Many of the debates surrounding higher education in the United States today result from tensions between expectations for colleges to provide a traditional university education with expectations for colleges to prepare students for the job market. In other words, colleges and universities are caught between the need to provide what is truly higher education with the need to provide vocational training.

At one time the difference between a university education and a vocational education was clear-cut and specific, but the cost of attending college is rising, along with student indebtedness, and the job market has been very slow for a number of years now, so it’s reasonable for students to be concerned about employability after college.

It’s also reasonable to be concerned because a college degree has long been sold to students as a pathway to a better life. That sales pitch is generally valid — all studies of average incomes of college graduates still place their average incomes higher than those with just a high school education or less. Of course there are exceptions, but exceptions don’t invalidate the rule: if you have a college degree you will probably make significantly more throughout your life than if you don’t, and if you have a master’s degree you will do even better. If you’re gifted, able to self-educate, and received a decent education through the secondary school level, you may do just fine. Most people do not, though.

But five to ten years from now those numbers might look different, especially if we factor in underemployment: college graduates working in jobs that don’t pay well and don’t require a college degree. Just today, a student told me that his wife graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio with $100,000 of student loan debt, and she now has a $10 an hour job. They have three children. He’s close to finishing his Bachelor’s degree, and he plans on going on for a Master’s degree. This additional education will certainly add to their debt burden, but it won’t provide any guarantee of meaningful future employment that justifies that level of debt. What choices do they have? What choices do they think they have?

This family’s answer may ultimately be to move out of Ohio, but it’s probably hard for them to see right now how the promise of college leading to a better life is going to pay off for them. The purpose of the college financing system, it seems, is to support the development of an oligarchy run by the financial sector. The real result may be another massive economic collapse (see particularly this report) resulting from the accumulation of student loan debt similar to the housing crisis of 2008. In the end, taxpayer money will bail out the banks (as it did in 2009) while taxpayers themselves suffer.

The net result of this situation is that the value of a college degree is going to be increasingly tied to graduates’ employability. A number of recent surveys of employers (see links below) about their opinions of recent college grads make clear that businesses want colleges to provide both what’s understood as a traditional university education with its benefits and skill sets and with some kind of job training, so that when the graduate walks onto the job he or she is able to do something.

One blogger writing extensively about trends in higher ed is George Cornelius. He blogs at Finding My College. His primary orientation is toward students’ best interests, so it’s a blog worth reading. He writes from this perspective:

I’m a lawyer by trade. I’ve had the privilege of being an an equity partner at a major law firm that, when I joined, had exceptionally high standards, with respect to both quality and ethics. I also was a member of the hiring committee. Later, I became general counsel of a large chemical company. Still later I became president and CEO of that same company, responsible for operations in the Americas (from Brazil in the south to Canada in the north). We had over 2,000 employees ranging from plant operators, engineers, scientists, VPs, general managers, lawyers, accountants, sales and marketing personnel, IT personnel, and every other discipline related to running a $2 billion enterprise. Later, I headed a large state agency when serving in the Pennsylvania governor’s cabinet as secretary of community and economic development. Still later I served a liberal arts college as its president.

He lacks experience in the classroom, which is a liability in managing higher ed environments (that so many people think that teaching experience is irrelevant to higher ed administration tells you how much education itself isn’t valued at our own colleges and universities). But as someone who has worked both in the business sector and as a university president, we need to listen to his perspective. His perspective combines that of potential employers with someone who has worked in higher ed. He recently posted a three-part series describing what he thinks recent graduates need the most from their college educations from the perspective of future employers.

I’m going to respond here from the perspective of an educator, describing the ways that we’re trying to provide the education that he describes and what forces are working against our efforts. I think he’s identified at least two significant gaps in the curriculum that need to be addressed along with three “macro issues” with higher education. I don’t disagree with his list at all. My response will be a description of institutional pressures contributing to some of these problems.

1. Lack of rigor

As of right now, 70% of college courses are taught by adjunct instructors. Adjunct instructors tend to fall into three categories:

  • People with full time jobs in the private or non-profit sectors who are teaching a class or two because they enjoy teaching, and perhaps to make extra money. These instructors can contribute quite a bit to the classroom as they’re bringing current experience in the workforce into the classroom, but their professional identity is not aligned with teaching. They can take it or leave it. My best math instructor, ever, fell into this category. He worked in the private sector to make money. He taught as an adjunct because he loved teaching. That made him great.
  • Full-time graduate students teaching one or two courses as part of a teaching fellowship. When supervised, these instructors can be good, and with or without supervision, these instructors are highly motivated to excel: they want a future career in the professoriate, so they want to prove they can do a good job now. But they’re also very inexperienced.
  • Full-time adjuncts. These instructors may be teaching six to eight different courses at three or four different institutions. They may be highly credentialed and very experienced (but they may not). They often fall into this trap right out of graduate school, or as they are drawing closer to the completion of their dissertation. These instructors will have the hardest time providing quality instruction because they are the most overworked and the least supported.

It’s been a long-established fact — supported by multiple studies — that the further instructors are from tenure, the more that they inflate grades. That’s because grade inflation is strongly correlated with high course evaluations, and the types of activities that promote long-term learning (such as reading quizzes at the beginning of class) are correlated with low course evaluations. In my own study of grade inflation, I would say about 5% of instructors apply rigorous standards and receive high course evaluations, while another bottom 5% pass out As like candy and still receive low course evaluations. The rest demonstrate a close correlation between high grades and high evaluation scores.

At the same time that we’ve disinvested in actual teachers our spending on administration and sports has skyrocketed. The featured image for this post lists the highest paid state employee by state, and in all but ten states they are college sports coaches. We disinvest in educators, and the quality of our education suffers. Anyone surprised? No one should be.

To provide some institutional context for that $10/hr employee with $100,000 of student loan debt, BGSU has a great football stadium, highly compensated coaches (head coach salary $413,000 in 2012 — and this is a state employee), and well-compensated administrators (university president: $412,000). University presidents should have reasonably high compensation packages, especially if their compensation is tied to increases in the school’s endowment and admissions numbers. But the administrative structure of colleges, overall, has increased dramatically. And paying coaches so much on taxpayer dollars? I’m not just talking about head coach salaries. Add in the costs of assistant coaches — and on and on — and you can see in stark dollar figures just how much we’re selling out education for sports with federal and state taxpayer money.

If the NFL, NBA, and NBL want to use our colleges and universities as farm teams, let them absorb the costs of college sports, not the US taxpayer.

I’m sure this woman is grateful for BGSU’s thriving sports teams as she pays off her $100,000 worth of debt on her $10/hr salary while raising three children — all of which was supported by her own tax money, tax money that she herself does not benefit from at all. She is a debt slave, a trap deliberately set for her by the current arrangement of the student loan system. Most of her instructors were probably part or full time adjuncts. At present, last I heard, BGSU faculty are working without contracts.

You need to understand that banks must just love guaranteed federal student loans. They show up as a positive on the bank’s balance sheet, and if the student defaults, the fed. pays off the loan. They can’t lose. So they’re shifting the burden of America’s debt from housing, which massively crashes periodically (1970s savings and loan crisis, 2008 financial crash), to student loan debt.

How do we address this situation? See the next point.

2. Lack of quality control

The problem with quality control is directly tied to my comments above: very seldom is instructional quality evaluated on anything other than student course evaluations. So long as that is the case, the system will promote grade inflation and a lack of rigor.

Contributing to this problem is the fact that many people in administrative positions approach education from the point of view of a business model. Students are customers and course evaluations are customer satisfaction surveys. So long as we think this way we will have low rigor, low expectations, and low quality because, of course, the quickest way to high course evaluations is grade inflation. Furthermore, too many administrators have little to no teaching experience, so they do not know how to evaluate teaching. Student course evaluations are all that they have.

These course evaluations can provide useful information if you know how to read them. The ratio of complaints to praise is not what matters. What matters are the reasons for the complaints and the reasons for the praise. Student learning really has nothing to do with course evaluations, but quite a bit to do with the quality of graduates after graduation.

Rather than functioning on an anti-instructional customer service model, here’s how we need to think instead:

  • students are a university’s product.
  • faculty are the designers and producers of that product. Disinvest in faculty and you disinvest in the university’s primary mission, which is supposed to be education.
  • future employers and the DOE are a university’s customers, as well as the students themselves five years after graduation.

We can’t cater to what 18 year olds want and provide a quality education. And, guess what? What they want from their “college experience” will change before they graduate, or maybe even just one day after graduation. We can’t rely on instructors whose jobs only exist from one semester to the next and provide a quality education. The instructors who inflate grades the least have tenure, and college boards and presidents across the nation are trying to gut the tenure system. In doing so, they will also gut quality education.

3. Overspecialization: Cornelius suggests that a college education should provide instruction in the following areas:

  • science, math and technology
  • social sciences
  • arts and humanities
  • business
  • health
  • education

With the exception of health and education (I’m unsure what he means by these), he’s just described the typical general education curriculum at most colleges and universities in the US. Business classes can be skipped too, but typically some classes related to business instruction fit some kind of general education requirement.

So what’s the problem? The problem Cornelius identifies — and I’m in complete agreement — is that the study of these subjects isn’t integrated. They don’t support one another. The solution?

Any solution will be hard. Try to get any instructor outside of the humanities to take any course within the humanities seriously — as something that needs to be integrated into a student’s education. It’s not going to happen at most places. Business instructors generally see art and literature classes as useless. Unfortunately, if we pay attention to recent studies such as Academically Adrift, business students are among those who seem to develop the least over four years of college in terms of writing, math, and critical thinking skills, which Cornelius and many other employers say that they want. Furthermore, it’s the liberal arts graduates who score the highest in these areas. From a summary of findings:

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see ‘significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.’ Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains.

So Cornelius is right on this point: we need to integrate this instruction so that students in non-liberal arts fields develop the conceptual acumen of liberal arts graduates while they are receiving business instruction. Liberal arts graduates, on the other hand, need to have marketable skills appear on their transcripts.

If you’re a liberal arts major, work hard and you’ll be fine. But, also pursue a minor outside the humanities, like marketing, public relations, management, finance, web design, etc. That minor plus one or two good internships will make you much more employable.

What else does Cornelius want from college graduates? As I read his list, I see he’s listed many items also found on many employer surveys (20062011; 2013). It’s a great list:

  • Communication skills, particularly writing skills: Yes, we try to cover this skill set in the humanities. And no, it doesn’t get much attention outside of liberal arts majors, and that’s why he thinks it’s a problem — and also why we need to integrate the curriculum.
  • Sound judgment: Cornelius rightly links the development of judgment with knowledge of one’s field, with knowledge of the world, and with knowledge of how to function as a citizen in a democracy. Again, except for field-specific knowledge, most of this instruction is actually covered in liberal arts classes, so again, a need for an integrated curriculum arises here. You might think that we can develop judgment and problem solving skills within a field, but that’s not how it works. Students need to learn to think more than just one way. That is how they develop the creativity and problem-solving skills that support sound judgment. The University of Delaware and many medical schools have a problem-based curriculum that should perhaps be more widely considered too.
  • Knowledge base to excel in their chosen fields: I think this goes without saying, but because he’s saying it — obviously, it’s been a problem. If you’re going to design a curriculum, talk to businesses and industries served by that curriculum first and listen to what they say. And I never thought I would have to say it, but only allow educators with education in the field design the curriculum.
  • Technology skills: I tell all of my liberal arts majors to take one year of programming and learn web technologies such as .xml, .php, etc. Maybe we need to revise the general education curriculum to include instruction at this level?
  • Understand basic economics and be financially saavy: he wants graduates to understand the financial dimensions of business practices. I think I see another revision to the general education curriculum here, or a problem that can be addressed with a more integrated curriculum.
  • Global awareness: college students should be aware of other cultures and of what is going on in the world. Again, I see a demand supported by liberal arts study (World Literature, World History, Humanities, Art, and some Economics courses), but generally absent from study in most other fields unless that is a specific focus (such as International Business or similar majors).

If my point of view seems painfully naive, it’s the point of view of someone who thinks that the purpose of any college or university is to provide its students with a meaningful education, and of one who thinks that colleges and universities should stay in constant contact with the private sector to produce employable graduates and to anticipate future needs and services. In other words, it’s the point of view of common sense, something terribly lacking in higher ed today.

So what do we need? We first need to integrate the curriculum. I developed a model for doing so at the Anazoa Project last December. You might want to consider it.

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