Graduating from college is part and parcel of the American dream. Holding a college degree has been a major advantage for graduates for decades.
In 1980, average tuition at a four-year institution was $8,756, adjusted for inflation. Then, only about a quarter of 18-24 year olds enrolled in college. The relatively low price of college and the fewer number of graduates seeking college-level employment made college a smart investment for those able to attend. A college degree virtually guaranteed a higher standard of living.
But times have changed. Since 1980, tuition and enrollment have skyrocketed. In 2010, average tuition at a four-year institution was $21,657 and enrollment of 18-24 year olds was 41.2 percent. And though tuition has increased, a college education no longer guarantees a desired job. Last April, one in two college graduates was jobless or underemployed, the Associated Press then reported.
The increased price of higher education and dire employment environment have together cast doubt upon the value of a college degree. But the current economy and past economic policies cannot take all the blame for the difficulties facing today’s college graduates. Much of the blame rests with the colleges themselves. Colleges have failed to teach well, produce enough valuable research and control costs.
Teaching should be the bread and butter of education. Today, when information is available in seconds over the Internet, colleges must do more than provide information. The real value of a college education lies in imparting the ability to think, rather than the ability to recall facts. Each of us intuitively understands this. We all know it doesn’t matter that you remember a fact from a history class. What matters is that you learn to use facts to support an argument.
Though teaching is what matters for students, today’s colleges do not do much teaching. Colleges have shifted from teaching to pursuing research. From 1988 to 2004, teaching duties of professors at research universities have decreased by 42 percent. Even at liberal arts colleges, teaching duties during the same time period have declined by 32 percent. Of the major 266 national universities in the country, only 45 percent of the classes have fewer than 20 students. The changing focus on universities from teaching to research deprives students of the main benefit of a college education. As universities become more focused on research rather than on classroom education, one has to wonder whether using the Internet cannot accomplish the same function as a college at a fraction of the price. Even before the Internet, skeptics used to joke one could get a college education for free at a local public library. But, the Internet has made self-education even easier.
Many claim university research provides great benefit to society, perhaps more than teaching does. But it is in fact not clear that much of this research has any real value. Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, estimated that 21,000 articles about Shakespeare have been written since 1980. Most of these articles will be read by hardly anyone and have almost no impact on student education. By funding esoteric, likely worthless research, universities do a great disservice to their students and the general public, which supports public and private universities through government research grants. Across all subjects, it is estimated a university article costs on average $72,000.
Universities have allowed their operating costs to spiral out of control. Rapidly rising costs have much to do with an increasingly bloated university bureaucracy. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that between 2001 and 2011, the number of university employees hired to administer people, regulations and programs increased more than 50 percent faster than the number of hired instructors. The effect of administrative costs on the cost of college is clear from a study conducted about the University of Texas. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity concluded that tuition at the University of Texas could be cut in half by having the 80 percent of professors with the lightest teaching loads teach half as much the 20 percent of professors with the heaviest teaching loads. Universities enjoy limitless demand, but as the costs of college continue to rise, universities may not always have the customer base to support profligate spending.
In a nod to modernity, many universities have recently begun offering online courses. More than 6.1 million students took at least one online college course during the fall of 2010. For a university, online courses are an efficient way to increase revenue at relatively low cost. But though universities may have an advantage now in offering online courses, eventually others, with far cheaper overheads, will catch up and be able to offer such courses at much lower prices. If the university will survive, it must return to its original mission of teaching to cultivate the mind.
Brown has been an innovative university, best expressed with the creation of the Open Curriculum in 1970. But in recent history, Brown has been morphing into a more conventional research-oriented and preprofessional university. In the last decade, the size of Brown’s graduate school has grown in student size by 30 percent and the Alpert Medical School’s class size has grown by 36 percent. While expanding Brown’s graduate school and research capability has benefits, returning Brown to its original dedication to teaching would be a better direction.
Oliver Hudson ’14 may be contacted at email@example.com.