate horror stories remind us how bad things are, and how much better certain institutions are by comparison--in Ohio, Michigan, California and Texas--to name the very few.

What we have seen is the formation of an elite (parasitic) class of "suits," and also a few select research-productive professors who receive the lion's share of benefits. Those who actually teach the undergraduates get the leavings.

It's Federal intrusion, mostly. The research professors live on Federal grants (and the very hefty pay raises they get by going out on the "market" and bringing back outrageous job offers from their buddies at other institutions). The "suits" point to the ever-growing Federal regulations/requirements to justify their burgeoning empire.

I think research/scholarship is very important, but what we are seeing is corruption in the name of research and diversity. Short of pushing the Federal government out of education, I see no solution.

Redwald, you have a point there. A professorial friend who who teaches at a big university spends most of his winter break writing grant proposals to continue his research. Since his specialty is the use of plastics in the body, for mechanical transplants, for example, his research is important. Making replacement body parts that will not break down under the assault of the body's chemical processes is valuable, but so is his teaching. He has successfully combined the two and his research assistants I have met say he is teaching them all the time. That wouldn't work with all types of research, nor with all professors, I suspect.

Yes, Federal money distorts the educational process at universities. Anyone can go to school on a federal loan and go now, pay later. Given laws of supply and demand, something had to cheapen in that process. S'a pity it wasn't the tuition.

It's my impression that most research professors dearly love their fields of study, and most of them start out with relatively pure motives. But then the enormous amounts of money involved slowly turns them into "careerists." And of course envy, which I've heard is rife in academic departments, diverts the original mission into one of keeping-up-with-the-Jones.

And let's face it, if you love time in the lab or in the field or on the computer doing research, teaching may well be viewed as a bother. I'm sure it's tempting to get someone ELSE to do that troublesome stuff for you. I've heard that some of the Federal granting agencies allow scholars to "buy off" their teaching time, meaning that the department takes grant money and hires a student or part-timer to do the teaching. If that ain't corruption, I don't know what is.

I would love to do that job, just teach for someone. If you actually hear of an opening like that or if anyone is reading this looking to hire a person to teach on that basis, please, contact me through the Ashbrook Center. A recent student evaluation said he, the student, had learned more about English, history, politics and economics in my class than in all his previous education. That was a course on writing research papers, so I could spread myself. I have such a good time in the classroom.

To the point, of course a university has to pride itself on those members of its faculty that are publicly productive in their respective fields. "Productive" means research and publishing, not necessarily teaching. Who could establish a reputation on work in the classroom? Expanding knowledge in a field is useful and a career doing so is useful to society at large. What's teaching a couple of hundred students (at most) every year compared to that?

It has to be awfully hard to find the proper balance. Doing both things at once has to be like rubbing the stomach and patting the head.

I think Julie's post indicates that colleges are not focused on the classroom, which invites students not to focus on the classroom, either. This leads to academic sloppiness. I keep reading about the plague of plagiarism on campus (One student I caught said, "No one ever complained before.") and no wonder if campus life keeps everyone too busy to read and write.

Tuitions are high and if the money is going everywhere but to the classroom, no wonder the product is poor. Julie's post makes me think that as I look at colleges with my last child what I ought to be looking for is the no-frills campus. There, the tuition may be going where it belongs. I love Ashland, but its campus is suspiciously pretty under my new criteria.

If there are some proffesors who would rather just do research, I don't see why they should be forced to teach.

If some proffesors would rather just teach they shouldn't have to do research.

But this is basic Ricardo: Prof A: creates 5R and .1T per H, Prof B creates 1R and 1T per H and Prof C creates .5R and 3T per H, solve for pareto optimal H allocation assuming R and T are equal value.

To force Prof A to teach would require 100 H just to get 10 units of teaching which could be accomplished by C in 3 hours and 20 minutes, but forcing Prof C to do 10 units of research would take 20 hours while Prof A could do it in 2 hours.

Meanwhile holding prof B out as the ideal results in a solution that isn't pareto optimal compared to allowing A and C to trade.

Prof B does 50 R and 50 T in 100h but the combined trade of Prof A/C 50R and 50T in 26 hours and 40 min balanced against the prestige of being able to say that you take classes from someone who actually works in the field.

That's all well and good if the research is something that serves the public, but I'm not sure a lot of it does. What it does seem to do is create a elite professoriate who are served by teaching drudges. These drudges, who may well be researchers themselves but perhaps not quite so productive (or self-promoting), are stuck with the grunt work (at least, that's what a friend of mine says). I can't say because this is all second-hand, but it sounds corrupt to me.

I thought the whole point of "research universities" was 1) to produce research, and 2) improve teaching by putting people who actually know things in the classroom? Given that tuition pays the salaries of researchers and teachers alike, there needs to be a balance of duties.

Yet those people who know things are not always good in the classroom. They do not convey information to the student and are a waste of time as instructor as a result. As John Lewis says (maybe) people have natural talents and given person will have a comparative advantage in a field. You want an efficient teacher in front of the classroom, not a famous, but inefficient, dud.

I am of two minds on this question, Kate. I take and appreciate your point, yet, at some point in the career of a student, the substance of the professor's mind must become more important than the ability of that professor to make a powerful presentation. It is always preferable if substance and presentation can be united . . . but it is a rare thing, indeed, when they are. That's one reason why the best professors (in the sense that you mean it) should be required to teach freshmen, in my view. There's nothing wrong with them also teaching more advanced students, but the more advanced students should be able to polish a rough diamond by then. And very often, in my experience, some of the best minds are terrible presenters. Good students make poor professors (in the sense you mean it) better. And some of the best seminars of my life have been the kind where good students were able to draw out the fine mind of a reticent professor. That, is like intellectual magic--and it is awesome to behold. If given enough time, the "poor professors" (of my ideal university) might be given the chance to teach an introductory course or two. But there is a symbiotic relationship, I think, between "excellent" professors and "poor" professors that makes for the best experience for all.

Oh yes, Julie, I'll give you that. When students complain about a "bad" professor I explain how to ask questions to dig for the information they need. I remind them that they are responsible for educating themselves. Therefore, they can look on a bored or rambling or even nearly catatonic professor as a difficult source of valuable information that needs proper handling. "Push!" I say, "Push, press, probe until you get what you need from your prof. You've got a right to the education you paid for."

You and I both know what it is to be a "good student". That is not just expressed in being hard-working, but through the internal drive of a fierce intellectual curiosity. There may not be enough "good students" in the world to bring the best out of every slack or distracted full professor in higher education. The problem there may be what students are taking to be the "rights" which by your evidence above has more to do with the amenities of a sweet campus life and less about a good education.

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