Friday, April 19, 2019

College Wouldn’t Cost So Much if Students and Faculty Worked Harder


One reason college is so costly and so little real learning occurs is that collegiate resources are vastly underused. Students don’t study much, professors teach little, few people read most of the obscure papers the professors write, and even the buildings are empty most of the time.

The New York Federal Reserve says more than 40% of recent college graduates are “underemployed,” but many already are while in school. Surveys of student work habits find that the average amount of time spent in class and otherwise studying is about 27 hours a week. The typical student takes classes only 32 weeks a year, so he spends fewer than 900 hours annually on academics—less time than a typical eighth-grader, and perhaps half the time their parents work to help finance college.

It wasn’t always this way. As economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks have demonstrated, students in the middle of the 20th century spent nearly 50% more time—around 40 hours weekly—studying. They now lack incentives to work very hard, since the average grade today—a B or B-plus—is much higher than in 1960 when the average grade-point average of around 2.5 implied a typical grade of B-minus or C-plus.

I’m part of the problem: I’ve been teaching for 55 years, and I assign far less reading, demand less writing, and give higher grades than I did two generations ago.

Learning takes time, so the diminution of effort surely means students are learning less. Snippets of data confirm that suspicion. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have demonstrated, using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, that the typical college senior has only marginally better critical reasoning and writing skills than a freshman. Federal Adult Literacy Survey data, admittedly somewhat outdated, shows declining literacy among college grads in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A civic literacy test administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute shows appalling gaps in knowledge, with seniors knowing very little more than freshmen. Only 24% of graduates know that the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official church.

As for the faculty, the Education Department doesn’t publish annual data on teaching loads, but some hard data plus considerable anecdotal evidence suggests the typical professor is in class around one-third fewer hours than his 1965 counterpart. At my mid-quality state university (Ohio University), I taught three courses a week for nine hours in 1965; my colleagues today teach only two courses for six hours. At some top-flight research universities, senior professors may teach only one course.

The excuse is that professors today are publishing more research. True, but why? Mark Bauerlein at Emory has documented that in English (literary criticism), the volume of research is immense—but little of it is often cited or even read. Why should professors reduce their teaching loads to write papers for the Journal of Last Resort? Diminishing returns have long since set in.

The litany of underused resources goes on. In 1970 at a typical university there were perhaps two professors for each administrator. Today, there are usually more nonteaching administrators than professors. Even the buildings don’t work very hard. Most classrooms and faculty offices are deserted in June, July and August, and often for much of May and December. Even in peak academic months, classrooms are typically seldom used in late afternoons and often not on Fridays.

To be sure, there are many exceptions. On some campuses, students study much more. Engineering majors probably work much harder than communications or gender-studies majors. And there are professors who are in their offices more than a few hours a week. Students in law and medical schools often work very long hours. Many hard-science researchers spend much time in their labs.

Still, Time Use Survey data from the Labor Department suggest that students spend more time on recreation and partying than on academics, and most professors are not often found during daytime hours in the office, classroom, laboratory or the library. Where are they? What are they doing? Why can’t students and faculty show the same work ethic that made our market-disciplined nation the wealthiest place in history?


First Generation Universities, the New CCNY: Florida International


Nearly a century ago, large numbers of kids from poor immigrant families flocked into the City College of New York (CCNY), now City University of New York (CUNY). Many went on to become intellectual and business giants. I was talking to Mark Rosenberg, the president of Miami’s Florida International University (FIU) the other day, and realized that FIU is somewhat the CCNY for a new era. It did not even have students 50 years ago, but now has an extraordinary 57,000 enrolled, mostly members of minority groups, including probably the largest single collegiate concentration of Hispanic students.

Like CCNY, FIU is a commuter school with students who are either immigrants or, more often, children or grandchildren of immigrants to America. A lot of them have day jobs and go to school in the evenings or on weekends. President Rosenberg tells me FIU parking lots are as full on Saturday or at nights as during weekday primetime academic hours. He believes the mission of his school is to provide access to large numbers, giving educational opportunities opening the door to occupational opportunities. Himself the son of a Holocaust survivor (whom I knew), Rosenberg accepts that fulfilling his mission means his school’s reputation may take a hit. In the latest Forbes Best Colleges rankings, FIU is a fairly respectable but not outstanding 459th, well below such other Sunshine State rivals such as the University of Florida (68th), Florida State (163rd), private nearby rival the University of Miami (100th), and even below another even more fast growing competitor, the University of Central Florida (271st).

Still, the school does pretty well by contemporary American collegiate standards, with both four and six-year graduation rates approximating the American average, and students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, averaging more than $46,000 in annual earnings after leaving. Tuition fees have been frozen for years, which Rosenberg views as a challenge, not a calamity. Indeed static fees have enabled enrollments to grow (although he thinks the school’s enrollment surge is about over). Capital costs are lower than at most schools because buildings are used so intensely, meaning fewer square feet to air condition. Heavy use of tutors helps keep retention and graduation rates respectable and saves money compared to higher priced faculty alternatives (although the faculty has continued to grow). A large portion of students do some of their work online, which President Rosenberg reminds me, in the long run, lowers capital costs.

Florida has no income tax, and being relatively new FIU has a very modest endowment. Many state university presidents grouse about inadequate state support, claiming their ability to offer a quality education is suffering owing to perverse priorities of state politicians. Rosenberg surprised me, however. He said low taxes has helped attract large numbers of persons to move to Florida, so the Sunshine State is not worried about the birth dearth starting to severely impact schools in northern states, states now sending many of their citizens to low tax Florida. He said the state has been innovative in encouraging coordination between the various universities, for example, nudging state schools into using the same course numbers at all institutions, making the transfer of credit between schools much easier.

I ponder whether there is an optimal size university, whether growth beyond, say, 50,000 students affords no economies of scale but leads to a lack of a sense of community and excessive campus congestion. Rosenberg is no longer pursuing an expansionist enrollment growth strategy, perhaps tacitly acknowledging that diminishing returns to growth exist. Will technology ultimately reduce the need for physical campuses? Time will tell, but I doubt they will die anytime soon.

America is a land of immigrants. Within a generation of the landing of the Mayflower in 1620, early immigrants started Harvard. Immigrants on average are hard working, save copiously, assimilate well, and their children and grandchildren are highly successful. Colleges are a vehicle to help make that happen. America needs Florida International-type universities as much as—arguably more than—it needs elite gated academic communities. For some, the preferred academic vehicle may be on-line institutions like Western Governors University or the University of Southern New Hampshire. But there still is a need for face to face instruction, and schools like FIU provide an important service.


There's a far bigger scandal on campus than parent bribes


A much bigger and wider scandal rages on college campuses these days than rich parents’ bribing schools to admit their kids: grade inflation, which overstates academic achievement and misleads employers when these kids graduate. G. K. Chesterton once observed that something can be so big that many do not see it. Getting into college unfairly through bribes and getting a job unfairly through grade inflation both are immoral and unjust.

A March 30 article by Thomas Lindsay in "Forbes" cites data that should alarm us, “A 5-plus year nationwide study of the history of college grading finds that, in the early l960s, an A grade was awarded in colleges nationwide 15 percent of the time. But today, an A is the most common grade; the percentage of A grades has tripled, to 45 percent nationwide. Seventy-five percent of all grades awarded now are either A’s or B’s. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2013 that 66 percent of employers screen candidates by grade point average.’”

The Forbes article continues: “The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation also has studied college grading. The foundation confirms the alarming findings cited above. It found that in l969, only 7 percent of students at two- and four-year colleges reported that their grade point average was A or higher. Yet in 2009, 41 percent of students reported as same. During the same period, the percentage of C grades given dropped from 25 to five percent.”

Now here’s the problem by way of my own experience: when I was a vice president at Hillsdale College a parent asked if the college “had grade inflation.” I said no — to which he responded: “That’s unfair. My kid goes to your school and gets B’s; he goes to the college down the road and gets A’s. Which kid do you think employers will hire — the A student or the B one?” My college, he argued, should impose grade inflation to keep student competition for employment on equal grounds.

He had a point. The prospective employer will not know which schools inflate grades and which do not. And the ones that do are not about to stop. From 2004-2014 Princeton capped the number of A’s in each academic department while the other Ivy League schools did not. Princeton then found that its students suffered in job competition with their still-grade-inflated peers.

So is there any solution to this double standard of grading? Yes, there is. Colleges are beginning to police themselves. Columbia, Dartmouth, Indiana, and Eastern Kentucky now “contextualize” grades on transcripts. “They provide the number of students in each class as well as the average grade of the class on the students’ transcripts. Indiana University places on transcripts the grade distribution for each course, the class grade point average, and the average student grade point average for each course," according to Forbes.

This transcript transparency better informs students, parents, and prospective employers.

Moving to contextualized grades on transcripts will take time but would more accurately reflect students’ actual academic achievement—for the sake of both the students and prospective employers. That’s why at bottom this scandal is a moral one far more insidious than parent bribes.


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