Is College Over?
The American system of higher education, long the envy of the worldâand a profound influence on this city's landscapeâis under siege. New books and reports raise questions about the staggering dropout rates, sky-high costs, and lack of evidence that anybody is actually learning anything on our university campuses. Suddenly, some very smart people are asking whether the temple of learning is anything more than a shady facade.
Once upon a time, there was a tower perched high upon a hill. Inside the tower, magical things happened: Teachers taught and students learned, and when their time together was done, the students had been trans-formed into better people who, in turn, transformed the world into a better place. In the pantheon of fairy tales, the fable of the university is the last one that adults still believe. Parents save their pennies to send good boys and girls away to think big thoughts and expand their minds. The money, the time, the crafting of a perfect smattering of extracurricular endeavors to create a well-rounded applicantâŚall of it is for this. College is the glass slipper, the sword in the stone.
But then, this winter, just after a new round of applications had been mailed, a barrage of studies, articles, and books began shattering the college myth. Robert Schwartz, a professor at Harvardâs Graduate School of Education, released a report arguing that the well-trod path from high school to college has veered largely off course, with only 30 percent of students who start four-year degrees actually finishing. Then came the news that student loan debt had for the first time eclipsed credit card debt in this country, which did a nice do-si-do with the findings that student loan defaults were on the rise (9 percent for four-year colleges, up from 7 percent in 2008). People like Louis Lataif, dean emeritus of Boston Universityâs School of Management, and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel began describing college as the next bubble, one that was expanding at an alarming rate.
Most explosively, there was the book Academically Adrift, written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which in January blew up the university mythology like a match flung onto a pile of gasoline-soaked diplomas. The book went something like this: College students arenât learning as much as we thought. Theyâre studying fewer than 12 hours a week. Theyâre graduating without learning how to write. College, in short, isnât providing the critical-thinking skills theyâll need out in the real world, a world beyond fairy tales.
Arum and Roksaâs conclusions had academics and parents wringing their hands and reexamining long-held beliefs about higher education. These newfound doubts were only exacerbated when the Pew Research Center and the Chronicle of Higher Education released a survey asking whether college was still âworth it.â The answer they came up with was perhaps best characterized by the Chronicleâs headline: âCrisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges.â Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said that the cost of college now far outweighs its value (a Boston-based company, by the way, is now offering shell-shocked parents tuition insurance in case a student is forced to leave school because of injury, illness, or death). And an alarming 38 percent of college presidents said that the U.S. higher education
system is headed in the wrong direction.
What inevitably followed all thisâand just as 2011âs graduates were about to don their mortarboardsâwas a string of breathless articles about young college grads being a âlost generationâ and the ânew underclass.â A poll done by the consulting firm Twentysomething Inc. found that with the unemployment rate for people under 25 as high as 54 percent, nearly 9 out of 10 college graduates were planning to move back in with their parents. A Rutgers study showed that for those who did manage to land a job, the median starting salary for college grads had dipped to $27,000, down from $30,000 as recently as 2008.
âFor a long time, colleges said, âYou want the credential? You want the ticket to the middle-class life? Weâre going to give you the piece of paper that says youâre qualified,ââ says Naomi Schaefer Riley, a journalist and author of The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Wonât Get the College Education You Paid For. âBut youâre starting to get some pushback now.â
The public, in other words, is increasingly wondering what it is theyâre paying forâas theyâre paying more and more. Theyâre losing faith in the system. The disturbing financial implications of the rising cost of college are well documented: The cost of public and private colleges has tripled since 1980; over the past decade, the average cost per year of a public university jumped from 18 percent of a middle-class familyâs annual income to 25 percent; the average student loan debt is now $23,000. But the rising skepticism about the value of the college experience itself is unsettling, particularly in Boston, where much of our economy is rooted in the university system.
I went to school here myselfâliterally buying into the notion that college was a worthwhile investment when I arrived on the Boston College campus. I continue to pay for that investment, and will for the foreseeable future. But in the wake of this educational crisis of confidence, Iâve found myself wondering how much I really got out of the whole thing.
And Iâm far from the only one. As a result, universities are being forced to ask, perhaps for the first time, How much are our students really learning? Can our teachers actually teach? And what, exactly, is the point? So I set out for some answers. Because faith isnât enough anymore. We want proof.
Arriving home early from high school one afternoon in the spring of my senior year, I went through my daily ritual of peering into the mailbox. Please, God, a sign of any kind. Finally, I got one: a big envelope. I collapsed to my knees on the brick walkway leading up to my door, tearing the envelope right down the center. I pulled out a folder and touched the raised seal of the college of my choice like a palm reader seeing the future. Relief and excitement and hope all washed over me. I had gotten in.
College was the golden ticket, the payout for slogging through high schoolâs tedium and testing. I didnât have much say in where I went to high schoolâI was a public school kid with public school teachers for parentsâbut the college decision was mine, and it would catapult me into a future that I could define. Walking around campus a few months later, as I toured the athletic facilities, dining halls, and libraries with other recently accepted students, I was smitten with the idea of the new life I would haveâŚand with the cute guy on my tour, who was also in my freshman class. We exchanged e-mails: âI canât wait to party with you in the streets of Boston,â he wrote. (We never actually connected once classes started.)
Itâd be easy to blame my hormones for the fact that I didnât pepper the tour guide with dozens of questions about academic programs and my soon-to-be professors. But the truth is, I simply took it for granted that I was about to get an excellent education. Everyone from my guidance counselors to magazine rankings had told me so.
But as Academically Adriftâs findings prove, learning is something we can no longer assume is simply happening. And that means colleges are now having to defend themselves against a swarm of newfound skeptics.
Wanting to learn more about how the institutions are attempting to fight back, I call up Richard Hersh to arrange an interview. Hersh and his colleague, Richard Keeling, are coauthors of the upcoming book Weâre Losing our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, and together theyâve consulted with nearly 400 colleges across the country. Our impromptu chat ends up lasting nearly two and a half hours.
âThe secret kept from the public is that lots of people in higher education actually know that weâre much more ineffective than we have a right to be,â Hersh confides. He knows this firsthand because heâs the former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York and Trinity College in Hartford, and he also served as director of the Center for Moral Education at Harvard. For far too long, he tells me, weâve smiled and nodded while colleges impressed us with data points that have little to do with how much students actually learn. We donât take hospitals at their word that theyâre giving us excellent care, he says; we expect them to prove it with statistics and well-articulated standards. But we donât ask the same of universities. Instead, we focus on the trivial, like how big the library is, or the spending per student. âGo and look at the variables that U.S. News & World Report uses,â Hersh says of the bible of college rankings. âNot one of them predicts learning.â
Think of your own college experience: Did you take a test measuring your critical-thinking skills, your analytical abilities, or your writing proficiency before you were handed a diploma? If you graduated more than a decade ago, you probably didnât, because such a test didnât exist. But it does now. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which is the basis for a large part of the research in Academically Adrift, requires students to solve the kinds of problems that arise in the actual workplaceâfor instance, using various documents to make the case for or against purchasing an airplane.
The CLA, which is used at more than 500 schools, is just one of the assessment tools that universities are employing these days to determine where learning and teaching are coming up short. Another thatâs been dreamed up right here in Massachusetts is the Vision Project, which involves âcurriculum-based embedded assessmentsâ to identify areas where colleges can improve teaching, curriculum development, and even the sequence of courses. The man behind the project is Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland, who worked for more than 20 years in the UMass system, is the author of a book on the history of higher education in the Bay State, and is the former president of Northeastern University. Freelandâs effort involves a team thatâs working with the faculty and deans at the stateâs 29 campuses to come up with a strategy to better measure how much students learn. He got a huge boost this July when Governor Patrick announced a new $2.5 million Performance Incentive Fund that will provide competitive grants to campuses that demonstrate performance-based innovationâkind of a Race to the Top for state colleges.
âI consider this the most important educational work of our generation of educators,â Freeland says. âThe strong universities and colleges in the future will be ones who have figured out how to do this.â
On a warm afternoon in July, I join the next generation of educators at Harvardâs Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for the start of a new course called âDeveloping and Articulating Your Teaching Philosophy.â Associate director Marlon Kuzmick, a young guy with a shaved head, bushy eyebrows, and rolled-up shirtsleeves, sits in the front of the room. Thirteen graduate students from various disciplines are arranged in a rectangle before him. All of them will soon leave the crucible of Harvard and begin looking for teaching jobs at universities across the country.
The Bok Centerâs courses are part of an effort at Harvard to improve the teaching skills of its faculty, but they also speak to a problem thatâs plagued universities for decades: that the brilliant educators whose classes you pay so much to attend are not often the ones actually teaching students, and, whatâs more, the graduate student whoâs filling in for Dr. Brilliant hasnât been taught to teach.
When I bring up the subject to author Richard Hersh, he sighs. âYou have to remember, virtually no faculty member in doctoral work has ever been prepared to teach,â he says, noting that most Ph.D. candidates get only a few hours of teacher training before they set out to shape the supple minds of undergrads.
We all know this story. I had an exceptional professor who was so engaging it was like watching literary gymnastics in his class, but when I went to see him during office hours, he curled up like an awkward snail in its shell, unable to actually interact with me.
Professors understand that learning and teaching are importantâitâs the reason they were drawn to academia in the first placeâbut many I spoke with pointed to the university system and its emphasis on tenure and publication instead of working with students. âEven at an education school, the most important priority is writing and research,â says Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at Harvardâs Graduate School of Education. âPeople feel a real conflict between the desire to work on their teaching and the incentive structure thatâs in place. It needs to be rebalanced.â
At the Bok Center, Kuzmick switches on the huge flat-screen television at his side, and I immediately wince. Iâm watching Harvard students use clips of Dead Poets Society for lessons on teaching methodology. Can he be serious? I wonder. And itâs not just Robin Williams evincing spontaneous poetry from Ethan Hawke that theyâre watching; theyâre also analyzing the marbles scene from My Fair Lady, and Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagiâs wax on/wax off exchange in The Karate Kid. The graduate students titter as Mr. Miyagi inflicts a beat-down, then discuss each of the teaching methods depicted in the films. (âA deeply gendered magisterial response method,â one student says of Henry Higginsâs efforts to turn Eliza into a lady.)
Kuzmickâs aim, as bizarre as it seems, is to help these students think beyond the Hollywood tropes of what good teaching looks like and determine what good teaching means to them. More important, the class is a starting point for a discussion about teaching, something few of them have had the chance to think about until now. At this stage in their careers, Kuzmick says, the students have spent enough time in classrooms to have experienced nearly every technique portrayed in the clips. This is their opportunity to write their own script. He asks them: âWho or what are your models for teaching?â âWhatâs motivating you?â âTo what extent are you trying to make your students better people?â They talk about âaha!â momentsâthe times when you realize that your students really understand somethingâand whether planning your instruction around them is a form of narcissism, particularly since research shows that rote learning and repetition help students retain information. And of course, there is discussion among the teachers-to-be about the inevitable challenges they will face when they leave Harvard and begin working with average pupils for whom âaha!â moments are few and far between.
In another Bok Center class, âDesigning the Course of the Future,â graduate students reverse-engineer their curricula to determine exactly what they want students to learn, and use classroom-assessment technologies to measure how much students understand as theyâre being taught a new concept. âWeâre fighting against old ideas of Harvard,â Bok Center executive director Terry Aladjem says in his office, which is crammed floor to ceiling with books on teaching theory, âthat it was far too focused on research and didnât care about teaching.â His challenge is turning theory into practice.
It’s not exactly fair toÂ call Laura Deming a college dropout, since, at 17, she left school before most people start. âEver since I was eight, the big problem I wanted to sort out was how to solve the cure for aging,â she says when I get her on the phone from California. She set out to do just that, and was accepted to MIT at age 14. But now, saying that she hasnât been all that challenged at the Institute, sheâs pulled out after her sophomore year. âI wanted to learn about physics and science in the coolest place in America,â she explains. âBut after I got there, I realized that a lot of the coursework that they teach you can learn on your own. Iâm not sure college is such a hard-and-fast requirement that people think it is today.â
Perhaps thatâs so, but there was another, even more powerful motivation for Deming to leave. This spring she was named one of 24 Thiel Fellows, a cadre of young geniuses from across the U.S. who were each offered $100,000 to skip out on college.
The Thiel fellowships are the brainchild of billionaire PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, who set off a firestorm this spring when he declared that the latest bubble is not housing or the Internet, but higher education. Thiel argues that the growing cost of college has so far outpaced its return on investment that certain very smart people should ditch the time, effort, and debt it takes to get a degree. Not, as he told the influential website TechCrunch, that he expects his message to be embraced. âEducation may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States,â he said. âTo question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. Itâs like telling the world thereâs no Santa Claus.â Still, Thiel believes young innovators can learn more from the real world than they can in a classroom, and heâs provided two dozen of them with the cash to prove it.
Thiel himself has two degrees from Stanford, but he insists that little thought went into the decision to pursue them. âIt was just this default activity,â he said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.
It seems to me that Thielâs fellowships are doing little more than providing a new, and potentially temporary (the Einsteins are allowed to return to college if they want after two years), detour for a bunch of self-motivated kids who were already moving through the educational system with impressive speed. But thereâs evidence that itâs not just the genius contingent thatâs reconsidering college. In July, the education think tank Public Agenda released a report showing that an increasing number of young people whoâve earned only high school degrees now view college as merely one option for a successful life. âMost fully accept that college is a good thing and can be very beneficial in terms of getting a good job and building a future,â the report found. âBut many donât seem to see it as an outright necessity.â
âThatâs total nonsense,â Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, says when I bring up the subject of bypassing college. Greenstone recently published a paper arguing that if students were offered the choice between taking $102,000 and paying for college, or investing itâin the stock market, bonds, home ownership, even goldâthose who chose to go to college would earn $570,000 more over the course of their lifetime. College, he concludes, returns two to five times more than any investment. âPeople with more education make more money, whether theyâre white- or blue-collar,â Greenstone says. âThe data are screaming out that the returns on getting a college degree are very high. Anything we can do to help people to get advanced degrees is a good policy path.â
Okay, fair enough. College graduates earn more than those without a degree. But does that necessarily mean they got the education they paid for?
One afternoon this summer, I return to my alma mater, Boston College, and am greeted by a banner welcoming the class of 2015, which hangs over the dining hall on Lower Campusâa dining hall now flanked by two buildings that didnât exist when I was at school more than a decade ago.
Iâve come back to BC to meet with Patrick Rombalski, the vice president of student affairs, because I keep hearing about BCâs assessment efforts from the experts Iâve been interviewing. But I want to ask a more basic question: Was it worth it?
In the course of reporting this story, Iâve thought more than once about my monthly student loan payments, wondering if, as Matt Damonâs character Will Hunting once posited, I could have saved all that money and paid late charges at the public library instead. (BCâs total cost has only gone up since I left; now $54,528 a year, itâs the most expensive in Boston.) Coincidentally, the issue of the Chronicle with the âCrisis of Confidenceâ cover story is sitting on a coffee table in the lounge outside Rombalskiâs office.
Dressed in a button-down and khakis, Rombalski is slim, with close-cropped hair and an eager smile. He begins telling me how BC is working to create a 24-hour learning environment. From its residence halls to academic advising, the school is developing new ways to engage students, asking them how theyâre doing, what they want from school, what their goals are. The school is encouraging students to reflect on their academic experiences, and training the faculty to better understand how people learn.
This all sounds lovely, but it also frustrates me. It makes me want to go back to school and do it over, perhaps even do it better. So I air all of my concerns: I tell Rombalski about my experience sorting out my major, my trials with student advising, how I worry Iâll still be paying my student loans when my own kids go to collegeâeverything all the way back to the missed opportunity to learn more about professors during my original campus tour. On that last point, he pauses. âI donât get a lot of questions about that,â he admits, perhaps making a mental note for another area of improvement.
I tell Rombalski that when I finished college, I felt like Iâd read a lot of really great books and that my writing had gotten stronger, but I didnât feel like I had certifiable proof of what Iâd learned.
âYou didnât know what you didnât know,â he says, nodding. âAnd if youâre going to spend four years in a place, you want to make sure that youâre covered.â
Heâs right. We donât know what we donât know. But if weâre not thinking about learning, if weâre not making dramatic strides in improving it and testing it and proving that itâs still worthwhile, should we be surprised that more and more of us are losing faith in higher education?
College isnât a fairy tale. Many of us no longer believe in the magical tower on the hill, which is probably a good thing. If we can see college for what it really isâan investment that has the potential not to pay offâweâll start asking the tough questionsâŚand demanding answers. And that may be the closest we can get to guaranteeing a happy ending.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/08/is-college-over/