Myths About Higher Education in the United States

11/05/2010 10:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jonathan R. Cole John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University, Columbia University

It's time to dispel four widespread myths about the quality of higher education in the United States. The first of these is that teachers at the elite institutions of higher learning don't give a damn about undergraduates and care less about teaching them, since all of their professional success depends on their research productivity. The supposed result is that even at places like Harvard, Williams, and the other distinguished Ivy League schools and their equivalents, students have unsatisfactory experiences in the classroom and resent being neglected by the faculty. The second myth is that academic tenure is nothing more than a protective shield against sanctions of poorly performing teachers and researchers. It should be abolished, say these critics, because it not only fails to protect the free inquiry of faculty members from inappropriate and abusive power both inside and outside the university. Tenure, they claim, is also expensive for universities; it's wasteful, and a boondoggle for unproductive and lazy faculty members. The abolition of academic tenure is essential, they assert, if we are to solve today's "crisis" in higher education.

Then there is the growing criticism that excessive concentration on research corrupts the values of the university and undermines commitments to teaching. Therefore, critics assert that if we are going to promote good teaching at our universities we ought to separate the teaching and research missions into separate institutions. Among these critics, there is no appreciation, and at best reluctant, passing, acknowledgment, that research discoveries made at our great universities have become the engine of innovation and change in the larger society. Nor is there appreciation that in our system of higher learning, the boundaries between teaching and research have become sharply attenuated.

Finally, the myth persists that the cost of education at the elite colleges represents nothing more than gauging a willing and poorly informed public - and that the price charged by these elite colleges and universities simply is not matched by the quality of education their students receive. In four postings, I'll take up each of these myths and half-truths.

These familiar beliefs have most recently been reinforced in Mark C. Taylor's, Crisis on Campus and in Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' new book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing our Kids - And What We Can Do About It. One should always be a bit skeptical of those claims of "crisis" in reference to higher education. By diagnosing the system as in crisis, these authors sound alarm bells that resonate with those who know little about colleges and universities, but ring hollow with those who systematically look at the facts about the current state of American higher education. Audiences love to read about crisis and the golden past - language that sustains popular myths about the failures of higher learning, especially when "discovered" at our best universities and colleges. This misled audience often includes legislators and others who are looking to disinvest in the great universities and colleges in their states. Like all institutions that must adapt to a changing world, higher learning faces many challenges and threats to its values and its quality, but it surely is not in crisis.

Crisis or not, are the factual claims about undergraduate education true? The authors take anecdotes as hard evidence and fail to present better evidence that would falsify or question their central assertions of fact. Had they looked to superior, existing, data, they might have reached different conclusions, or at least have made a more sophisticated argument about where and how the teaching of undergraduates at our preeminent colleges and universities is failing our society.

Consider first the myth that undergraduate students, especially at the Harvards, Stanfords, and Columbias of this world, receive poor educations and are extremely dissatisfied with the way they have been treated. One excellent source of evidence about the way students feel about their educational experience at these elite schools can be found in the survey that a group of 31 highly selective private universities and colleges conducts every four years - a questionnaire that asks seniors what they thought about various aspects of their college experience1. These schools are all private institutions with very high sticker prices, if you fail to account for the incredible generous, need-based financial aid packages awarded to their students. Virtually all of them are ranked in the top 25 of the "best" national universities or liberal arts colleges assessed by U.S. News & Word Report. In short, these are the Ivy League Schools plus some of the best large private universities in the nation along with the better private liberal arts colleges.

As an example of the bareness of the undergraduate experience, Hacker and Dreifus quote one Harvard junior who notes: "We don't feel the professors are here for us... When we come to Harvard, we have to understand it's not for the education we get, but for the reputation its degree gives us." I'm afraid that such statements don't represent the overwhelming majority of those who graduate from Harvard and schools of similar quality. While there is no agreed upon metric for assessing the quality of teaching, individual anecdotes are not to be mistaken for facts: "for example" is not proof. Alternatively, we might best begin with large samples of students and their assessment of the academic aspects of their undergraduate experience.

The 2006 survey did just that. Here is what the students at these universities and colleges, including all of the elites that Hacker, Dreifus, and Taylor refer to, conclude about their experience. When asked about their satisfaction with their academic experience, fully 88 % of the graduating seniors said that they were generally satisfied (48%) or very satisfied (40%). And what specifically were these students from 31 of the nation's best undergraduate schools most satisfied with? Over 90% said that they were either generally or very satisfied with the "quality of instruction" and an equally high proportion was very satisfied with "out of class faculty availability." They were also overwhelmingly satisfied with class size, with course availability, with interdisciplinary courses, and with the opportunity to participate in research with faculty. They made a special point of noting the value of study off campus or abroad program. When they evaluated the quality of study in their major field of interest, roughly 80 to 90 percent of the students said they were generally or highly satisfied with the "helpfulness of faculty outside the classroom," "the availability of faculty outside the classroom," "the quality of instruction," and the "intellectual excitement" that they experienced.

Contrary to the mythology, the simple fact is that excellence in teaching and research are compatible and mutually reinforcing at these great universities and colleges. Of course, there are great researchers there who are embarrassingly poor teachers. But great researchers don't monopolize poor teaching. There are many poor researchers whom you wouldn't want to place in front of an eager group of students, either. At the great universities and colleges, it is very often the case, however, that the best researchers are also among the most brilliant lecturers or mentors of students. These are the producers of fresh ideas who are truly at the cutting edge of their disciplines and who can give their students a sense of excitement about scholarship at the research frontier. Even if the quality of education is not what defines the unique character of the most distinguished research universities, it influences the culture of the institutions and affects their ability to attract the best scientists and scholars.

To be sure, students were not enamored of all aspects of their undergraduate educational experience. While they overwhelmingly applauded the quality of their library services and computing facilities and resources, they were far less sanguine about career and psychological counseling, about their advising systems, the food services, and about the responsiveness of their college administrators. But these criticisms of administrative offices sharply contrast with their very positive views about the quality of their teachers and what they were being taught. While there is some variance in levels of satisfaction at the these schools, for the most part the levels of expressed satisfaction falls within a narrow band. The simple fact is that most undergraduates at the top private schools in the nation believe they have had a remarkable educational experience2. Unfortunately, neither Hacker and Dreifus, nor Taylor, examine the "culture of complaint" at various universities and colleges. At some colleges, it is normatively appropriate to sing the praises of the place, perhaps beyond what they deserve; correlatively, at Harvard, it seems normatively expected that, if asked, you complain that research trumps teaching at the great university in Cambridge.

Finally, the belief that research oriented faculty at the great universities assiduously avoid teaching undergraduates has never really been true at these universities and colleges and it is even less so today than in the past half a century. Not only do many of the most able research faculty at the best universities and colleges enjoy and even prefer teaching their very smart undergraduates, but also more of them are doing it than in prior decades. With shrinking graduate Ph.D. programs at many of the great universities, more emphasis has been placed on undergraduate education and undergraduate teaching. The best evidence we have is that there is a modest positive correlation between student evaluations of their teachers and the quality of the research that those professors produce.

If the great universities and colleges have abandoned their interest and concern with undergraduate teaching, it certainly is news to them. The perpetuation of the myth that these very bright undergraduates get little more than the reputation of their schools for their tuition dollars is simply a socially constructed myth.

1The response rate to these surveys is remarkably high (above 90%), thus reducing the possibilities of selection bias in the results obtained.

2Since these were anonymous exit surveys of outgoing seniors there would be little reason for students to distort their answers.