Thursday, August 23, 2012

Restructuring Higher Ed

In a commentary published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Bugeja recently made some interesting administrative suggestions on how to address the financial difficulties that we now see throughout much of American higher ed:

Bugeja Commentary (part 2) - Chronicle of Higher Ed

Indeed, some large changes of program structure may be required to put our colleges and universities on a sustainable path... while also helping students under the current economic circumstances. For example:

(1a) The classic 4 year college degree make less and less sense, as more students enter college with substantial AP credit. A few years ago, I conducted a survey of students in a rather difficult (physics) degree program and was astounded to discover that ~half could actually finish in *3* years. If you stop and think about that, it's really fundamental to the higher ed cost problem. That  means that an entire year of tuition could be lifted from the student... but also a year of revenue could be lost from the school. If anything, I expect this trend to continue- we could soon see a sizable fraction of students doing even less than 3 years at their graduating institution. Obviously, tuition inflation is motivating students to do anything and everything to reduce their cost, and that certainly includes loading up on AP credit and doing summer coursework at less expensive schools.
(1b) ...but on the flipside, due to unacceptable failings in K-12 rigor, we still have a number of students coming in who need to take introductory, remedial coursework. High school material should of course be taught in high school, not at much higher expense in college, in larger classes, by instructors who are far better suited to smaller courses. And as I have been ranting for some time (
 ), the experience of an underprepared student is *very* different from that of a student who comes in ready to take all that the college can give. This issue is a big part of the reason why online ed is in our headlines.

(2) Another major issue I perceive is that masters degrees are still incorrectly regarded as failed PhD attempts in many programs. This should change. The labor market needs junior but professional individuals who have knowledge, maturity, hands-on capabilities and good communication skills... things that a good masters program can provide. I find that students who have completed thorough coursework, done research or an internship, and have written a thesis have a level of maturity substantially better than most BA/BS grads.  That extra year or two can make a *lot* of difference in the employability of the student (not to mention the benefits seen in GRE or other professional exams).  Particularly in the sciences, I believe there should be far more emphasis on developing good masters programs. These would be very attractive to students in a slowly recovering labor market.
(Note: for accreditation purposes, there is a constant push for more and more PhD programs and higher number of PhD grads, something which I think is financially ruinous. The PhD must remain a rare distinction.  There simply aren't enough jobs for PhD in many fields, and the hiring market for PhDs outside of academia is not coming back any time soon.)

Putting all of these items together, it is apparent to me that colleges should look very seriously at 3+2 or 4+1 programs as a way to restore rigor and challenge to their bachelors/masters programs and to benefit students in their transition from college to the workplace.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and provocative post.

    I'm not so sure that I agree with this comment, "The labor market needs junior but professional individuals who have knowledge, maturity, hands-on capabilities and good communication skills... things that a good masters program can provide."

    I guess it depends on what you mean by "employability" and where/what type of jobs.
    I've worked in high tech for, gosh, sixteen years, and, in my experience, having an advanced degree rarely makes a difference in terms of whether or not somebody gets hired. In fact, I don't recall it ever even being mentioned in any of the meetings where candidates are reviewed.
    I certainly can't speak for everyone in the software industry, but in my experience things like people's major, the institution they attended, and, sometimes even whether or not they have a degree, rarely, if ever, came up.
    What does matter an incredible amount is the skills the candidate possesses and his ability to prove he actually possesses those skills. E.g., what programming languages people know; their portfolio; his writing, communication, and leadership skills; his interpersonal skills; etc. Likewise, his accomplishments and references can matter a great deal as well.
    As it is now, "overcredentialism" is causing degrees to be devalued. By encouraging employers to look for MA degrees (or value them), you could potentially end up increasing the debt load for students. I can't speak for programmers, but frankly, most of the people I've worked with over the years, use little of what they learned in college on the job.
    In fact, if educational standards hadn't degraded so much, I question if people would need university for many of the jobs in the workplace. I suspect many people in my parent's generation could have done them with just high school.

    I do agree with your comments about rigor. I also agree with your comments about the extra year or two improving communication and writing skills - I'm just not sure if the skills are valued (or even recognized(!)- aargh) in corporate America.