A generation ago Charles Sykes wrote a controversial, provocative, but I think 90 percent correct book, ProfScam. I think a better than decent case can be made for a new book, a sequel if you will, called CollegeScam. Professors are not the only ones engaged in using higher education for personal power and glory.
“Is College Too Easy?” is the headline of a superb story by Daniel de Vise on page one of today’s Washington Post. In it, de Vise presents in substantial detail data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that show students study relatively little. Average total time on all academic work amounts to about 27 hours a week, the story says.
Since the typical student is in class at best 32 weeks a year, the total annual hours spent “learning” is on average about 864 (27 x 32), less than one-half the time the student’s parents are spending on their jobs, partly to support the education of their child. As de Vise notes, five-year-old kids in kindergarten spend about as much time on school work as 20-year-old college students.
And, as the story notes, it wasn’t always that way. In the Dark Ages of 1961 (when this writer was an undergraduate), students typically spent about 40 hours weekly on their studies—more or less the same work week of adult workers.
Where is the “scam?” It comes from the calls from the president and others such as the Lumina and Gates Foundation that nearly everyone should go to college, that the learning gained in college is vital. It comes from the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grants, loans, state government subsidies, and tax-sheltered gifts that are spent on higher education, some to build luxury dorms and rec centers, or provide comfortable seating for tycoons attending ball-throwing contests.
The scam is not confined to students. The faculty are complicit as well, first by creating the lax academic standards, personified by grade inflation, that allow the students to do less for more (largely thanks to subsidies coming from outside the academy). Senior faculty still largely teach what they want and when they want—and often very little. As Mark Bauerlein has pointed out to me, they are not lazy (or at least not many of them), but they are doing trivial, selfish things too often. A large portion of research is seldom cited or read, designed mainly to get faculty tenure or enhance their prestige within a very small subset of the population. The heavy lifting (large undergraduate survey courses) are often taught by low-paid adjuncts and grad students. We have a class of academic aristocrats who use the cheap hired help to do a large portion of the core academic function.
And then there is the administration. This is the group of university employees that has grown the fastest, with ever larger and deeper levels of bureaucracy permeating almost every campus. These folks command a growing share of university resources, but most faculty and many students I know believe, mostly correctly in my opinion, that you could wipe out a huge hunk of these so-called support personnel without damaging the quality of the academic offerings—indeed, you might enhance it. Any examination of pay of top administrators over the past decade or so shows that this group has scooped up a fair number of the dollars dropped out of airplanes (or the equivalent) on student homes and academic campuses. What economists call rent-seeking is alive and well on academic campuses.
To be sure, this assessment is arguably too harsh. There are still many college students who study 30 hours or more a week and are learning as much or more than their parents or grandparents did while in school. Engineers typically study vastly more than business and communication majors. And some schools seem to have more rigorous standards than others. According to de Vise, students at Centre College or Washington and Lee study over 20 hours weekly, while those at George Mason (14 hours) or Howard University (11 hours) study less than the already pathetically low average. And the use of adjuncts to teach mass sections of undergraduates to free up senior faculty for research is rare at liberal-arts colleges. Moreover, much research is truly meaningful and done by hard-working professors whose pay is relatively modest by professional standards.
Still, when something becomes costly or unproductive, people look for cheaper substitutes. Despite being sheltered by massive government subsidies, the process of looking for new models of certifying competence and knowledge is accelerating, and transformative change may be coming to higher education.
*This post originally appeared on the “Innovations” blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 23, 2012.