Tony Grafton writes an omnibus review of recent books that offer gloomy assessments of the state of higher education in the United States.  The review includes a number of books that are on the list of "nice to have", but the order to a bookseller has not gone out, and it includes Academically Adrift, which is in the pile of items to be reviewed here, but that review requires me to check, carefully, the statistical inference and peer-reviewed cross references in the appendix, something that is enough like real research that the real research gets done first.  (Yes, despite the numerous administrative burdens everyone in a radically-downsized department bears, we persevere at the research.  The problem is getting a project re-started, time after time after time, something that wasn't an issue when I was still pursuing tenure and didn't get the requests to be on this panel or that task force.)  There are passages that hit home.
Competitive sports consume vast amounts of energy and money, some of which could be used to improve conditions for students. It’s hard not to be miserable when watching what pursuit of football glory has done to Rutgers, which has many excellent departments and should be—given the wealth of New Jersey—an East Coast Berkeley or Michigan. The university spends $26.9 million a year subsidizing its athletic programs. Meanwhile faculty salaries have been capped and raises canceled across the board. Desk telephones were recently removed from the offices of the historians. Repairs have been postponed, and classroom buildings, in constant use from early morning until late at night, have become shabbier and shabbier.
Somebody is likely to tell me to be grateful my 'phone hasn't yet been removed; on the other hand, it hasn't rung that frequently when I'm in the office, and the odd voicemail is likely to be a blanket message from the techies about something or other.  More to the point, though, are some observations Mr Grafton makes about the current cafeteria of higher education offerings reinforcing social stratification.
For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.
That paragraph calls for a separate post, one that tackles the tension between the higher learning as higher learning and the baccalaureate degree as an entry-level credential.  At the risk of oversimplifying: drop any pretense of the trivium and quadrivium and go straight to Microsoft applications and whatever else goes on in cubicles all day, which ends for once and for all the disengaged careerist in poetry or high school algebra or the current diversity offering in the distribution requirements; but send the credentialed careerist back into that box with no prospect of exit upward.  (Exit downward is easy enough, particularly in the straitened economic circumstances we face.)
But those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations. Acquire any sort of college education, and you’ll make more money than you would have if you didn’t. But don’t expect you’ll make what you would have if you had studied applied math at Stanford. And no one knows how long families will be able and willing to pay for four years of largely symbolic training that steadily becomes more expensive and loses impact.

The article has prompted a great deal of thoughtful commentary, some of which is in response to a call for reactions, that, as produced, have been summarized by Historiann, up earlier this morning.  It's worth your time to go there and follow some of the links, particularly if your universe of academic weblogs is primarily those by economists.  The theme there is "evaluate Mr Grafton's argument, with particular emphasis on conditions at your institution."  The sample is not yet large enough for a proper statistical analysis, but the stylized facts seem to be emerging.  A common observation is that there are limits to doing more with less.

Sometimes, though, the best thing to do with that phenomenon is to point out, directly, the refutation that those limits place on claims to be student-centered.  The editorial board at the Northern Star gives the university a low C for making good on course offerings.
The university offers many courses to students on the pages of its undergraduate catalog, but it only offers about 71 percent of those courses in a classroom.

In accountancy, 77 percent of courses that appeared in the '11-'12 undergraduate catalog were offered in the fall or spring semester of the '11-'12 academic year. Sixty-seven percent of communication studies courses in the catalog were offered this year.
Accountancy is one of the crown jewels of the curriculum, because the department has historically done well preparing graduates for the CPA examination. Communication is a popular major, featuring both a solid debate team and a lot of scholarship athletes.
The catalog offers a disclaimer: "Although the university attempts to accommodate the course requests of students, course offerings may be limited by financial, space and staffing considerations or may otherwise be unavailable."

Especially in the wake of the 2008 recession, it's understandable NIU is experiencing financial difficulties.

The disclaimer continues: "Nothing in this catalog may be construed to promise or guarantee registration in any course or course of study."

The catalog doesn't have to be perfect; it doesn't have to be a promise. But it should be better than a C average.
The financial difficulties, and the retrenchments, preceded the popping of the dot.com bubble by about eight years. The university periodically culls the catalog, so that courses taught by specialists long since retired, or recruited away to other universities, and never replaced, no longer appear to frustrate the students.   Bringing in a new specialist to meet those classes is often a tough sell.

The editors note that, despite the skimpy class offerings, schedule completion is sometimes difficult.
There are too many students that fall behind in their programs because the classes they need to take aren't offered at times when they can actually take them. It really sucks for students that have to stick around and pay for an extra semester of school just because the classes they needed weren't able to fit into one schedule.

Departments should be more aware of this problem and try and offer classes at a variety of different times and on different days so more students can take them and not fall behind. [An elementary education major] said even offering some of the general education classes as a once a week night class would have helped her stay on pace with the program.
Departments recognize the problem, and schedule in such a way that majors, at least, don't face conflicts among field classes. That's often forced because the one subject specialist can't be in two places at the same time. But there are limits to what the specialists can do. In the framework of my circus analogy, the elephant trainer can't be directing the band performing the waltz in time with the pachyderm on the ball.

There are also limits to the faculty's sympathies when the editorial continues thusly.
Another huge problem I have with scheduling classes is all of these Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes. [The writer doesn't] want class on Fridays, and I don't know anyone that likes having class on Fridays either.

Offering more Monday, Wednesday options would give students greater flexibility in scheduling and would reduce the number of days that we would have to travel to NIU. This would greatly help commuter students and students that have jobs at home on the weekends
The party animals and professors seeking more research time (or perhaps a chance to catch up on the grading or the committee work) will also welcome that schedule.  The run-the-university-like-an-airline types and the legislators who appropriate money for buildings will not like all the idle classroom capacity such a schedule implies.  Our current, slimmed down course offerings are skimpy enough that we could fit them into four days a week with no conflicts, but that's not a Pareto-optimal outcome.


Historiann said...

Thanks for the link and the essay, Stephen. I agree with your overall assessment of the scattered anecdata that I and the other humanist bloggers have come up with: doing more with less, and having real questions about how much longer it can continue.

I usually refer to this phenomenon as "eating our seed corn." We're managing to live off of investments people made in public universities in the 1950s-70s, without having replenished the pool for the past 30 years. It can't go on like this forever. Someone's got to pay up or live with dramatically reduced access and convenience for students.

Stephen Karlson said...

It's not right to live with dramatically reduced access, particularly if it is packaged (as seems to be the case at many of the less famous institutions that cut budgets and call it productivity) as a less-demanding academic program in the name of access.