America's Most Overrated Product: Undergraduate Education
By Marty Nemko
A Presentation by Marty Nemko to the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, CA Broadcast on KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco.)
You will be very tempted to disagree with me. And that's understandable. Most people who come to the Commonwealth Club have gone to college, often graduate school, probably succeeded in both, and enjoyed it in the process. So after you've spent years and lots of money on yourself and your kids to pay for college, I'm going to dare to tell you that college education is America's most overrated product? Of course you're going to want to disagree with me.
But I will ask you for at least the next thirty minutes to suspend your judgment-- and then you can disagree with me or throw tomatoes if you want.
I want to start by talking about money. I have been struck by the fact that so many parents, even those that do not have a lot of money, say,"I will spare no expense on my kid's higher education. Higher education is so important."
I've seen parents mortgage their future to pay for their kids' college education, sometimes a private college--four years at a brand name private college--when you count all outlays--almost $200,000 for four years.Even with financial aid that means not-rich people spending $100,000 PER CHILD. Even four years at a University of California campus, when you really add everything, is $100,000 for one kid. And the middle class is less likely to get financial aid at a public college, so that may be the same $100,000 per child.And the reality is - and I'm going to talk about this later -- most of them take longer than four years, so that $100,000 didn't cover it. Many students take five and six years.
Is it worth it? Parents cite a misleading statistic that colleges are very, very fond of perpetrating: "Well, I'm not so sure the learning may be worth it but the average college graduate will earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over their lifetime than students who don't go to college."
Let's look a little more closely at that statistic, the first of a number of statistics that colleges like to talk about that-when you look just behind the ivy-aren't quite what we think they mean. Look at the pool of students that go to college. Those students, on average, are brighter, more motivated, have more education-fostering parents--so much moreso than the pool of people who don't go to college. You could take the pool of people who go to college and lock them in a closet for four years and they're going to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the other pool of people. Certainly, many employers in placing a want ad, specify that a degree is required. But in fact, a go-getter applicant can often transcend that.
But the colleges-which are otherwise very good at debunking misleading statistics-let this one lie. So, we the unassuming public say, "I'll mortgage my future so that my child can have this invaluable thing called a college education."
Let's forget about the money; let's look at the learning. Arthur Levine who is the president of Teachers College at Columbia University headed a federal panel reviewing higher education's efficacy. It released a report . The full report is at www.highereducation.org, but here I'll quote a key finding. Levine said, "Colleges love to do research, except when it comes to measuring their own effectiveness. He says, "States are spending billions of dollars on higher education and they have no idea what the results are."
We may not have hard data, but talk to nearly any employer and they say, I'm pulling my hair out. These people have college degrees yet don't even have basic writing, reading and thinking skills. What does this bachelor's degree that costs $100,000 or $200,000 certify if it doesn't even attest to basic reading, writing and thinking skills?"
Deborah Wadsworth, who is the executive director of a non-profit organization called Public Agenda, interviewed teacher education faculty--the professors who teach college graduates who have been admitted to graduate school, and who will become our future teachers. And she said 75% of the (teacher education) faculty said that their students have trouble writing essays free of grammatical and spelling mistakes. What company would survive with a product defect rate like that?
When you stop to think about it, though, it's not surprising that colleges are turning out such defective products. The predominant mode of instruction in the year 2006 is the same as the predominant mode of instruction in Socrates' time: the lecture. Why? Because, as I'm going to demonstrate again and again, colleges are a business like any other business, and the lecture is the lowest-cost way of disseminating knowledge. Now, you may say, "Marty, you're a hypocrite, you're lecturing us right now." Yes I am, because I have a total of thirty minutes with you. But when you go for a bachelor's degree, each course is fifteen weeks long, three hours per week, and you take thirty or forty courses before you graduate. There is no excuse for a method of instruction--the lecture-in which people remember only ten to twenty percent of what they hear-which is what studies of lectures have shown. They say we learn by doing. The colleges seem not to care because it's cheap to herd students into an auditorium and simply have a speck forty four rows away, pontificating to them for fifteen weeks.
Ironically, the more prestigious the college, the more likely classes are to be taught in lecture format. At the Berkeleys, the Harvards and the Stanfords, you're much more likely to be taught in a large lecture than in a local community college, which is essentially free. And who is teaching those Ivy classes? Some of the classes, although not necessarily the lectures, are taught by graduate students. Intrinsically there's nothing wrong with a graduate student except that in this country--especially in the sciences, economics, and computer science-a significant percentage of the graduate student instructors are foreign students who speak limited English-- teaching a course that is very difficult under the best of circumstances. Just yesterday somebody told me that they were taking a course and "I only understand one out of three words that this professor -- this graduate student-- is teaching." And that's the situation is at Harvard and at Stanford and at Berkeley.
Let's go beyond the half of classes at UC Berkeley that an undergraduate is likely to be taking with a TA. Let's say they actually get the vaunted professor. Are university professors really the most qualified to be teaching undergraduate students? I was speaking with a UC professor. I will change just enough of the details about her so I don't embarrass her. She has a bachelor's and a Ph.D. from Berkeley and her love, her specialty is the day and night cycles of the marigold. That is her passion: the difference between day and night growth cycles of the marigold. She really doesn't care much about teaching undergraduates the basics that they need to learn when they take introduction to biology: the Krebs cycle, photosynthesis. And yet the university, in effect, says, "You will teach undergraduate biology because that is the cash cow."
That is the vaunted professor? This woman is not a clear communicator, nor does she take much time to prepare for her classes-- it's foolish for her to do so. Why? Because all of the rewards for promotion and tenure have very little to do with teaching and everything to do with how many articles on the day-and-night cycle of the marigold she can publish. The late Ernest Boyer, former vice president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said, "Winning the campus distinguished teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes time for tenure."
So the people who are teaching our undergraduates are often terrible choices for teaching undergraduates and we make them teach in terrible environments-large lecture classes. So it's not surprising in the most recent annual survey of college freshmen conducted by UCLA's Alexander Astin, he found that 40% of freshmen frequently felt bored in class. What company could get away with a dissatisfaction rate like that?
And students show their dissatisfaction in very interesting ways. Show up on any Day One of a lecture class at UC Berkeley and there will be 400, 500 students there. Show up toward the end of the semester, there will be half that. They vote with their feet. They essentially say, "These lectures are boring. They're a waste of time." They go and they buy the Fybate notes (lecture notes for sale). When it comes time for their term paper, the assignment often seems so irrelevant that they will go and download term papers from the internet at $9.95 a page. People are making millions of dollars on the Internet selling those term papers because students don't find the learning that comes from doing those assignments worth the effort. They'd rather pay two hundred bucks.
They vote with their feet in another way. I want you to guess: Out of every hundred freshmen who start out on an American four-year college campus -- not even two-year -- I'm talking four-year college campus, how many would you guess graduate within four years? Three out of four do not make it within four years.
Some students have financial problems and they have to work to continue going to school, so maybe they take five or six years or maybe they need to stop out or they decide to spend a semester in Europe or whatever. So, let's give them six years. What percent of students would you guess graduate from college within six years? Forty percent. Six out of ten never graduate. Again, to use the corporate metaphor, imagine a company that--out of every hundred products put on its assembly line--60 fell off the assembly line before it reached the end. How long would that company stay in business? Because we view higher education as an awesome institution rather than the rapacious business that it is, we don't think twice about it. We don't even ask that question.
But now let's look even at you, higher education's success stories. Think back for a moment to the college classes that you took. Raise your hands. How many of you have ever taken a class where there was a massive reading list that you could not get through? Look around. Nearly every person. How many of you took a class for which you didn't even read all of the required reading, let alone the recommended reading? Look around again. Nearly everybody. How many -- now be honest -- how many of you ever took classes where you never even bought the textbooks because they looked so massive. Even some of you. How many of you -- one more question about this -- how many of you ever took a class in which you forgot half of what you learned within a week of the final exam? Now look around. Everybody.
There was a letter to the editor written by Phil Hunter to USA Today that captured this beautifully for me. He writes, "Today, thirty years and four degrees later, I mostly remember the pomposity of professors who lectured in amphitheaters. They were fly specks from my perch far up in the theater, unreachable and unapproachable. They were paradigms of classic academia, dancing to a mysterious tune with their overhead projectors, while we sat in confusion, wondering what they were talking about."
One of my clients said--in passing; he was not railing about higher ed--"I got Bs and As in courses I don't even remember taking." Especially at the large universities, at the Harvards and the Stanfords and the Berkeleys, professors don't know whether you live or die, let alone whether you've learned something.
Okay, so maybe you grant me that maybe the amount of academic learning may not justify the $65,000-$135,000. You say, "Marty, but there's the social aspect." Colleges are always pounding into our heads the notion that college is the place where you make lifetime friendships, the bonding -- the halfway house between the protection of childhood and the independence of adulthood. They invoke all the romantic notions they possibly can.
Let me remind you of what more typically goes on. Fact: 27% of all undergraduate students binge drink regularly: recent study, year 2000. Why? It's understandable. You have a group of kids who are away from home pretty much for the first time. You put them into a highrise building with almost no supervision and what is going to happen?
I'm not saying we need to go back to the days of parietals-- where there's a den mother looking in at every moment. But there is something between complete laissez-faire where they're allowed to do whatever-- where 27% regularly binge drink. I can remember a client telling me about how he summarized the experience of going to college outside the classroom. He said, "Getting drunk, getting laid and going to the ballgame." And that's at Yale. I see there's a lot of you nodding.
Even more basic than what they (colleges) provide in terms of programming for students, is housing itself. The San Francisco Chronicle, which is known for genuflecting to the University of California, Berkeley-- they love it -- wrote the following, April 6, 1999: "Student frustration with the housing shortage in Berkeley escalated into a rain-drenched camp-in on the chancellor's doorstep yesterday. The campus housing crisis had a peak at the beginning of the current school year with many students forced to camp out in their cars, live in cheap motels, commute long distances, and at least in one case throw down a sleeping bag in the Berkeley BART station. The campus provides only about 5,000 campus operated beds for a student body of thirty thousand."
This is our vaunted higher education, our, quote, "national treasure."
And that brings us to the question of recruitment. Like many businesses, colleges are rapacious in their recruitment practices. This is true, by the way, even of Ivys. If you think Ivys don't need to recruit, Berkeley doesn't need to recruit, wrong. They love to tell their alumni, they love to tell US News & World Report, how selective they are. We all want to get into a country club that's hard to get into. It's the same with college--if it's easy to get into it can't be good.
Here are some of the things colleges do. Colleges are excellent at lying in statistics. They have more statisticians per square foot than anywhere else in the world and here is what they do. How many of you ever heard a college spout the following statistic: "We get twenty thousand applicants for four thousand slots in our freshman class." How many of you have heard that statistic? Nearly everybody. And what is the implication? The implication is what colleges want you to think -- they don't want you to think behind the ivy -- they want you just to think quickly. So you think, "Well, that basically means that the college admits 4,000 out of 20,000--it must be pretty hard to get into. Very deceptive and I'll explain to you why. Most students who get admitted to a college get admitted to many colleges. So they turn down most of them and only go to one. The typical college has what's called the yield rate of twenty to forty percent, that is, out of every 100 students they admit, only 20 to 40 show up. So if a college gets 20,000 applications, to get those 4,000 slots filled, they may have to admit 16,000 students. But most colleges don't want to give you that honest statistic: "We get 20,000 applicants and we admit 16,000. No. They use this very clever wording: "We get 20,000 applicants for 4,000 slots," to make themselves look selective.
How many of you have heard colleges talk about the faculty-student ratio? Right? Everybody. What's the implication? I'll give you a specific example, UC Berkeley, my own alma mater. They claim a faculty-student ratio of 18:1. What is the implication of that? The implication for somebody who doesn't look behind the ivy, is that the typical class has eighteen students. What they don't tell you is that that number of faculty includes many faculty who never see an undergraduate student, faculty that either just do research or faculty that teaches only graduate students, or faculty that teach tiny classes like Indo-European linguistics that indeed has two students. The honest statistic would be, "What is the typical class size for your college's average freshman? "What is the class size for intro psychology. I guarantee you it's not eighteen. It's five hundred.
Next statistic -- and this one was reported in an expose by The Wall Street Journal. The most tangible piece of evidence about the selectivity of a college is the average SAT score of its students and that's what U.S. News & World Report uses to make its bogus rankings -- which is another topic which I won't go into today. But how do colleges get away with fudging their SAT scores? Each college will do this differently. They fudge to different extents -- but as The Wall Street Journal reported, colleges routinely will exclude subgroups that don't score high. So they will exclude transfer students, they may exclude athletes, they may exclude legacies, they may not include what they call special admits-usually minority students admitted under special criteria. So the (reported) average SAT score is not realistic. So if you, as a high school student, get a 1200 SAT score and you see that a particular college reports an average SAT of 1200, the image in your mind is that you will fit in, that you'd be an average student. But the reality is that if you counted all of the students, not just the ones that the colleges want to count, the actual average might be 1,000 or 1100. So colleges mislead students as to what the caliber of the student body actually is. (Inadvertently omitted from the speech: And that's crucial because the caliber of the student body affects the level of instruction in the classroom, the nature of interactions in the residence halls, and the quality of extracurriculars-for example, the student newspaper.)
Colleges are a business. Like any other business they want to make money, bottom line.
Now let's take a look at statistics that colleges omit. Colleges, like any other business, realize that their product has to be commercial. And one of the ways that colleges make their product commercial is by offering majors that are in high demand by students, for example, journalism, art, and fashion design. If a student receives admission into a college's program such as journalism, it would seem reasonable for the student to assume that "If I major in journalism and I do a reasonably good job, I'll have a reasonable chance of making a reasonable living at it. Otherwise, why would the college offer such a major?"
Reasonable thinking, but not real. I was sitting on a top floor of the Time-Life building a couple of years ago with a number of the editors from one of the magazines, and we were talking about this question. One of the guys said, "It is unconscionable that colleges continue to allow students to enter the journalism major programs because only a tiny fraction will ever make even a subsistence living as a journalist."
There's nothing wrong with colleges doing that (admitting students into majors such as journalism) but there's everything wrong with not telling them what the odds are (of landing a job that pays at least a living wage.) Imagine for a moment that you went to a doctor and the doctor said, I'm going to prescribe a treatment for you and it will take you four to six years to complete, and it's going to cost you $65,000-$130,000, and the doctor did not tell you that the odds of the treatment working were one in eight. What would you do? You would sue and you would win in any court in the land. And yet, colleges routinely encourage people to take the medicine called a journalism major or a music major or a fashion design major and don't tell them that the odds are one in eight, thereby committing educational malpractice. Yet because it's college, America's revered icon, we don't even question it.
More recruitment shenanigans: Even the most impersonal college, like UC Berkeley, does a great job of making you (admitted applicants) feel like you're going to have a personalized experience. The brochures (of many such impersonal colleges) show pictures of one faculty member, one adoring student looking up at him--you have this vision of one-on-one relationships. Every picture of a class has eleven students enraptured by a charismatic professor, even though the reality is that classes are huge and it's extremely difficult to get an advisor on the phone, let alone in person.
I love this one: there are a lot of marketing companies that serve higher education. And one of the tools they tell colleges to use is the following: They tell college presidents to get a list of their most desired hundred students--academic superstars, athletes and minorities. The president sits down in front of the camera with a list of these names, and says into the camera --Mary Johnson, we're really interested in having you as a student. We really hope to see you in the fall. Then they attach that little clip onto a premade videotape that the president said one time that is identical for all the students. The student gets -- what he or she believes is that individualized pitch from the president--again implying they'll have a personalized experience should they come (to that college). Students who are admitted will also get a call: a college admissions office may hire students to call all admitted students: "We're really glad you've been admitted to our college and we're excited about having you join us. It's really great." Everything possible to make it seem personalized. Then they (the students) show up on campus and there are five hundred students in a class, inaccessible advisors, you're in high rise dorms. It's nothing short of false advertising. Just like any rapacious business.
Enough of the negative. Let's move to the positive. I want to offer a blueprint for the reinvention of higher education and I want to start with recruitment since we're on that. Every college teaches ethics classes. Any college that has a school of business has a business ethics class. All I am asking is that colleges in their own business--their own admissions policy-- adhere to the very same principles that they espouse in their ethics class. Is that asking too much?
And how could colleges do that? What could be more important than choosing a college? It's the second largest purchase a person ever makes next to a home. Aren't prospective students entitled to decent consumer information? These are supposedly non-profit organizations, these colleges. I believe, instead of those glossy brochures that are the equivalent of new car brochures, we need to offer students the equivalent of a Consumer Reports evaluation on the college:
* With real statistics like candor about class size. Don't give me faculty-student ratio. Tell me what the real class size is likely to be for typical classes.
* Instead of B.S. statements about financial aid like, "We attempt to meet the full financial need of all students," let's have the facts: a chart that shows for every different income and asset category, how much cash financial aid you're going to get, how much loan you're going to get and how much you're going to have to pay out of your pocket. That way, families can really compare what it's going to actually cost to attend (College A vs. College B.)
* Let's give real graduation rates. Let's have another chart that says, "If your grade point average is this and your SATs is that in high school, here is the percentage of students who likely will graduate within four years, five years and six years." So if you had a 3.0 GPA in high school and a 1000 SAT score, based on the college's previous experience of students with those grades and SAT scores, X% graduate. That way a student, going in, knows what his or her odds are.
* When it comes time to talking about those those sexy sounding majors, let's provide the statistics:what percentage of people who graduate in journalism actually are professionally employed within a year of graduation. David Williams, a 30 year old, said to me, "You know, when I was in college I was an art major and they praised me all the time. You've got a lot of talent, Dave, and you're really good." It's ten years later -- this is a quote -- "I'm still paying off my student loans in the California College of Arts and Crafts and the closest job I've gotten to an art job is an aide to an elementary school classroom."
* The most important statistic the colleges should provide its prospective students is an index of value added: how much does the average student grow in reading skills, writing skills, thinking skills, leadership skills, public speaking skills, compared from where the kids start as freshmen versus when they graduate. If all colleges did that, students would be able to compare -- it shows how old I'm getting calling them "kids" -- they'd be able to compare the value added of one college versus another.
It's (A college education) is such an important purchase, shouldn't we be giving students that kind of Consumer Reports information? So, Plank One of my plan for college reinvention is honesty in recruitment.
Plank Two is instruction. As I said, the lecture class is a dinosaur. Instead, picture this. Imagine that you are taking a course in biology--there's 3,500 colleges in the country and they all teach intro biology. Some of the classes have great instructors, some average instructors, and some lousy instructors. And the labs in general, unless you're at a very well funded college, tend to be pretty Mickey Mouse because it's very expensive to afford good equipment. Instead of that, now imagine that every student -- rich, poor, black or white, urban or rural -- could get instruction from a nation's best biology instructor on computer, on line, interactive video, and it wouldn't be straight lecture; it would be lectures punctuated by simulations, simulations that would be impossible to duplicate in real life in a fundable lab, fascinating opportunities for kids to interact with realistic biological situations, best instructors, real interactivity at a fraction of the cost of what it currently costs to have good, bad and mediocre instructors and lousy labs. So I think the lecture class needs to be replaced by this kind of interactive instruction, video-based, online based.
Relevance, it's a word that we get tired of. But the reality is this: think back to when you were eighteen or twenty. Was that really a time in your life when you were interested in the difference between Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns? The symbolism in Shakespeare? The music of Palistrina? The use of the Doppelganger in 19th century literature? Yet that is at the core of what we force students to learn. I'm not saying we should pander to them by teaching sex. But there's an old educational phrase that is nonetheless true called the learning moment. We need to capitalize on students' desire to learn what they're excited about and motivated to learn at that point in time. When kids are at eighteen or twenty, they're at their most idealistic. It's a great time to teach them about things that are going to foment that idealism. It's a great time to teach them about relationships. It's a great time to teach them about careers. They're understandably worried--especially if they're not techie types-"How am I going to make it?" We should not treat career as a dirty word. We need to make the curriculum more sensitive to the needs of our population.
Next, all of us would nod that the following is a good idea: we should try to look at problems from multiple perspectives. Obvious. The book 1984 was a nightmare for all of us. It was essentially brain washing from the right, non-stop. In some senses I must admit -- and I am a Democrat myself -- that colleges have become places of brainwashing from the left. We talk about the importance of multiple perspectives and seeing different views on things, but look at reading lists on most college campuses and you will see not balance. You will not see multiple perspectives. You will often see one long diatribe, often for a particular point of view and it's usually a point of view that says environmentalism is good, development is bad. People of color are good, white people are bad. Native American simplicity is good, technology is bad. There are multiple, intellectually defensive perspectives on all of these issues. If you want to really teach free thinkers, we need to allow people to hear best-made arguments for all of those perspectives. That too rarely happens.
Moving outside the classroom. Colleges need to be places that provide a moderate amount of supervision in the dorm, and an exciting living and learning environment. We need to take some of that money that we spend on football teams and country club-like campuses and divert it to things that are going to really make a difference in the lives of students. We all know that growth occurs primarily one on one, not in large lecture classes and not just from laissez faire. We need to do more to encourage peer mentoring: freshmen and sophomores being mentored by juniors and seniors, faculty/student mentoring. That is where growth occurs. We need to take money from things like country club campuses and put it where it's going to benefit students, not put it into the sizzle but into the steak.
Who is at fault in allowing higher education to get away with being this rapacious business they are without any accountability? You and I. Mainly you because I'm really trying to stop it. Because we are in awe of this mighty institution, the university, we don't see it as just another business, a business that uses undergraduates as a cash cow. We see the university as an icon.
Every time we vote "yes" on a higher education bond issue, we are saying to those businesses called colleges, "It's okay. We'll continue to take more money out of our pockets and give it to you colleges even though you produce a shoddy, overpriced product."
Every time we get a solicitation from our alma mater and we choose to take money out of our pockets to line the pockets of those businesses called colleges when there are so many more worthy charities, we are letting them get away with being unaccountable.
We must be smarter than that. And our media and our government must be smarter and start treating colleges as they treat other businesses. We should certainly demand from them the same degree of accountability as we would, say, a car company. When the Ford Motor Company produced the Pinto, the media was relentless in attacking Ford. They lost many millions of dollars. And yet colleges produce defective products day in and day out in huge quantities -- students who either don't graduate or if they do graduate-- they graduate without basic skills, yet we simply genuflect before them and increase their funding.
Every one of those proposals the federal government has recently enacted, the Hope Scholarship, the Lifetime Education Credit--who's paying for that? You are. And it doesn't go into the pockets of the consumer. Why? Because when the colleges know that there's more financial aid available from the Feds, what do the colleges do? They raise their tuition. Did you know that in the 90s, colleges' endowments have doubled and tripled-- Harvard is the most vivid example. In 1990 their endowment was three BILLION dollars, already a huge sum. Their endowment now is twenty billion dollars. And what did they do with this extra money? Did they rebate it to the students? No. They increased their tuition, and not only did they increase it, they increased at more than the level of inflation.
Colleges have been left to go unaccountable and like any other business, they will make as much money as they can. We should demand at least as much accountability as you demand from PG&E. When PG&E wants to raise the price of a kilowatt a penny the Public Utilities Commission holds a massive hearing. It's on the front page of The Chronicle -- there's a freeze right now. PG&E can't raise the price a penny despite the energy crisis. And yet colleges--we don't blink twice. We simply bow down to them because they're our icon. Colleges require similar oversight to PG&E.
Colleges produce a shoddy, overpriced product and it's time we held them accountable. Only by holding them accountable and not revering them as we would an icon can we even hope that colleges can improve from being America's most overrated product to becoming the national treasure that we believe it is. Thanks a lot for not throwing tomatoes.
Q. What about smaller colleges such as Reed in Portland, Oregon, and St. John's, Annapolis?
A. Excellent question. The smaller colleges vary more. Some small colleges do a great job. St. John's is probably among the very best because it indeed does have eleven students per class and an excellent faculty totally dedicated to teaching. It's one of the hidden treasures of higher education. It has a campus in New Mexico as well as the one in Annapolis. It's a truly wonderful institution. I have mixed feelings about Reed and the other schools that are its peers, the Oberlins and the Williamses and the Swarthmores, because they, while twenty years ago, did a fine job of providing undergraduate education, like other colleges, have tried to emulate the most prestigious ones--the research universities. They have become more and more research oriented, so there is less personal attention. I think they're (small brand-name private colleges) are (generally) better but they're so darn expensive -- they are $200,000 for four years and one wonders whether it's worth it. And here's another interesting point, I believe. Sometimes class size isn't the whole picture. I was at Pomona College recently and I walked into classes and there were ten or twenty students in a class and yet the professor was lecturing most of the time. It doesn't matter that there are ten or twenty students in the class if the professor is acting as though there were 400. So it's not just a matter of class size. It's a matter of having professors that are masters at interactivity and I'm not sure that today's professors who are so research obsessed, who are trained, hired, and rewarded for research, are masters at interactivity. So I have mixed feelings about that. But St. John's: wonderful school.
Q. I'm Bruce James, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Sierra Nevada College, and one of the aspects of American higher education that is unique in the world is our system of lay governments, of having boards of trustees that are not involved with the institution--very important that they aren't. In many ways, what you're saying is an indictment of that governance. What would you suggest the trustees ought to be doing to help solve these problems?
A. I think that the boards of trustees are invaluable but they are being stonewalled by university administrations. They too often act as rubber stamps. Boards have to be more activist. College presidents are the slickest guys in the world. I've been a consultant to many to them. They are silver tongued devils, and they make their reports and they get their minions to give silver tongued, wonderful, glowing reports, and board members in general ask palliative questions, questions that make nice, and ask for little, small changes. If you ask hard questions about value added, if you ask hard questions about how they select their professors, if you ask hard questions about the use of interactivity in instruction, if you ask hard questions about alcoholism, I dare say that the boards could do a heck of a lot of good, but I don't see many boards acting that way at all. I think boards are invaluable but they need to be activist groups.
Q. Having gone to Berkeley, I can certainly agree with a lot of what you say about Nobel prize winners and about political correctness. But I'd actually like to ask you a question on another subject and that's the overall social value. It's occurred to quite a few of us that the community really gets quite a benefit from the long time students spend in college because these students in college are available to work part time at very low wages for five, six, seven, ten years, whereas if they got out of high school and went right to work, then companies would have to pay them more money. And this is a great benefit to McDonald's and Starbucks and so forth.
A. That is an excellent point. Students really represent slave labor, not only off campus but on campus. It is amazing. In their classes, universities are among the most strident advocates for labor, and yet in their own labor practices, they are often utterly dishonorable: they will hire people at 49% percent time to avoid paying them benefits. So many lecturers, called gypsy professors, teach one class for an amount of money you can't even begin to make a living on, struggle. They drive around from San Jose to Berkeley or wherever and make $18,000 a year with a Ph.D.--all because colleges, rather than hire a full time person they have to give benefits to, would rather be unethical and save the money. Colleges are businesses like any other business.
Q. It's hard for me to accept that colleges are a business and I find it very difficult to understand when you say that what the university delivers to the nation is not worth it. I completely disagree because there is much more to education than preparing for a job. I have two Master's degrees and I know that neither one of them prepared me exactly for the job I took over. But it was invaluable and this is what the college is all about. Of course, they are much too expensive, much too expensive. But it's not a business and the student is not the product. Thank you.
A. I couldn't agree more the college must be more than career training, absolutely. But they don't even do a good job of training good citizens and connoisseurs of life. You don't become a good connoisseur of life when you are lectured to by a professor who is hired, promoted and rewarded based on research. You need people to teach students who are masters at teaching and masters at interacting with young people. I'm really glad you asked the question because absolutely, we don't need just career training institutions. We need to train citizens and connoisseurs of life, without question. If only colleges did it, I would be right with you.
Q. Well, I'll be the devil's advocate. There are other aspects of the learning experience and you touched on some of them. What goes on in the classroom may even be secondary to what goes on in the larger environment of the university. And if you immerse a student in the university environment, in the better universities, in the colleges, the Grinnells and so forth, maybe they're having a bad experience in the classroom -- in most of those smaller schools they're not -- but even in the universities, the plethora of activities that are going on are tremendous. And of course, if they're not trying to appreciate that then it's lost on them. But it's there in spades.
A. Absolutely. The amount of extracurricular choices-- like the music programs and the opportunities for photography and other activities -- are terrific. My big problem out of the classroom is in the residence halls.
Q. I would also cite what I call the W effect where -- you know, the old boys' network. When you go to certain schools if you take the strict economist view that you're going not for the learning but for who you get to meet along the way, along life's path, then you better go to the better schools. And that's what people are paying for. They're paying for those connections. And then the last point I'd make is that these schools are maybe secondarily training programs for students. They're primarily knowledge factories and you can critique them on what kind of knowledge they turn out with these journals that mean nothing at all. However, that's a different kind of critique than yours.
A. With regard to colleges being primarily knowledge factories and secondarily careerist, I'm fine with that, too-- if they did a good job not just of inculcating facts but encouraging really good critical thinkers. If they did a good job of that, no problem. I'm not trying to turn these places into career factories. They should be primarily places to teach critical thinkers and connoisseurship of life, secondarily career. But they do a lousy job of it because of who they choose to hire and promote and by the fact that they're educating in the cheapest way, the lecture class.
Q. I agree with every word you've said tonight and I'm wondering how I can recapture the donation I made this morning to my prestigious university.
A. Stop the check.
Q. My question, though, is to what extent are you a voice in the wilderness and to what extent are you a harbinger of some movement which may actually have an effect on this really defective institution that we so revere?
A. I'm going to be completely candid with you. I'm a voice in the wilderness. A few people have written books about this. But the problem is that most people who know are insiders and they have too much invested. They're part of the institutions, they're faculty members, they're administrators and they don't want to become pariahs. Chance brought me outside of higher education. I've been blessed in being able to write newspaper columns and radio and TV shows, and all this other stuff. So I've been able to have a life outside. So I have nothing to lose by being honest. Ernest Boyer is dead so I can be candid -- at this point it's not going to hurt his career. He was the vice president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a real expert on higher education and he and I had some long talks about this and he said, "Marty, I only wish that I could do what you're doing. I can't. My whole life -- my friends, my colleagues, my life is tied in with this higher education establishment. I simply am not willing to pay the price of being a pariah." And that's why: I'm one of the few who is lucky enough to have nothing to lose by being honest. Almost nobody from the inside is.
Q. Thank you. And I am one of those. I came here because I heard about you. I'm an elected trustee. I own an electronics company in the South Bay and I'm on the community college board of trustees. Now we're in California. Talk a little bit about the educational master plan because as I try to fight what's going on, there's a turf battle that exists.
Q. Why not have the community colleges as freshmen and sophomore classes.
A. I'm with you.
Q. We consider it the K-14 system in California system in California. Community colleges are funded that way--it allows the students a chance to sow their oats and figure out where they're going, whether they want occupational ed or whether they want to continue on to external (academic?) ed. The question I have asked my employees, "Do you think our organization can fail and, if so, what is the ramification for you?" My employees understand very clearly that our business can fail and therefore they work in ways to make it better. That's not necessarily true of my employees at the educational institutions. As a matter of fact, they look at seniority as the way to go. Any ideas, suggestions, on the educational master plan as well as the tenure program?
A. First of all, I completely agree that the master plan should really give primacy to the community college for the first two years of college. The faculty is much better geared for it. With regard to the second point, why is it that colleges don't have a strong incentive for improvement? It is partly tenure. Once you get tenure, you can't lose your job. There are some perfectly wonderful professors who, when they got tenure, were worthy of it, but as we all get older we start to get bored or tired or even physically not well. And yet we continue to be allowed to teach and teach and teach, damaging students four hundred at a time. So I think that part of the problem-I'll be that in your business--not one of your employees have tenure. You can't say that about a university.
Q. Hearing you, I found it new that certain minds in the university that are out to get the money no matter what, Could you comment on that?
A. I have been a consultant to a lot of colleges, and privately behind closed doors -- of course, I won't mention individual names -- almost everybody is obsessed with money: department chairs are obsessed with money, admissions people are obsessed with getting more students-- to meet their number -- just like in any corporation. You talk to a college president-he's mainly worried about development. Fundraising, building the endowment, more grant money. The professors who get promoted are the ones who bring in the dollars. College is a business like any other business. I don't think it always was that way. I think it's gotten worse. In the fifties or forties, I don't think it was that way. There's a lot more pressure now. I think this is unfortunately an accelerating trend. A lot of former teaching-oriented colleges, undergraduate oriented colleges, are moving to become more research oriented. The state universities, even here in California -- started out a hundred years ago as teachers' colleges with no research expectation at all. But little by little, especially over the last thirty years, a lot of them have gone from teachers' colleges to regular colleges and now they call themselves universities and are very much attracting research types and have rewarded research types, and the undergraduate is getting the short end of the stick more and more. That's why I deeply believe that today undergraduate education is America's most overrated product.
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