Tuesday, July 24, 2012

America's Two-Lane Higher Education

For the many financial and structural ailments of American higher education, many diagnoses and prescriptions have been offered. My own conviction is that there is a dire need for more thought and policy concentrated on the role of pre-college, preparatory work, which sets the stage for the financial and resource problems in our headlines.

First, a brief disclaimer: I am very strong proponent of true liberal arts.  As a former student in diverse school systems in several countries on three continents, I am strongly convinced that America's emphasis on interdisciplinary cross-fertilization is a special feature that should be kept intact and even expanded. However, this successful American ideal has, for many students, become reduced to remedial high / middle school material. To add financial insult to intellectual injury, this is taking place in the expensive college classroom, taught by the far more expensive college instructor, and quite often in a stadium-like environment. Many schools are discovering that it is far too expensive to conduct remedial coursework in the traditional classroom environment; hence, vast structural changes are forced upon us.
Central to many of the financial challenges that we now see in American higher education is the “prep problem” which delivers students to our campuses for remedial high school coursework. It astounds me that some consider introductory Algebra, History, or English etc, taken in college, to constitute a liberal arts education. Hardly. A course in the historical and cultural development of algebra… that is a better example of the inspiring, synthetic material that an in-person college education should deliver.
Because of the prep problem, a “two-lane” structure is clearly emerging in American higher education. In the fast lane are students who arrive with the benefits of more diligent preparation.  These students typically arrive with substantial advanced placement credit and can bypass the large introductory courses.  These fast-lane students quickly complete core material and have enough time to pursue double or even triple majors.  (When I double-majored in physics and German literature and philosophy, it was rather exotic, but this is no longer the case) The fast-lane students reach smaller classes quite early in their college careers and thus benefit the most from direct faculty interaction. Because of this, the fast-lane students will have the ability to pursue true liberal arts material and benefit from all of what college can offer.  They will also receive the most substantial boost upon graduation, because they will have distinguishing advanced coursework and are more likely to have recommendation letters filled with prose about their unique contributions.  It is no surprise that these students typically find better placement after college.
Meanwhile, underprepared students languish in the slow lane... expending considerable time and investment on remedial material, thereby increasing costs to college as well as the student.  Unfortunately, the introductory curriculum designed to serve these students is often a tedious insult to the world-class faculty called upon to teach it. Naturally, there is much dispute among the faculty regarding who will be “stuck” with these courses.  In other words, there is not a tremendous amount of enthusiasm associated with them- not on the student side, nor the faculty side. Hence the underprepared students are those most likely to experience "stadium courses"- and now perhaps online curriculum.  Underprepared students will typically spend the full four years completing a basic degree with no additional distinguishing features such as research or study abroad.

On the whole, underprepared students receive a college education that is ultimately worth far less than that of their fast-lane peers. I hope that more immediate attention will be given to the prep problem and the wide divergence in outcomes that it has brought to the American campus.  Many of America's students lack the preparation that would enable them to get the most out of a college education.


  1. Yes, you are absolutely right about the unpreparedness of many students and the consequences--for the students themselves, their institutions, and society at large. This concerns me a lot because many disadvantaged and minority students end up in the second, "slow" track and thus too often do not reach their potential.

    I have taught at various levels, in widely different circumstances, from K-5 to graduate students. I think that many students flounder in K12 because their teachers don't make the effort to challenge them (though there are many hard-working teachings who do). I know what kids across a broad spectrum of talents can do when teachers expect more (kids will do more). Another problem is that our society undervalues (to put it politely) intellectual curiosity and endeavor.

    Un/underprepared students also sap the energy of teachers at the college-level. When I resigned from a four-year state institution (below the level of a large research institution), I had tenure. This was a big step that changed my life and there were several personal factors that, combined with a heavy teaching load, were overwhelming me. Yet, I felt compelled in my letter of resignation to tell the president that I was sick of teaching students what they should have learned in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade!

    I started a blog for teachers and students that has given back to me a sense of professional worth. This summer I've had to put other things first and so have not posted since May 11 (I hope to get something up this week). It's HistoryLynx, also on blogspot.

    Renee (the HistoryLynx is me!).

    1. Thanks for your comment! If you have ideas on how to quantify the problem, I'd be very interested.

      At a glance, the prep problem seems easy to tackle: simply raise college entrance standards, require entrance exams, outsource the remedial coursework to MOOCs, etc. But college administrations will not look kindly on any attempt to reduce their pipeline of tuition-paying students! So, unfortunately, the prep problem (and grade inflation too) seems unlikely to be addressed from within, due to a built-in conflict of interest.

      One thought that I have... and I suspect this have me permanently banished from higher ed merely for uttering it... is to encourage accreditation agencies to challenge the remedial coursework at the college level. If accreditors take seriously their responsibility to ensure appropriate return on investment, then they should focus on this problem.

  2. Professors will always have their favorites. It stands to reason that the students who get to spend more time with them will become their favorites. But there is something to be said about a student who makes the extra effort to reach out to influential professors by attending office hours etc.

    But the problem seems to be at the high school level. It's unfortunate that there are kids graduation high school who can barely read. Then they go on to the college level and that's why lower level courses need to exist. At the college level, the student is a paying customer so the college must provide whatever is necessary for that student to graduate (even though some colleges don't). Whereas in high school, many more students slip through the cracks. Our schools are overcrowded and underfunded and teachers are completely undervalued. Until we start paying and respecting K12 teachers more, nothing will change. The problem needs to be fixed from the beginning. When they reach the college level, it's too late.

    1. Thanks for your comment and I completely agree. Better investment and higher expectations from K-12 will produce far better outcome.

      High school is a very important transition time for most of our students- intellectually, emotionally, physically. It the time when students first begin to make adult, long-range decisions about what they might like to do in life and can begin to understand what investment *they* need to make to get where they want to go. It's when they connect inspiration to perspiration, so to speak. In that light, it's a terrible shame that we don't equip them, at *that* stage, with the preparation they need.

      ...and then we see students simply drifting through college, accumulating all manner of costs, and naively expecting the degree itself to get them the job they want. And that's clearly not working for many of our students.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Keith,
    "I am strongly convinced that America's emphasis on interdisciplinary cross-fertilization is a special feature that should be kept intact and even expanded. However, this successful American ideal has, for many students, become reduced to remedial high / middle school material."

    Could you elaborate on why you think the "interdisciplinary cross-fertilization" is a special feature?
    Do you think this is tied to innovation at all? For example, many including the late Steve Jobs, believe that the intersection between the humanities and computer science stimulates creativity and innovation.

    Also, re: "astounds me that some consider introductory Algebra, History, or English etc, taken in college, to constitute a liberal arts education."
    Is it that you think a liberal-arts education should comprise more courses that synthesize multiple disciplines? If so, why? (I'm not challenging, but I am curious.)

  5. Hi Sarah, I'm sorry that I didn't get to your comment for so long! I've been very busy.

    Yes, I think the cross-fertilization is a very special aspect in American higher ed, and it can indeed lead to an environment where ideas are expressed and shared more comfortably. I'd like for students to come to college full of idealism and energy, learn about issues, develop really big ideas, and also learn what it takes to develop and sell those big ideas... or at least communicate them.

    Big ideas alone are not enough: we need to be able to socialize them with others and gain consensus. The act of discussing ideas with others outside the immediate discipline can be very helpful to students, in this regard.

  6. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!
    پایان نامه