The Path to Mediocrity in Higher Education: Florida Edition

Diary reposted and revised from DailyKos

Author: Bruce B. Janz, Winter Springs, Florida

In Florida, my (adopted) state, we have a “blue ribbon panel” on higher education, appointed by Florida Republican Tea Party governor Rick Scott. It is modeled on the Texas blue ribbon panel, and based on the Heartland Institute’s policy briefs on the issue. For source documentation, go to this site, and you will find a slideshow outlining what I am discussing here. They sketch out what they call “increasing evidence” that “US institutions of higher education are less efficient and decreasingly effective at creating the foundations for …success”. It promises to destroy Florida higher education (a claim that, I will argue, is in no way alarmist or extreme), a system which is already uncompetitive within American and world higher education. This proposal is being seriously considered in Florida in the upcoming legislative session.

The Heartland Institute begins from the assumptions I sketch below. I will respond to each. Then, I will outline their “solutions”, and give you all a sense of why I think this is a disaster for higher education. The parts in red are direct quotations from the Heartland document, and the references that are included in red are to their reference list in the slideshow, linked above.

1. The cost of obtaining a four-year degree has more than doubled since 1975 in inflation-adjusted dollars (Digest 2009c)

Indeed. And government support has dropped at least that much during that time. In Florida, my provost recently said that our revenues from government sources have dropped by 49% since 2007. And, Florida was already one of the lowest in government support among states before that, along with having some of the lowest public university tuitions in the country as well. There’s a cause and effect relationship here, which the right conveniently doesn’t mention.

2. Statistics from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy suggest college graduates have a lower level of reading comprehension than their counterparts of a decade ago (NAAL 2003)

Any idea why? Well, there’s also been a decline in funding in primary and secondary education, along with misguided testing and accreditation processes. Dropping levels of skill can be closely correlated to dropping levels of support. Why is this not brought up on the right? Because that would require looking at education as a public good rather than a private one, and one which requires public investment.

3. Although difficult to quantify, by any reasonable measure productivity in higher education is at best stagnant, and probably falling (Vedder 2004)

Really? Can anyone define “productivity” here? No wonder it’s difficult to quantify. This is a highly variable concept, depending on who is determining what education should “produce”. I think we’re very productive – we’re turning out more students all the time, many of them philosophically and culturally aware and engaged. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the productivity they have in mind. Nor, for that matter, is it the increasing publication rate that I and my colleagues have, or even the grant production, which is also going up. On every traditional professional measure (research, teaching, service), we’re doing well in a tough environment, and so are many others I know. But that’s not what productivity means in this Orwellian world.

4. The typical college student of today spends about 30 percent less time on academic pursuits than his or her counterpart of a half-century ago, as grade inflation makes it easier to seem to perform well with less work (Babcock and Marks 2010).

Why is the second part of this sentence given as a reason for the first part? Grade inflation is the reason? I doubt this is true. There are a lot of other competing reasons. The rise of media competing for students’ attention, the fact that a lot of them have to work to get through (see below). This bit of reasoning would fail my logic course.

5. 42 percent of students enrolling in bachelor’s degree programs full-time fail to earn a degree within six years (Digest 2009b).

Yup. And that’s linked to the later point about rising student costs. It’s no wonder they don’t graduate on time – a lot of students have to work 40+ hours to get through. I tip my hat to the ones who persevere anyway, despite this load that did not exist for students in a previous generation.

6. Falling teaching loads have led to a proliferation of articles published in obscure journals that few persons read. (Bauerlein et al. 2010).

Oh, come on. Do you know that Einstein published 3 articles in 1905, all of which looked totally irrelevant to anything, but which became the basis for a lot of subsequent knowledge and (yes) technological innovation? How about other research which has been completely theoretical, and yet later turned out to transform our understanding of the world? What seems theoretical and pointless at one point can easily become insightful and useful later. And, that includes research in the humanities and social sciences, not just the hard sciences. Are we seriously going to say that a group of politicians and think-tank hacks are going to know what’s worth researching and what isn’t? The Heartland document talks in several places about all of the pointless Shakespeare papers that have been published. 25,000 of them, why wouldn’t 1000 do? The problem is, we don’t know in advance what’s going to be taken up and what isn’t, what is a fruitful line of thought and what isn’t. No scholarship is a straight line. Of course, the attack here is also on the presumptive uselessness of the humanities, and that’s another issue that should be addressed, but which there isn’t the space for in this post. Suffice it to say, humanities research is more and more a testing ground for ways of understanding human subjectivity, social action, and moral decision-making, that very much is relevant to advanced research in a world where the boundaries between technology and humanity are breaking down. Those “useless” Shakespeare papers may in fact be honing ways of understanding our world that would not be possible in any other way.

This claim is the worst in short-term thinking – if research doesn’t produce profit in this quarter or the next, there’s no point.

7. Universities devote more of their budgets to non-instructional pursuits than previously, including swollen and well-paid bureaucracies, country club-like recreational facilities, and research that has low value outside the academic community.

Country-club atmospheres may well exist in some recreational facilities (and, I’d add, some student housing as well). Do you know why they do it? Because there’s a market for students out there. Students are shopping for their education. On the standards of conservative markets, it makes sense that a university would market itself to the students it wants.

Do I like this? Of course not. Education should have nothing to do with this. But it does. Like it or not, in a climate in which state governments are abandoning higher education, universities are entering a marketplace to make up those revenues. As far as I am concerned, this is a distraction, but it is one forced on us by right-wing governments.

8. The effort to have everyone obtain a college degree has led to many workers becoming over-trained for the low-skill jobs they take after graduation.

Um, wait. What? Isn’t the usual right-wing rhetoric about innovation, competitiveness, and all that stuff. So, what does “over-trained” mean, exactly? How do we determine that? So someone right out of university may be waiting tables, with their B.A. or M.A. Not optimal, but it happens. Does that mean that that’s their destiny forever? No, of course not. Let’s look instead at where some of those students are a few years later. And, let’s see how many of them credit their education with giving them the skills. I’m betting, a fair number of them. It’s not an easy world out there, and we’re not providing job training. That’s not the mandate of the university. It is to transform people to be their best, not to equip them to fill an already existing role.

I’m a philosopher, one of those areas that attracts a lot of jokes. “Do you want fries with that?” I know them all. But what I also know, is that my students are being prepared with a lot more than just the ability to read Kant or Plato. They’re getting digital skills at a level above Facebook or Twitter. They’re learning to read social patterns, and work with ideas. They’re learning to put themselves in the shoes of others. And you know what? They’re making something of themselves. They aren’t necessarily all becoming philosophers, nor would I expect them to. I’m not training them for a job. I’m training them to recognize new ideas, new areas. This is the future, not the right-wing attitude that students should be trained to fit into existing jobs. That’s education for compliance, not innovation. That’s subjugation, not freedom. I’m training students to be free.

Here’s what I will say, though – the real issue is not about over-training, but about students finding what they want to do, what fulfills them, and then being respected for that decision. For some, what is fulfilling might be a craftsperson’s life. That is every bit as honorable as any other choice. The problem with higher education, though, is that you need it (or at least some exposure to it) to see options that would not otherwise be visible. This is always my problem – the only way I can convince students of the value of philosophy is for them to take philosophy. A brochure doesn’t cut it. Once they understand that it’s not just navel gazing, and that it integrates with a lot of other things, some of them stick around. I’ve put up a page called “What Can I Do With A Humanities Degree?” to try to make the case, but in the end, the product and the sales pitch are the same thing. This doesn’t fit into the corporate, capitalist model of education.

9. Students are burdened with excessive debt from college training, sometimes larger than can be sustained on their modest post-college incomes.

Yes, no kidding. Take massive amounts of support out of universities, and what do you expect?

So, the premises on which this Heartland-inspired blue ribbon panel in Florida is operating, is off base at every step of the way. They’ve defined the question in a self-serving manner. Now, let’s see how they are going to serve themselves, instead of the people of Florida and of the US. The proposals below, reduced to single phrases, mostly sound innocuous and uncontroversial. If you look at the rationale, though, they are insidious, accusatory (with no basis), and generally a smear campaign against the idea of public education in any form. They portend an attack on university education that will make our system weaker, less innovative, less creative, and more inclined to train students as drones for corporate purposes. This is a vision of education designed to undermine critical thinking (as the Texas folks who are following this have already explicitly admitted).

Again, my comments underneath the proposals

1. Reduce Third-Party Payments: Ending government subsidies to higher education and removing tax breaks for third-party subsidization would more directly align the costs of higher education to the benefits of those who attend.

In other words: privatize higher education. Government intervention is the problem. Clearly an unproven assumption, and nakedly political, by which I mean an attempt to stifle dissent through structural means (by starving dissenters’ means of support). This frames education as a solely economic transaction (the first sentence in subsequent text portrays the student as the “customer” and the university as the “producer”). This is a framing issue, and is merely asserted, not proven. The text goes on to suggest that “perhaps the time has come to begin to privatize some public universities. Institutions such as the universities of Colorado, Michigan and Virginia now get 10 percent or less of their budgets from state appropriations (IPEDS 2008) Why not phase out the state subsidies altogether?”

I’ll tell you why – because there is a public good in universities that is still the responsibility of the state. That is not to say that there aren’t fine private universities (e.g., Stanford, Duke, lots of liberal arts colleges, the Ivies, etc.) Obviously there are. And, they are the expensive ones. They’re the ones that help to stratify society, not the ones that help to bring education to everyone. You want access? That’s not the way to do it, even with their lavish scholarship programs.

2. Fund Students, Not Institutions: Giving subsidies directly to students would create much-needed competition among institutions, forcing them to be more conscious of student needs and budgets.

Another nakedly capitalist approach that shifts the blame from conservative politicians who created the problem, to universities which have struggled to deal with the hostile environment that they have created. Why exactly is it that universities are supposed to compete? What does “competition” mean in this context, exactly? It’s nowhere near as clear as people think it is. And, of course, as mentioned earlier, they already do compete, by providing the “country club” atmosphere that helps to sell tickets to our new time-share universities. What kind of competition do these people really think we’re going to engage in? Do they really think we don’t already have crushing competition? Getting any grant support at all is extremely difficult and competitive. At my university, we’re judged on student credit hour production, in relation to other colleges at the university. That’s not competition? The fact is that the university has far too much competition, which distracts everyone from our primary missions of teaching and research. I spend half my time trying to sell my programs, when I should be increasing their quality. This proposal is an illusion.

3. Increase Transparency: Competition among providers requires transparency in gathering and reporting data on student performance, research output, and institutional finance.

Let me give you some insight from the trenches on this one. Our reporting load has increased every year since I took on my current position as department chair, five years ago. This is at the behest of the state government, which is requiring this reporting. But what kind of reporting am I doing? The questions I’m asked are highly loaded, and very much geared toward portraying my discipline (philosophy) and disciplines like mine in the worst possible light. We are judged on STEM standards (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), but we’re given no credit for when we actually engage in those things as collaborators with these technical areas (and, believe it or not, my philosophy department is actually very good at that kind of collaboration).

The fact is, research and teaching of the future is far more interdisciplinary than it has been in the past. And, it needs all of us. I’m totally supportive of STEM disciplines, but I’m also totally supportive of my own discipline and other arts and humanities. We need all of us, and the good scientists and technical people that I know would agree with me on that. They come to us for collaborations (and we go to them as well), because they know we’re better together than apart. Why is it that those of us in the university, in all disciplines, know the way forward, and know it requires all of us, and yet these conservative ideologues can only see a simplistic economic model and an outdated approach to education? Well, I think we know the answer to that.

4. Don’t Push College on Everyone: Traditional four-year degrees are not the best option for everyone. Alternative postsecondary training programs may be suitable for many Americans.

Well, ok, but my worry with this is that it’s just job training, and a way around educating an informed citizenry. So yes, we should provide and honor the decisions that people make to pursue many different directions, including vocational ones. But who, exactly, is “pushing college on everyone?” A slanted phrase if I’ve ever seen one. This is, I think, just an attack on President Obama, who extolled the virtue of higher education. Again, nothing but politics.

5. Promote Lower-Cost Alternatives: Traditional four-year institutions are expensive. Students can obtain quality degrees at a lower cost by exploring alternatives.

Really? They’re expensive? And why would that be? Maybe the abdication of state responsibility toward higher education? Don’t bring that up, right?

And what are these “lower cost alternatives?” Well, one thing they suggest is online education. As someone who has taught with this modality, I can tell you that it’s good for some things, and not for others. It is not the solution to everything, the way techno-enthusiasts think it is.

Another proposal, amazingly, is to give out vouchers to students (see #2 above), but only allow them to use them at “lower cost community colleges” for students “whose academic profile suggests a high probability of academic failure in four-year schools.” So, does this sound like a market-based solution? No, it doesn’t. It’s federal control of a market. It’s social engineering. And that’s what you find all over proposals like this. The talk is always about the virtues of competition, but when you get down to the details, you find that the whole thing is gamed. Just like every right-winger’s version of the economy.

Oh, and I forgot – they also want to eliminate Pell grants and other federal support for students. Yup. There’s access all right.

6. Emphasize Instruction: Costs will continue to rise until frivolous activities subside in favor of a tighter focus on undergraduate instruction.

Sigh. Ok, here’s how it is at my university. We had the worst student teacher ratio in the country five years ago. Since then, we’ve been under a 5% growth mandate every term, compared to the same term the previous year. Yes, 5%. So, we’re still the worst. We have sections of 300 students in a philosophy course, with no graduate student support at all. None. Courses in which discussion and interaction is crucial, are reduced to Scantrons.

But of course, this is the conservative dream. It’s information download without training students in how to process that information, what to do with it, what’s important and what isn’t, and how they have to change in order to be able to use that information. They get nuggets of knowledge, factoids, that they can use to impress their friends at parties and on Facebook. Does it help them to know how to think? No. Because thinking carefully and critically would be a problem for modern conservatism.

I’m not, by the way, one of those who thinks that all conservatism has always been as clueless as it is today. I think there have been smart people over there who have come up with interesting ideas, ideas worth considering even if I don’t agree with them. I’m still solidly left, and getting more so as I get older. But I can respect some conservatives of the past. This, however, is not that, and I fear we’re left with a superficial economic model being imposed with little thought. There’s little that presents itself as any more than political force, gamesmanship, and misdirection. It does not rise to the level of great conservatives of the past, who at least had ideas, even if they were ideas I didn’t agree with. These proposals are not ideas – they are carefully phrased Trojan horses, meant to look innocuous but carrying with them chilling and destructive cargo. It is not in the current interests of any conservative government to have citizens that think critically. The holes become too apparent, and people refuse to get with the program.

7. Restructure University Ownership and Governance: University management structures need to be simplified, which can be encouraged through student-centered aid and the consequent emphasis on delivering real educational value.

That’s a bland way of saying that the goal is to get rid of “shared governance”, or in other words, involvement by faculty in educational programs. The text under this is little more than a series of slurs and insults to faculty, based on nothing more than innuendo and hearsay. Classic right-wing garbage – damning through innuendo rather than evidence. But the goal is clear – the claim is that faculty have stood in they way of curricular changes, and that has to stop.

Now, let’s think about this. Who knows about their own areas best? Who knows what curriculum should look like? According to this document, politicians do, and “markets” do. Right-wing politicians can tell us what research is worthwhile, which disciplines matter, and what we should all be doing. The “market” (as always, an ill-defined concept when applied to education) should determine what we should be teaching. Even better, the report’s authors say, for-profit education will lead us toward that market model.

One question: hands up anyone who wants to drive over a bridge by graduates of a college where the market has determined the curriculum. Anyone? School A has students take calculus, school B doesn’t, and engineers go to B because they don’t want to take calculus. Engineers from school B build that bridge. I’m looking for those hands. You get the picture. Knowledge isn’t always about what the market thinks it is. Markets don’t predict, they react. They look backwards. There’s such a thing as expertise, which looks forwards. Furthermore, sometimes we have to follow the logic of that expertise, and of those disciplines, so that new areas can be explored. Scholars have done hard, seemingly useless research, and forced their students to study work like that. Was it fun for students? No. Did they need it to be cutting edge in their field? Of course.

The lack of understanding of how real, innovative knowledge comes to be is staggering. And, frightening. These Heartland proposals are a recipe for mediocrity in education and in research.

8. Raise Academic Standards: Low standards and grade inflation are damaging the educational quality of U.S. higher education institutions and creating a culture of mediocrity.

No, stupid educational proposals by right-wing hacks are creating a culture of mediocrity. But that’s not the message of the report. Low standards are completely the fault of universities. Never mind that students are under pressures they haven’t been under before. Never mind that class sizes are larger, and so it’s harder to do anything but teach and grade superficially. Never mind that the system of competition that already exists inclines students to take easier courses, unless forced to do otherwise. Never mind all those systemic issues. Let’s just blame universities for falling down on the job.

So yes, standards could be higher. And the answer is way more complicated than the band-aids that this blue ribbon panel is proposing.

9. Measure Institutional Success by Student Performance: Introducing market principles into higher education will provide the necessary incentives for faculty and administration to concentrate on making students’ financial investment pay off.

This is so offensive, I hardly know where to start. Ok, let’s start here – the assumption is that faculty are not motivated to, and are not, providing quality education to students, and therefore have to be forced to do so through market principles. This is the kind of slur that’s hard to fathom. Professionals who have spent up to 12 years of their lives preparing for their jobs, without any guarantee they were going to get those jobs, and who intimately know their areas and what students are like and what they need, these people are being told that they lack the motivation to make “students’ financial investment pay off”.

Who are these people? I mean, really. This just makes me crazy. This is a personal insult by people who, in many cases, couldn’t make it in our environment. I can make ad hominems too – just watch. How many of the people on these blue ribbon panels are actually successful academics? Very few. Why? Because it’s really really hard to be successful. You have to be both very good, and very lucky. So, these whiny little failures want to take out their ressentiment on those who are doing what they couldn’t do. And, they have political influence and power, and can therefore spin their own mediocrity into their own little bully session.

So, do we really want to go there, tit for tat insults? Because that’s what this Heartland document consists of – insults to professionals who have given years of their lives to the good of others. It’s despicable.

Oh, and they think we should move back to a professorial compensation model in which students directly pay professors. You know, like in those early heady days of the university, when students did just this. Oh, wait, it wasn’t until university structures were updated in the 19th century that they started being regular innovation factories. Never mind.

Ok, there’s lots more wrong with this proposal (these people keep invoking ill-framed and ill-defined “market principles”, and erroneously treat students as only customers). You can feel free to read the original, at the link at the top of my diatribe, and come up with your own.

10. Reduce Barriers to Entry and Encourage Accreditation Reform: Reforming the accreditation system would allow more competitors to enter the higher education market by reducing barriers to entry.

So, they also think accreditation should be cheaper for new schools. Uh-huh. What this means – gut the accreditation requirements, and any oversight. Let clown colleges get accredited. Let the consumer decide which of these is good.

It should probably be clear by now just how ridiculous I think all this is. This would, quite literally, destroy any sense of expertise within universities. Research would only be applied research, no pure or foundational work. Anything that did not add to the bottom line this quarter would be seen as having no value.

This is what’s happening in Florida, and Texas, and other places. I fear for the education system in this country. The deep-pocketed privates will continue, and still be good, but any state that adopts these initiatives will render their public system the laughing-stock of the world, and will have no commensurate private system that emerges that will either produce research worth anything at all, or students who will add any jobs to the economy. This is a recipe for disaster. This is what is being considered in my state this year.

5 thoughts on “The Path to Mediocrity in Higher Education: Florida Edition

  1. There’s a reason for the tradition of shared governance that includes faculty, a tradition that has been eroded over the last generation… and we are starting to see the results of that erosion–and not just in Florida and Texas. This is going to be a nationwide trend, and a problem that only careful and considered action is going to be able to counter.

    • Dr. Janz
      I thoroughly enjoyed your blog, though respectfully disagree with some of your not-so-subtle assumptions. Allow me to delineate:
      1. (Fundamental) Research = Excellence in undergraduate education
      I fully agree with you that fundamental research is absolutely vital to advancement of knowledge and that it should be funded. What I don’t necessarily agree with is the underlying assumption that this research results in excellence in undergraduate education, leading to numerous other assumptions upon which traditional higher education (THE) is based:
      a. Researchers are de facto teachers, so no pedagogical training is required.
      b. Researchers will continue to be productive upon gaining tenure.
      c. There’s no point in trying to educate adults (those that have work/family obligations).
      d. The advantages of funded research will “trickle down” to positively impact undergraduate education.
      e. Higher Education, created in the Industrial Era, is meeting society’s needs, and, ergo, no change is required. It just needs more funding.

      Had THE been more aware of changes in society several decades ago, for-profit education would never have gained a toe-hold. Yes, a number of for-profits have gamed the system and need to go away, but others have identified and tried to accommodate needs unmet by THE.

      While I agree with you that politicians are making matters worse, they (both Republicans and Democrats) are merely reacting to the general dissatisfaction and have confused “achievement” with “learning.” Metrics such as default, retention, graduation, and placement rates are poor attempts at measuring quality, but have absolutely nothing to do with learningUnfortunately, in many cases, THE does not have a good response to “how do we measure learning” either. The “trust me, poopsie” response has grown tired.

      I believe it is time for THE to take a good look at itself and test the assumptions upon which it is based. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” certainly applies to THE as well. There needs to be a revolution in THE, preferably driven from within.

      I also find value in philosophy–perhaps philosophers can lead us toward better answers:
      What is learning? How do we measure it? What do we need to learn in this century?


      • I certainly agree that there are further questions about university education than I took up in this piece. I was focussing on a policy document that I think is seriously flawed. The question of measuring learning is still an issue (and one not entirely solved by the move toward program assessment, which is a whole other discussion as well).

        I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to suggest that university has been behind the issue. Universities have been aware of changes in society, but the fact is there have been many changes. Decades ago it was all about providing for soldiers coming back from war. It has been about representing all human experience at times, rather than just the experience of white males. At times, it has been about constructing disciplines which can model changing knowledge, an ongoing and very difficult problem. So, it’s a harder issue to deal with than just suggesting that there should have been different models earlier. Like research itself, there’s no straight line toward a solution.

  2. Many good observations. But at some point we all have to deal with the cost of ideal or even practical education. There just is not enough money to do everything.

    Bruce did a good job of demonstrating that there is a tremendous cost to society if access to higher education is curtailed. And he defends research as a necessary – albeit expensive – reality. And of course our governments (both in the United States and in Canada) are aware of the cost of providing higher education. The trick will be to find the sweet spot in the middle [we never will but we can hope].

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