Saturday, September 03, 2011

Improving Higher Education in the US

Many universities, and not a few colleges, have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives presiding over complex empires that contain semi-professional athletic programs, medical and business schools, and expensive research programs along with the traditional academic departments charged with providing instruction to undergraduate students. Like other industries, higher education has its own trade magazines and newspapers, influential lobbying groups in Washington, and paid advertising agents reminding the public of how important their enterprise is to the national welfare. In contrast to corporate businesses, whose members generally agree on their overall purpose, colleges and universities have great difficulty defining what their enterprise is for. What is a college education? On just about any campus, at any given time, one can find faculty members in intense debate about what a college education entails and what the mission of their institution should be. Few businesses would dare to offer a highly expensive product that they are incapable of defining for the inquiring consumer. Yet this is what colleges and universities have done at least since the 1960s, and they have done so with surprising success. _NewCriterion
James Piereson has published an incisive review of US higher education -- and of recently published scholarly books which examine US higher education. He summarises some key reforms which should bring about critical improvements in relatively short order:
(1) Shelve the utopian idea that every young person should attend college and also the notion that the nation’s prosperity depends upon universal college attendance. Many youngsters are not prepared or motivated for college. Let them prepare for a vocation. The attempt to push them through college is weakening the enterprise for everyone else.

(2) Terminate most Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences. There is little point in training able people in research programs when they have no prospect of gaining employment afterwards. The research enterprise has also corrupted all of these fields, particularly in the humanities.

(3) Develop programs in these fields that will allow students to earn graduate degrees based upon teaching rather than research. Such programs will be intellectually broad rather than specialized and will equip graduates to teach in several fields in the humanities. This will strengthen teaching in the liberal arts and perhaps even revive the field from its current condition.

(4) Reverse the expansion of administrative layers, especially those offices and programs created to satisfy campus pressure groups. If campus groups want their own administrative offices, they should pay for them themselves, rather than asking other students (and their parents) to do so. Colleges and universities should make it a practice to hire at least three new faculty members for every new administrator hired.

(5) Bring back general education requirements and core curricula to ensure that every student is exposed to the important ideas in the sciences and humanities that have shaped our civilization. There are many ways of doing this. Columbia University has always done it through a “great books” approach; other institutions do it through a series of survey courses in the sciences and liberal arts. How it is done matters less than that it is done. _NewCriterion
Al Fin education specialists assert that these reforms should be seen as a bare beginning. US higher education is in need of a thorough overhaul, which is only likely to happen in the lee of some very unfortunate events for society as a whole. Much of the dead weight in the staff and faculty of US colleges will be ejected as a result of upcoming economic difficulties occurring in both the private and public sectors of the US economy.

Dead weight government programs which affect education, such as affirmative action, Title IX, etc. will cling to existence for as long as possible -- to the detriment of affected institutions and society at large. Eventually, they too will have to fall by the wayside.

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