Ten Miles Square


October 12, 2011 10:59 AM Selling College Students Down the River

By Kevin Carey

One of the principal differences between K-12 and higher education is that people representing elementary and secondary teachers often go to elaborate lengths in denying the extent to which they’re pursuing a narrow self-interested agenda at the expense of student welfare and the public good, whereas in college they’re completely upfront about it. Two recent examples illustrate. Last week, the Chronicle reported how Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor’s efforts to enroll more minority and low-income students, provide more need-based financial aid, and improve engagement with the surrounding community is meeting resistance among the faculty:

One of the most-contested parts of Ms. Cantor’s plan to remake the student population has been the acceptance rate. The rate, which stood in the mid-50-percent range after she arrived, spiked up to around 60 percent in each of the last two academic years. That sent up warning signs to both professors and students, who worried that Syracuse was becoming less selective. “Ivy Leagues pride themselves on minuscule acceptance rates of less than 10 percent,” said an editorial last winter in The Daily Orange, the student newspaper. “The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.”
Some professors agree, although they have been reluctant to speak out because questions about the university’s admissions policies have touched off charges of racism here. “My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” says David H. Bennett, a professor of history. He says that Syracuse already had a diverse student population before Ms. Cantor arrived, but that the chancellor has taken it to a level unmatched by other selective universities. “If you look at the universities with the top 50 endowments and the percent of their students who receive Pell Grants, none of them were anywhere near even what we were before Nancy Cantor came,” he says. “This may be an admirable goal, but it is going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse, which is asking parents to pay a lot because they think they’re going to increase their kids’ life chances.”

One might think a university’s academic reputation rested on the actual scholarship produced by faculty and the actual quality of education provided by professors to students, but no, apparently it’s all just a function of admissions rates and SAT scores. If pursuing radical goals like “larger freshman classes” and “inclusive” admissions policies automatically devalues the university’s reputation, doesn’t that mean the entire reputational mechanism is a fraud? And as is generally the case, all normal scholarly standards of evidence (e.g. “citing evidence”) are thrown out the window in discussions of educational quality, with assertions that enrolling a larger and more diverse student body will “affect the quality of an SU education” unaccompanied by research or data of any kind.

Meanwhile, in California:

“We believe that if courses are moved online, they will most likely be the classes currently taught by lecturers,” reads a brief declaration against online education on the website of UC-AFT, the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, “and so we will use our collective bargaining power to make sure that this move to distance education is done in a fair and just way for our members.”
Now the California lecturers, who make up nearly half of the system’s undergraduate teaching teachers, believe they have used that bargaining power to score a rare coup. The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in “a change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.
Bob Samuels, the president of the union, says this effectively gives the union veto power over any online initiative that might endangers the jobs or work lives of its members. “We feel that we could stop almost any online program through this contract,” Samuels told Inside Higher Ed.
And stop it they would. Regardless of any data administrators trot out to argue that students learn just as well online as they do in the classroom, the union would do whatever it could to block the university from moving courses online if it decides the move would make life worse for lecturers, says Samuels. Because some of the important social benefits of classroom education are hard to quantify, Samuels says he distrusts those who argue for the equivalency of online learning based on “the evidence.” “I don’t think you’re going to find any conclusive analysis or study of that,” he says. “I think it’s [always] going to be a judgment call.”

As we all know, college is very expensive and getting more so all the time, causing increasing numbers of students to borrow large amounts of money to attend. The U.S. News & World Report college rankings are often fingered as a culprit, forcing colleges against their will to engage in ruinously expensive positional status competition. We are also told that colleges are chronic sufferers of Baumol’s cost disease and can’t possibly use technology to become more resource-efficient over time. But as these examples show, it is more often than not colleges themselves causing these problems. If you’re a tenured faculty member, it’s in your best interest for your university to spend a ton of money recruiting rich kids with high SAT scores in order to climb the U.S. News status ladder, because some of that money and status will come to you. And if you’re a lecturer it’s in your best interest for your university to not migrate toward a technology-enhanced educational system that serves more students for less money. So, big picture, universities like Syracuse remain the exception to the rule, public universities have a hard time expanding their digital offerings, prices rise, access is constricted, and hey look! The University of Phoenix Online is enrolling hundreds of thousands of undergraduates.

This strikes me as substantially a political problem. K-12 teachers unions are under intense scrutiny and have lately been backing away from some of their least defensible policies as a result. In higher education, while you can read about this stuff in excellent publications like the Chronicle and InsideHigherEd, such issues just aren’t among the suite of well-understood concerns that political and media elites incorporate into their worldview as a matter of course.

[Cross-posted at The Quick & the Ed]

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Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.


  • Anonymous on October 13, 2011 2:12 PM:

    How is this selling college students down the river? Of course professors and lecturers are going to protect their interests and for the most part those interest overlap with those of the students. Universities want to go digital and bring in as many students as possible without concern about if they will learn or graduate, without HIRING new professors or paying the ones that they have a reasonable wage. How can you credibly write about the academy without acknowledging this reality? Creating a good learning environment for students means creating a good working environment for professors and the other poorly paid minions who are going to be doing all of this labor.

  • Lolly on October 13, 2011 6:20 PM:

    For lecturers, the primary concern with online courses is the class size issue. As budgets have been cut at all public colleges and universities, class size has been growing as large as classrooms will allow. Administrators love online classes because they remove this last remaining restriction on class size. Why not have 30, 40, 50, 100, 1,0000 students in a class?

    Lecturers are generally paid by the class or by the class-time hour, NOT by the student. So lecturers would be grading potentially more papers and exams and answering email from dozens or hundreds more students--for the same pay. Students, however, would be paying the same price for the class as f2f students. The main benefit would be to the college, which would rake in more money using fewer resources.

    Would this situation really be beneficial for students?

  • Snarki, child of Loki on October 14, 2011 7:55 AM:

    If youíre a tenured faculty member, itís in your best interest for your university to spend a ton of money recruiting rich kids with high SAT scores in order to climb the U.S. News status ladder, because some of that money and status will come to you.

    Yeah, and capping malpractice awards will reduce the cost of malpractice insurance, and removing a federal airline ticket tax will reduce airfares, and...OH WAIT!

    Faculty (whether tenured or adjunct) salaries are NOT the main driver of college tuition rates, and haven't been for a long time. It's all about supply and demand, with the excess profit funneled into further bloating "administration".

    There is a benefit to having students with higher SATs in a college: they're easier to teach. That's it. The effect on salaries is microscopic.

    You get a "C-", Kevin. Try harder.

  • jte on October 17, 2011 1:09 PM:

    What Snarki said. Being "inclusive" is great, but what it really means is admitting a lot of students who are simply woefully unprepared for college level work and who will subsequently require a whole lot of extra intervention, tutoring, support, etc. in order to graduate. Maybe that's worth it -- I'm not saying it's not. But it also means that the university is going to have to divert resources away from things like funding student-faculty collaboration on research projects, for example, in order to put together new mentoring programs to teach these students to write basic English or bring them up to speed in math and science (not that a lot of regular students couldn't use these things as well). Of course that will require hiring a new "Dean of Inclusiveness Initiatives" complete with a staff, new offices, etc. I'm not surprised this is getting a lot of pushback from the faculty.

    Also -- online "learning" is a joke. I was a lecturer for one of these programs when I first got a Ph.D and it was the biggest waste of time in my life -- and for the students as well. Nobody did any work; they expected to just learn through magical internet osmosis or something. The school cashed their checks, flunked them, and we never saw them again. Sweet deal. For the administrators.

  • Kristen on October 18, 2011 7:37 AM:

    I believe it is also worth introducing into discussion the simple fact that when everyone is able to go to university, everyone is then expected to go to university, a fact that makes your degree that much less valuable to your CV and makes it that much harder for every graduate to get a job. The market is flooded now with applicants--at least 14 million in the US--and a sizeable proportion have college degrees that they're still paying for. My MA is just getting more expensive, sitting in the filing cabinet, waiting for a job to come along and free my loans from forbearance.

    When we encouraged everyone to go to get a degree, all we did was move up the baseline. Whereas 10 years ago receptionists needed a high school diploma to qualify, now they need a BA. What once was a minimum-wage career has become a minimum-wage career that costs $20,000 just to apply.

    Universities are challenged now, in the face of growing awareness of the plummeting net benefit of earning one of their products, to convince people that their worthless documents are somehow better than other schools' worthless documents. It's either that or go bust when everyone signs up for The University of Phoenix Online just to slog through the next required stage of debt accrual before they can get a job to pay it off. In order to do so I believe recruiters are trying to draw a distinction between students--people who genuinely want to learn and engage with their education--and those who just want to get a stamped document saying they paid their dues. And maybe that's how education will evolve in this country. In-person education will become the remit of professional academics while the rest of us are processed by the one-size-fits-all diploma mill.

  • Prof. U on October 20, 2011 7:12 PM:

    Lots of people sign up for on-line universities and never finish. Also, I believe (as a college professor) that there is some value added for students in my class, taking part in discussions, talking after class, attending campus events (lectures, art exhibits, films) which you do not get through an on-line university. And ask anyone who has taught an on-line class, it is much more work for the instructor (many of whom are already overworked especially lecturers).

    I love how people outside of academia think they understand my job. I have tenure at a college. I teach three to four classes per semester. I work 70 hours a week when you include teaching, grading, advising, committee meetings, preparing for classes, and sometimes I even find time to do research for my own publications (a requirement if I want to reach full professor some day). I have never had a "summer off" and I am very invested in the later success of my students (I write letters of recommendation, make calls on their behalf, and stay in touch with dozens of students). Oh, and I make 15% of what the president of my college makes (not including the house and car and job for his wife).

    I do not necessarily agree with what these other institutions are doing but I understand what they are saying and why they take the positions they take. Perhaps more of the writing in the education section of WM can be done by professors and people who understand what faculty are dealing with?

  • Explanitor on October 22, 2011 1:15 PM:

    Youíre misunderstanding David Bennett, who is actually speaking as a graduate of Syracuse, one of the few on the faculty. He is arguably the most popular lecturer at the school, famous among the alums. He is speaking on behalf of graduates whom Cantor has alienated.

    As to his politics, his son is Matthew Bennett, the founder of Third Way. Which is to say that he has no special problem with education reform.

  • JohnN on November 02, 2011 7:03 PM:

    Wow, Kevin, wrong on just about everything.

    First of all, the bloating cost of U is hardly to do with faculty salaries, which are a smaller and smaller part of U budgets. The bloat of administration is a much bigger contributor. Universities are run by administrators with the faculty more and more just hanging on.

    And lowering the standards for student admissions has tremendous knock on effects on classroom education. Teachers have to dumb down the content of their classes, and it creates an environment where you cannot demand students perform, instead, you have to baby sit them and spoon feed them information. Yes, it changes the educational process. The quality of students is a key factor in the quality of teaching, like it or not.

    As usual, Kevin reflects the usual "liberal racism" that believes that the only way to get diversity is by lowing standards. He just can't believe that those minorities can handle high quality.

  • frank on November 05, 2011 6:43 PM:

    Not surprisingly, Kevin seems unaware of what is actually happening on university and college campuses: fewer and fewer resources are going towards teaching, pedagogy, or professor-student research; greater number of students are taught by overworked adjuncts; and more and more of professor's time is being directed not at research, or student faculty interaction, or even old fashioned mentoring--its all going to 'committee work'. Guess who is getting all the resources, the technology, the professional development, and the 'work' from the committees---yup the administrators, whose salary keeps rising while everyone's remains stagnant. We have entered a period when the purpose of the university is no longer education, but to serve administration. The students and the faculty are merely a means to bigger admin offices, higher admin salaries, and fancier offices for administrators.
    Worth a read guys: (hey kevin you might learn something too)

  • golack on November 06, 2011 8:40 PM:

    The problem with putting Universities on what amounted to "cost plus" awards was noted early on, see Frederic Richards "What ever happened to the fun" (near the end):

    (more on Fred at: http://proteopedia.org/wiki/index.php/Frederic_M._Richards)