Most Americans believe that a college education is a prerequisite to financial success. According to a study conducted by Sallie Mae, 84 percent of students strongly agreed that higher education was an investment in their future. When asked if they would attend college solely for the experience -- despite future earnings -- only 32 percent strongly agreed that they would.
But the assumption that a college education is a ticket to economic stability, rather than simply an opportunity to grow intellectually, is a recent one.
American higher education was initially based on the traditional English university, but was transformed into an entirely different beast with the introduction of the Morrill Act of 1862 – nearly two centuries after the first colleges were founded in the U.S. The first Morrill Act designated public land for universities teaching agriculture and mechanic arts, marking the first time public funding would be allocated to higher education.
If the Morrill Act introduced higher education as a means of providing better financial opportunities to the American public, the 1944 G.I. Bill solidified the concept by making higher education a staple of the American dream: Returning veterans could look forward to a finding a wife, owning a home, and earning a college degree.
In 1950, 2.6 million Americans – less than two percent of the population – were enrolled in college. By 1990, the number of Americans in college had jumped to 13.2 million, or more than five percent of the overall population. And between 1997 and 2007, undergraduate enrollment rose by 25 percent.
According to Professor Jane Robbins, who studies the development and societal role of the university in America, “there’s just been enormous changes [in the structure of the university] – not [ones that were] necessarily chosen, but rather accepted, allowed, and evolved” She added that such reactionary change has lead to unmitigated, unexpected, and often unexamined growth.
And, she says, this type of unintentional growth has lead to a system that is both rife with inefficiencies and extremely powerful.
In an attempt to begin to pinpoint the problems within American higher education, the Huffington Post spoke with a number of professors specializing in problematic areas in U.S. universities and colleges. When asked to identify the main problem with higher education and offer a possible solution, each said that this was impossible – the system is too large and the complications too intricate to pare down to one cause. But certain points were brought up repeatedly throughout these conversations, and begin to paint a picture of what is wrong with American higher education.
Check out ten of the greatest challenges facing American institutions of higher learning today -- and possible ways to begin to correct them, as identified by the professors listed below.
Claudia Dreifus co-wrote Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It
Andrew Hacker co-wrote Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It
Sigal Alon studies inequality of access in higher education
Jane Robbins studies the theory of the American research university
What do you think of this list? Let us know in the comments section.
Harvard University, voted most prestigious university in the world, accepted 6.2 percent of applicants this year. Claudia Dreifus: We're trying to say to people, whatever an education costs -- it's not worth indebting yourself for status. And a lot of people, for instance, go to private colleges rather than state schools for the status they think is going to be conferred on them. In those cases, I mean if there's a choice between City College and Pace, or St. John's, why should a working class family indebt themselves for that? But, the whole system is built on a premise of status and hierarchy. It's profoundly undemocratic...instead of being a system that creates more democracy through knowledge, it's a system that's creating more striation. Those schools, the prestige schools, are so unbelievably rich...Harvard, even with that hit in its endowment, could become a real meritocracy and give out scholarships to everyone it admits. Which I actually think is a great idea. I love Cooper Union, and I love the students I met from Cooper because they were the only students I met who didn't have this incredible stone on their chest of student debt. They could look at their future and just imagine really creative things. Sigal Alon: There is enough supply [of postsecondary institutions] if you look at the entire postsecondary system, but the problem is that everybody wants to go to the most selective institutions...so the crunch is very specific to a few institutions. Now the question is, what can we do to make the other institutions more attractive?
Former Arizona Department of Education Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, above, was the prime supporter of a bill banning ethnic studies, passed in Arizona last year. Sigal Alon: [One problem is] inequality -- not just racial and ethnic -- but also class inequality, which is something that is often overlooked in the literature. What is not getting attention is that since the 1980s class inequality in higher education is rising,[as a result of rising] tuition and declining financial aid, but also because of the polarization between the classes. At the end of the day it is untapped human capital that we are not exploiting. Lori Patton: We look at higher education and think about who the leaders are, who the administrators are, [who is] making policies. The majority of these individuals are white men. They have never been placed in a position to think about how the decisions that they make that benefit them also affect an African American woman or a Latino -- those voices are not at the table, so you see the same ideas coming around, ideas that tend to benefit those that are more privileged. University diversity policy is a big trend these days, every institution has to have a chief diversity officer, a large diversity plan. But what [researcher Susan Iverson] found is that diversity plans do nothing but reinforce racism. I think it's very powerful because these ideas that we think are progressive really don't do much in changing the landscape of higher education...there's a problem when you have to have a diversity officer. That means that something is going wrong. The issue is that [individual's who run cultural centers] end up bearing the weight of "policing" diversity on campus, when it should be the responsibility of everybody.
Sigal Alon: [According to] the ethos of a meritocracy, [we] want to select students in terms of qualifications, and in recent years, we have evidence of growing polarization in terms of test scores between the rich and the poor. One of the mechanisms [of this disparity] is the corporation -- private tutors and private classes to improve test scores. Which is an option if you have money, but not an option if you don't. There is room for the SAT [in the application process] but I don't think that there is any justification for over-emphasizing the test. Predictive validity is very low, especially in comparison with class rank and other achievements. I wouldn't say that we should dismiss them altogether, but definitely there is a need to lower the weight. It's not justified and it became the main mechanism for the reproduction of inequality in higher education. Mark C. Taylor: Standardized test are biased. The unfortunate part is that institutions still rely heavily on them, which limits access for students of color.
Sigal Alon: Rankings are indirectly contributing to the inequality. Maybe even directly. Kids in 5th grade already know the rankings, which started in the mid-80s -- which is exactly the time when class inequality [started to rise]. Certification is one of the reasons for rising inequality in higher education in general...but institutions are forced to participate, institutions who choose not to participate are punished, [their] rankings are declining. But if some of the leading institutions together decided not to participate in the ranking business any longer, then this is going to be a huge blow for the ranking business. Jane Robbins: Everyone is just seeking prestige because they believe that it draws more resources into the universities -- more students, donors, whatever. It gives them more visibility. That's why there's all this jockeying around for high rankings, even though nobody believes in that stuff. Mark C. Taylor: The problems are structural. [We] need to understand higher education as a system and need to begin to think about different ways that institutions can cooperate and collaborate. And yet we're in a system where everyone is competing for ratings, which leads to wasteful competitions.
Sigal Alon: Another [problem] is... low transfer rates from community colleges to four year institutions, which is also related to the inequality problem. If we could strengthen the link between the two there could be another channel for minorities and poor students to obtain a bachelor's degree. Alicia Dowd: Many more [students] would like to transfer than ever actually transfer. Improving transfer to four year degrees is one of the biggest challenges. Students who come into community colleges are put into developmental courses that are not for credit and they get discouraged, and don't finish. [Students can take] 3 or 4 classes before they even get credit. How do we accelerate that developmental curriculum? In a field like engineering there's poor alignment even within public systems in the curriculum. Making the courses line up so that you can go from associate's to bachelor's -- that's hard to do because they don't line up, and they should. Jane Robbins: I will say that universities do need to be much more efficient. But efficiency is a means, not an end in itself. Administrative restructuring, going in and finding ways to cut costs and bring a few things into better alignment. You can look at [the university's] history and its structure and you can understand where this disconnectedness comes from. The objective of the pieces of the university can be very, very different -- you have groups of people whose loyalty or orientation is external. It's to someone else. This has nothing to do with the fact that they interact with the outside. Of course they do, of course they have to. But there is no shared concept of the university within most universities or within the institution. This notion of alignment, being more strategic, thinking long-term about who they are... I think that's going to be a big deal.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $34.8 million to raising community college completion rates in 2010. Andrew Hacker: At Michigan State University [for example], in your first two years you are going to be thrown into lectures with 600 students in them. And this is one reason, by the way, that 40 percent of people who start B.A.s don't finish. Part of it is for financial reasons, but much more important is the faculties don't care about teaching. Apart from small liberal arts colleges -- which only produce about 5% of the B.A.s nationally, you know, they're not interested because faculty don't get status points for teaching freshman English. Alicia Dowd: There was an assumption that everyone who went to college was set, they'd have a leg up, but as more and more people actually do go to college it's clear that a lot don't finish or even get past the first semester...just going to college isn't enough. Today there is more focus on outcome, so there has been in terms of legislation -- at least proposed legislation -- a college completion agenda. Lumina Foundation, Gates Foundation, Complete College America that's funded by the Ford Foundation: all are focused on college completion. That agenda is distinct from the access agenda. This completion agenda is pointing to the future. The key is to have that increase in the number of degrees awarded to take place without shutting out Latino and African Americans from higher education. Lori Patton: [Some minority] students learn about college and probably come into college thinking I want to be an engineer, etc. However, when they get to college they find engineering and science departments that are not prepared for [minority] students, so if you see how many are recruited and how many are retained -- there are very poor numbers...there is no continuity to the initial effort. So if you think about sciences, for example, or individuals who get grants -- that's great, but there's no partnership with the institution once students get there. Institutions can be very cold...so you see students drop out of the sciences and the overall goal gets lost because the retention effort in higher education isn't in working very well.
In 2009, Rutgers University launched construction on a $4.9 million football lounge Lori Patton: Resources are scarce everywhere but I don't think lack of resources is the main problem. My thinking is -- how are resources distributed and how do we continue to see the same issues again and again when it comes to diversity in higher education? Alicia Dowd: There's another agenda in higher education called the accountability agenda. I would say accountability in higher education is too important to get wrong. The provision of additional funding should come with accountability for better results...there have been big investments in data. The next step is in how professionals in community colleges and universities use data. We create data tools -- that is part of the future too, researchers will not just stay off to the side, but actually get involved and be problem solvers. We use data in ways that are very intentionally looking towards equity in outcome. [When schools that used our equity score cards] looked at transfers within their system, they weren't convinced that they were doing everything that they could to increase transfers. And that's using data for change. Claudia Dreifus: And all this expansion! [The schools are asking] what more can we do here? Plus it then gets financed by student loans or alumni contributions but nobody's responsible for the fact that you may have an ice hockey rink that only a few people need or use -- nobody ever says no. And presidents don't build careers by saying no or saying small is beautiful. So schools, more and more, look like Ritz Carltons.
Claudia Dreifus: I don't understand why the [academic] culture doesn't genuinely, whole-heartedly support teaching. This is coming from the top [administrators] -- they often give lip service to teaching and they'll have teaching centers and student excellence achievement centers, but what they don't have is a genuine commitment to [teaching] because it isn't valued. Andrew Hacker: [American higher education] is getting bigger and bigger, universities become empires, they set up campuses ten thousands mile away, they take on any grant they can get, anti-terrorist technologies or anything. Education, particularly of young people, is on the bottom of the list. It's about tenth on the list. Mark C. Taylor: All energy and focus is on the grad students because that's where the rewards are. Teaching is undervalued, in my judgment.
This year, 30 private college presidents -- and one public college president -- earned more than $1 million this year. Jane Robbins: I think the university needs [a change in] leadership. Innovation is not going to happen at universities as they are currently structured. Their history is one of reaction, and one of short-term thinking...we may see in the future a different type of leader, one who is truly overseeing the whole university, making real decisions, being really involved in decision making -- strategic decision making about its future. This is where the leadership question goes back to the theoretical question about what a university is for, what is their role in society. I think that especially in recent decades, universities can say they serve the public good, but who is the public here? Who is benefiting from what the university does? This goes back to the leadership issue. I predict that within ten years or so we're going to see very different people...running universities at many levels. Mark C. Taylor: The model we now have was defined by Kant in 1798. Competing independently is un-sustainable, we need to shift to one that is more collaborative and cooperative. This stuff isn't simply abstract philosophy, but has real consequences. But if we don't find ways to do education more creatively, arts and humanities is not going to survive. We as individuals, as a country, and as a people are going to be poorer for that.
Above, the selection of journals in different disciplines available via Jstor. Mark C. Taylor: So-called research -- I'm not one to criticize research -- but a lot of people in colleges and universities who are supposed to be writing and publishing don't, and they're not teaching much....Hyper-specialized [areas of study] undervalues teaching and encourages faculty members to try to integrate teaching and research in a way that doesn't help students. Andrew Hacker: 270 Universities have PHD programs...Only about a quarter of PHDs will get academic positions. Now we're not saying they all want them, but most of them do. And the reason that all of these colleges put in PHD programs is because they think it gives them status. Now one of the problems is that the new types of professors we have are not really interested in opening the minds of the students. All they want to teach is their own discipline, their subject... Now, that is the death of the liberal arts. That's no longer liberal arts, that's a professor's personal playpen. Claudia Dreifus: Universities, they don't produce products necessarily. So how do you measure productivity?...by publication.