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I was perusing a few articles this morning and came across one on The Academe Blog that well encapsulated the problem with modern academic. In From Great Universities to “Knowledge Factories”, the author attempts to tell us “what went wrong” with our great institutions: that they are “bought and sold” by evil corporate interests (note the obligatory slap at the Koch Brothers) that are turning the curriculum into something less than stellar, and taught by (gasp!) part time and adjunct faculty!

It’s a familiar refrain to me. I work at a private, for-profit (evil!) university that is currently eating the public universities lunch on student placement in education and technology. My wife works at the education department of said public institution, so I get to hear the long-suffering cries from the faculty there.

The complaints are usually 1) Evil corporations and not enough juicy federal bucks are making us slaves to evil corporations, 2) there’s not enough money for my particular research (or to put in that new ergonomic chair I want but don’t need), 3) a lack of faculty governance is destroying the university! If only they would let us run the place it would be as it was in 1600! 4) PTIs and adjuncts are destroying the quality of instruction!

So let’s look at why universities are seeing rapidly falling rates of admission (hence less money for the $2000, but admittedly very nice, chair.)

Let’s start with basic economics. The class most of the liberal arts types didn’t take, or didn’t pass. Once all those overly-educated kids from the late ’60s got into academia, they started pushing the notion that everyone wasn’t just entitled, but needed a college degree. Anything less was a sentence of poverty! Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, vocational training was squeezed out of high schools and higher education in favor of the gentleman’s education — a broad liberal arts degree that would make you an interesting table conversant, but didn’t really apply to the job you were hunting. The assumption was that this broad training created mental rigor and prepared a person to management type positions in the work force.

Problem 1: Most college graduates outside of engineering or applied sciences like medicine don’t really know what the hell they’re doing. You would be better off having worked from the bottom rung in your industry, picked up experience, and then maybe angled for a degree that was focused on your career goals. (This is the University of Phoenix and other for-profit school models.)

Problem 2: Now that there was a glut of students, maybe not really prepared for or needing college, two different pressures came to bear on faculty: 1) The work load of a professor increased dramatically, leading to an inevitable slide in quality. “Not me!” the tenured man is crying right now, but yes…you. If you cant turn your assignments around to the students in less than a month, if you are having to gloss over interaction with the students because you have a line out the door at office hours, you cannot give the level of quality instruction to each student. 2) A pressure on the administration of the school to make sure graduation rates remain high to avoid nasty altercations with accrediting agencies, and to avoid losing all that lovely federal dosh coming in the way of grants and loan money. You start passing people that, honestly, shouldn’t have.

The change in the quality of instruction was obvious to me over the course of my college education, from the very hard, rigorous curriculum at Juniata College in the mid-1980s, to the more relaxed, but still engaging and informative education of a small Pennsylvania community college in the early ’90s (and honetsly…this was the best bang for my buck over the whole of my schooling), to the increasingly easy and decreasing quality of instruction at the University of New Mexico, ending with an execrable experience in which there was little customer service, no scholarly support, and an burgeoning level of administrative and politically-motived stalling of my doctorate study.

The professors got lazy. More interested in who had what committee, how many hours they could charge for outside contracts, avoiding office hours, slow feedback, and an apparent aversion to reading anything written after they finished their comprehensive exams in 1989…

The very success they had in creating demand for their product did what it does to companies that are not ready for vast and rapid expansion: their quality dropped.

Worse, as they funneled more students of less quality through their system it was not to appease corporate interests, but to keep federal student aid coming through the door. The Department of Education doesn’t really give a shit about the quality of the product they are buying for a third party, so long as they get paid back. (Hence why you will never see loan forgiveness from the government.) Worse, the student doesn’t feel the bite of their education until they are $20,000 or $40,000 in debt for a BA. That might have been a good trade-off in 1995, but the ol’ law of suply and demand comes into play.

The same success at getting a glut of students in the door has an inevitable end point. You could see it in the Soviet Union, where multiple doctorate holders were sweeping floors instead of doing research, and you see it today in the “certification inflation” degree holders face. That BA? Not good enough, do you have a masters? Oh, this position used to require a masters, but now we really want someone with a two year post-doc under their belt.

There are too many degree holders, and particularly in fields of little utility to the workplace. It’s a truism that philosophy doctorates should get used to pulling lattes…your knowledge of 19th Century German philosophers hasn’t really prepared you to do analytics, or command a platoon, or manage a production floor. Honestly, you’re not prepared to sling coffee, either, but you can learn that PDQ. By pumping out too many graduates, the competition between the degree holders reaches a point where the degree — your product, professors — is useless.

Enter another economic factor most people instinctively understand outside the “world of ideas” that professors live in (This comes from a very nice history professor, who was trying to explain to me why college instructors were so removed from reality. She thought this was a good thing): cost-benefit analysis. If you go $40k into debt for a college degree that nets you the same job you could have gotten with either a great high school transcript or an associates with $8k in debt, which would see the better utility, education-wise?

But, Scott, what about the delight, the personal utility of education? Hey, preaching to the choir; I love having a vasty, broad, and in some areas very deep, education. I’m intellectually curious — the sort that if I don’t know something, the cell phone comes out and Google gets a workout. But that’s not most folks I’ve met. They have a specific goal — get a good job, get a promotion, and the certification tied to that…that’s the education they want. Vocational training, not a liberal arts degree.

So let’s recap — too many students puts too high a load on a population of providers that took the academic job because it’s “cushy” for the price, and who see the job security of tenure as the ultimate in socially-acceptable sloth,  then turn out a population of indebted kids that can’t use the degree for more than wall decoration, creating less demand for their product — hence less money to the institutions.

Immediately, there must be some corporate conspiracy afoot! After all, now these chain restaurants are in the Student Union Building, drink machines in the hallways, and corporate names on our sports stadium! They’re squeezing the feds to fund only utilitarian research. This can all be turned around with faculty governance of the schools!

Wrong. Someone without the risk of losing their job and facing a job market that shuts out competition through guild like structures (those damned adjuncts!), and who does not understand economic realities, is ill prepared to run a multi-million dollar institution. Worse, being part of the problem, they can rarely see that there is a problem with their product, much less that they are part of said problem. You get prospective deans whose first question is “will the college pay for remodeling my office?”

Faculty governance is supposed to preserve quality. That is, to the customer — the student, glaringly obviously not the case. Because the holders of tenure tend to be late 60s dinosaurs, and the late 80s/early 90s critical race theory molded decendents they chose to fill the department ranks, you have very little diversity of thought, not just politically (try not being a progressive in academia), but theoretically. And in the echo chamber, the need to really think out your positions collapses into the comfortable rhetoric of “it’s racism”, “it’s capitalism”, “white people suck” Progressive mantras of the Johnson era.

But the students are not so rigidly ideological. This creates a problem when good research and inquiry are dashed because it questions the orthodoxy. By trying to “nudge” them to your way of thinking, or outright punishing people who disagree, you create an environment that is hostile, not diverse, not educational. You product, in short, ceases to meet the needs of your student…and there goes demand.

Having people teach a few classes here and there as adjuncts is cheaper, but it does not follow that the quality of instruction will falter; my experience has been that the academics interested in research are poor professors. Add ideological rigidity to the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster, educationally. Tenure encourages complacency, ideological conformity, and instruction sloth at a very high price. Having adjuncts with different life experiences, different viewpoints, and different approaches to their material is much more likely to encourage interdisciplinary thinking, which is going to be necessary to problem solving in an increasingly interconnected world. They’re cheaper, and if they suck, you can fire them.

The collapse of instructional quality is one of the reasons for the rise of the proficiency based education…instead of bullshitting your prospective employer with how well your education prepared you to manage a bookstore (also a dying institution), you have to show that you learned how to do a thing like do a CAT scan, or know the material necessary to do laser lithography. Grade point averages — who cares? Oh, you studied the works of Early 19th Century Romantics…awesome! I love the Brontë sisters, but say, can you actually do the data analytics we’re going to be asking you to do?

The implosion of the “Great Institution” isn’t due to evil capitalist machinations but due to their own successful marketing strategy, nor is it a bad thing, as this has led to a drop in quality and utility to their customers. The university is, and has been for some time, a stale thing ill-prepared to deal with an economy that is not feudal or industrial; a culture that is increasingly individualistic and tailored to the needs of the consumer, and which is not enamored with the aristocratic, communitarian pretensions of academics; and a knowledge base that is exploding, requiring either heavily specialization that is constantly changing, or a generalization that is easily achieved with some good Google Fu and a pound of incredulity.

This is creative destruction at its best and worst — old means of doing things, old expectations grounded in the 19th Century German gymnasium are no longer appropriate, nor are they responsive enough to the needs of the customer, and their prospective employers. A return to tailored vocational training for most of the workforce, and a less institutionalized form of higher education — where faculty will have to be practitioners and engaged in new research or knowledge creation, and with less reliance tenured faculty — will be performance based (like the rest of the working world.)

This is the future of education. Get on board, or retire while you can still collect from the state pension fund.

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