19 January 2012

Big Picture Perspectives On Higher Education

What is wrong with higher education in the United States today?

Admissions, Financial Aid and Student Loans

1. The status quo creates far too great of a material barrier to access to higher education for academically talented students who are less affluent.

2. State colleges and universities unnecessarily subsidize students from affluent families, particular students who have only modest academic merit.

3. Colleges and universities admit too many students whose medicore high school academic performance and need for remedial classes makes clear that they are not ready for college level academic work and face very high risks of failure from the outset. Admitting students who have a high probability of dropping out early in their academic careers does a disservice to students who have to pay loans for education that provides them with little value, is a poor use of public funds used to subsidize higher education, and when it is permitted should be restricted to institutions that can provide higher education at a low cost to reduce the stakes for all involved. While a policy that sets admission standards so high that nearly all people admitted graduate is probably not taking enough risks, a policy that allows people with a much greater than fifty percent chance of dropping out early in their studied to be admitted is probably too lenient.

4. The practice of admitting students with a high probability of failing in a high cost setting that is subsidized by government funds is particularly severe in most of the for profit higher education field. Institutional incentives to engage in this kind of behavior need to be removed from these programs.

5. The common practice of imposing higher de facto academic standards of admission for Asian-American students than for white students is troubling.

6. Affirmative action provided to Hispanic and African-American students ought to be also extended to first generation college students who come from families that are poor and working class, and should generally be very modest for Hispanic and African-American students who are upper middle class. In general, affirmative action should pay greater attention to race neutral socio-economic considerations which have the effect of disproportionately providing relaxed standards of admission for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and in the case of some institutions less consideration of race per se than is used today. Devoting more of the resources available to subsidize higher education to students with significant financial need who are ready for college, rather than to affluent students and rather than to students who are not ready for college, and providing more financial aid in the form of grants rather than loans and subsidized work study, would also reinforce this goal.

7. The strong barrier to discharge of student loan debt in bankruptcy, ever, should be relaxed at some point in time when student loan debt amortized at a reasonable rate would have been paid in ordinary circumstances, either through changes in the bankruptcy code, or changes in the loan program itself, or both. Particularly to students who have incurred large student loan debts at high cost for profit institutions of higher education that are either not completed because the student shouldn't have been admitted in the first place, or because the programs were of low quality that conferred little economic benefit, non-dischargability of these debts in bankruptcy is an unreasonable hardship contrary to the need for a fresh start that ends liabilities for expenditures that are no longer providing a material benefit to the debtor.

Credentialism, Staffing and Excessive Low Salience Research

8. Higher educational degrees in many fields are an excessively time consuming and expensive de facto required credential for entering many professions in which the kind of information used by colleges and universities to admit new students accounts for substantially all of the economic value added associated with the degree in the occupations that student ultimately pursued that is inferior to the benefit that would have accrued from starting in that profession at a younger date. In particular, mechanisms should be developed to encourage occupations where higher education is used as a signal of intellectual capacity but the occupation itself requires little formal academic training, such as journalism and many forms of direct and middle management, for example, by encouraging some form of graduation with distinction from high school as an alternative credential.

9. Excessive credentialism is particularly harmful to women who plan on spending some time out of the workforce to have children and be stay at home parents to those children, because accentuates conflicts between biological fertility clocks and the time needed to establish oneself in a career, and because interrupting one's education to start a family makes it much harder to continue to pursue higher education.

10. Excessive credentialism drives up the cost of professional services across the board for consumers by creating a barrier to entry into professions that have excessive credential requirements and by creating an addition cost that must be recovered by members of those professions.

11. An important instance of excessive credentialism exists within higher education itself. The de facto requirement that one have a PhD to be a professor in institutions of higher education imposes a large unjustified barrier to entry to the college teaching profession, probably has a net effect of reducing the overall quality of teaching in colleges and universities whose primary mission is teaching since research ability and teaching ability are imperfectly linked, and drives up the cost of higher education by limiting the pool of people qualitifed to provide it.

12. The heavy prioritization of published scholarly work in the tenure and promotion criteria for professors at colleges and universities encourages the generation of large quantities of low salience research, and draws an excessive amount of faculty time and career incentives towards research and away from teaching at the lion's share of institutions (and the lion's share of faculty positions within even elite research oriented institutions) whose primary mission is teaching.

13. To be clear, some amount of allowance of time for scholarship and development of new teaching materials is appropriate for all faculty, and there are some faculty positions at some institutions for which a strong research orientation is appropriate. But, for the large majority of faculty at the large majority of colleges and universities, teaching rather than research should be the primary mission and academia is deluding itself when is pretends that every professor at almost every four years or graduate degree granting institution should be regular and substantial contributors of important new scholarship in their field. Plenty of people with the capacity to be excellent college instructor don't meet this standard, and plenty of people who are excellent scholars are poor teachers, even though there is some overlap between the two functions, particularly at the elite end of the professoriate.

14. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that well educated members of the general public are often willing to teach a single class in a given term as an adjunct professor at a low salary because it is personally satisfying, provides a public service, and conveys prestige, applying the same salary structure to part-time instructors who teach more classes and creates significant discriminatory impacts for women who are disproportionately more likely to be part-time college instructors or full time adjunct instructors.

15. Since a large share of scholarly academic research is conducted with direct or indirect public and charitable support, access to academic papers should be made available to the members of the general public who paid for it at a price that approximates the journal's marginal cost of providing that access. If necessary, it may be appropriate to simply endow funds to be administered by institutions like the National Academy of Sciences to support these high value, low cost of production media for making academic research available to the public.

16. While tenure is an important principle, it is institutionally important that a steady stream of newly minted scholars are integrated into academia, so that it can receive new ideas and so institutions can avoid booms and busts in hiring. An approach to shifting tenured faculty to emeritus status similar to that used to shift federal judges to senior judge status would be an appropriate tool to use more actively to stabilize the flow of new openings for would be professors.

17. It is worth examining why higher education has seen a dramatic increase in their non-faculty employment over the last half century and to examine what options are available to pare down these non-core missions of institutions of higher education.

18. Big money and pre-professional sports programs should either be decoupled from institutions of higher education, or in the alternative, recognized as semi-professional endeavors and treated accordingly. There is no good reason that we should expect all professional football players to earn college degrees, while allowing professional baseball players to work their way up through the minor leagues.

Degree Producing Capacity And Career Services

19. The United States has neglected the need to create new medical schools or increase the capacity of existing medical schools for far too long. The U.S. would benefit in many respects by doubling the number of new medical student slots in U.S. medical schools each year and could do so without unnecessarily compromising the ability of medical doctors to learn their profession and to practice it competently.

20. The United States produces far too many PhDs in fields that have few job prospects outside academia, particular in non-STEM fields.

21. The practice of structuring continuing education programs for school teachers as two to three layers of graduate degrees, none of which has the equivalent of a dissertation requirement, is not a very helpful practice and unduly elevates a credential oriented approach to compensation in K-12 teaching.

22. There is an economic need for legal professionals who are less expensive than today's lawyers who could have a narrower field of practice in imitation of independent medical professionals such as pharmacists, nurse practioners, emergency medical technicians, and independently operating physician's assistants. Criminal law, child custody, and immigration law are among the areas of law that would be particularly well suited to the establishment of these kind of allied legal professions.

23. High schools should take a role similar to the role taken by colleges and universities in assisting their graduates who are not college bound in obtaining employment, internships and apprenticeships after graduation.

24. More attention should be devoted to establishing viable vocational and continuing education options in high schools and community colleges that provide value added rather than mere credentials to students who are not, and are not likely to be capable of earning a college degree in which work of college level rigor is expected, and this should be clearly identified as an educational track distinct from the conventional academic college and university track. There is nothing wrong with admitting that a college prepatory curriculum watered down to what students with weaker academic abilities can handle followed admission to a liberal arts programs at a college or university with very lenient admissions standards is not an appropriate education trajectory for most high school graduates, which is the stated and implicit goal of a very large share of all high school programs and the open admissions institutions of higher education that they feed. Indeed, the recognition should happen as soon as the probabilistic likelihood of that track not being optimal is great (probably no later than the 11th grade and perhaps two to five years before then to some extent) so that students in the K-12 program can maximize the utility of the opportunities that the public is paying to make available to them, and so students do not bang their heads against the wall trying to master curriculums that are inconsistent with their goals and inappropriate for their stage of educational development. A one size fits all set of standards for all students, in general, is a bad paradigm. While tracking shouldn't inappropriately prejudge students by limiting their options before their academic abilities are established, academic ability turns out to be very stable longitudinally and to vary considerably over the universe of all students, and there are qualitative differences in addition to differences in degree in what is sensible to set as objectives for student learning in different tracks, rather than providing carefully considered standards tailored only to the minority of students who are likely have the academic ability to go to college, do undiluted college level work, and earn a degree.

25. We should consciously consider ways to replace the skill training and life training elements of military service and apprenticeship style training that reflects the realities that we have a shrinking military in an era of relative peace, that conscription hasn't existed for several decades, that the young women disproportionately find the military to not be an attactive option for skill training and life training, and that more or less formal apprenticeship arrangements are much less common now than they once were for a variety of occupations.

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