Recently, the outstanding economist Richard Vedder penned a column in the Wall Street Journal on the problems of higher education in America. He titled it: “College Wouldn’t Cost So Much If Students and Faculty Worked Harder.”
The piece was a preview of his book on the subject, Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today to be published May 1. From his summary and from reading his previous writings on the subject, I’m certain the book will be outstanding
His analyses have coincided with my own as a Nevada legislator, higher education regent, college teacher and state controller, and he has brought good data to illustrate issues I have observed in those roles. So, here, I’ll present a summary of his WSJ piece, and in future column I’ll detail from my experience and his book some major issues and solutions to the serious challenges U.S. higher education faces.
Vedder begins: “One reason college is so costly and so little real learning occurs is that college resources are vastly underused. Students don’t study much, professors teach little, few people read most of the obscure papers the professors write, and even the buildings are empty most of the time.”
As a regent and part-time community college instructor for four years, I observed all these phenomena and more first hand. They are some key reasons higher education costs have increased faster in real terms than the incomes of students and their families while those students are being ever more poorly prepared for life and the job market. And taxpayers are shorted.
His first observation is that surveys show college students today spend about 27 hours a week in class and studying, while taking classes only about 32 weeks a year. Or, fewer than 900 hours a year on academics – “less time than a typical eighth-grader and perhaps half the time their parent work to help finance college.”
He notes other researchers have found that in the middle of the 20th Century students spent 50 percent more time – around 40 hours weekly. Grade inflation has vitiated their incentives to work hard because the average grade received has risen from B-/C+ in 1960 to B/B+ now.
Vedder notes that on some campuses students study much more. And, “Engineering majors probably work much harder than communications or gender studies majors.” Ditto, law and medical students. As a sometimes engineering major at Illinois, recipient of a masters from Stanford in Engineering Economic Systems and later law student, I know all that’s not new.
But neither he nor I are suggesting that students responding to the changing incentives is the only problem. Vedder confesses: “I’m part of the problem: I’ve been teaching for 55 years, and I assign far less reading, demand less writing, and give higher grades than I did two generations ago.” Most other professors are less demanding and productive in teaching and useful research than he is, while mostly hard-sciences instructors put in similar teaching and productive research time.
When I taught 15 years ago, I told my community college students at the start of the semester I would teach them just as I would at any four-year college, including the same reading, writing, homework and testing. However, I felt guilty because I succumbed to the grade inflation trend. On the other hand, because a third of them needed remedial English, writing and math skills (having been shorted by their grade and high schools), I provided that service.
Another point he makes is that objective measures show the results of college education today are underwhelming. Similarly, I noted in my controller’s annual reports that American K-12 students’ achievement scores in international tests are in the middle ranks of those for advanced countries, while our per-student spending is among the highest.
A major point I learned as a regent is that much of higher education’s problem is the proliferation of administrative and other non-teaching staff relative to all instructors. Because colleges and universities work hard to cover up this phenomenon, I had trouble getting data on it, and I look forward to his book for more information here.
When we understand the full dimensions of the problem, we can begin crafting remedies. Stay tuned.
So, Sunday morning, I opened the electronic version of the only local newspaper I subscribe to and trust, the Las Vegas Review Journal, and I see, buried on page A8, a story headlined “Poll shows Democrats more trusted with health care”
Which was true…sort of. Because I’m pretty sure the story reported the numbers of the poll accurately.
The “poll” was an “Associated Press-NORC Center” poll which, you had to read seven paragraphs to the bottom of the story—by the Associated Press—to find out that “The poll of 1,108 adults was conducted April 11-14 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.” Let me be the first to ask the question: If that factoid had been in the headline or in the first paragraph, would anyone take this seriously? What if the story read like this:
“A poll of 1,108 adults paid for by the company selling this story to news outlets says that Democrats are more trusted to handle healthcare in the United States. The pollsters say that the 1108 adults can predict the sentiments of the 128,824,246 voters who cast a ballot in 2016 with a margin of error of 4.1 percent.”
Would anybody actually believe—especially after the 2016 election—that a sample of .0000086 percent of the voting electorate has a margin of error of 4.5 percent? But, in my favorite local newspaper, it is presented as fact. If this kind of polling were accurate, why did virtually every pollster predict Hillary by 7 points on the day of the 2016 election.
Polling used to be easier because, for most purposes, you could at least get a sample which was demographically sound. We could tell roughly where you lived by your telephone number and who you were. Today, with the advent of cell phones and cheap VOIP services, we cannot even tell with certainty what state you are in. Further, there is the built-in bias of many news organizations which sponsor such polls. If you believe that the AP is some kind of neutral news behemoth, guess again. Ditto for CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC and, yes, even Fox. They all come at stories from a predominately liberal viewpoint (with the occasional exception of Fox) so why would you believe that their polling selections would be much different?
Then, there’s the “if you see it in the media it must be true” school of thought. It’s today’s version of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ Big Lie theory which, simply stated, says if you tell a lie big enough, many people will have to believe it. Inevitably, these “polls” are presented by the same people who populate organizations like the White House Correspondents Association and are soooo offended by the term Fake News and the President’s assertion that those who willfully present Fake News are the enemies of the people.
But the truth is not only is President Trump correct, but the average voter knows bullcrap when he or she sees it. Journalists have a tendency to see themselves as more knowledgeable and more important than average voting citizens. Many times, in conversation, journalists use terms like “them” and “those people” to describe and differentiate average voters. As if journalists, somehow, fall into a different category. Like Hillary and the word deplorable.
Want some proof? Watch those panels on FNC and CNN. Watch the Sunday morning shows.
It’s that sort of hubris which allows them to write headlines and lead paragraphs like the one I referred to above—even in my favorite local newspaper. (And I’m not kidding about that.) I’ve been in this business since I was 12. But I live about 2,600 miles from Washington and my neighbors remind me daily that I’m pretty average. I would hate for it to be any other way.