Peter Salins offers an excerpt from his new book to start the conversation.
There are four generic problems facing the preponderance of American colleges and universities, most of them festering for decades, but getting worse as college enrollment has expanded and student selectivity declined: they admit too many unprepared students, they invest too little in undergraduate instruction, they are too cavalier about graduation rates, and their financing is so erratic that millions of qualified high school graduates don't even go to college, and those that do are overly burdened with debt.
Start by saying NO to the Distressed Material calling itself high school graduates.
Among these, perhaps the most easily corrected by unilateral college actions is the misalignment between the academic preparation needed to succeed in college - even in narrow technical and professional programs (like computer science or nursing) - and the instructional standards of American high schools.  This is not just a problem for graduates of struggling inner city high schools, but also for a majority of those coming out of schools in middle income suburbs.  Practically the only actions taken by all but the most elite American colleges to deal with this problem is to invest heavily in "remedial" courses, under the hopeful assumption that one or two semesters of catch-up English and math courses can compensate for four years of high school failure.  Not surprisingly, the hope is unjustified, and fewer than a quarter of all students taking such courses ever make it out of the remedial purgatory ready to continue successfully in the regular curriculum.  We now have over four decades of failed experience with the remediation paradigm, yet, in the name of broadened college "access," we continue to waste vast resources - institutional, public and personal - on this flawed concept.

What should be done instead is to more thoroughly align high school curricula and instruction with college expectations.  Despite voluminous lip service paid to this objective, it is rarely achieved in practice.  There is reason for optimism on this score, however, in a new nationwide effort to upgrade K-12 curricular content, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, currently subscribed to by 45 states.  Given its potential for raising the level of college preparedness across the board, the American collegiate establishment, represented by eight key organizations, should now weigh in on this project to make sure that the standards are adequate and that they are actually being implemented.

The other effective action that colleges could take is to not admit students that graduate from high school without a proven "college-ready" academic diploma.  Even though a majority of American high school graduates are taking high school exit exams today, few of these really screen out the unprepared.  Ideally, all states should make sure their exit exams are truly rigorous, and give academic diplomas only to those sufficiently prepared for college.  Until this happens, the best course would be for colleges to rely on the national SAT or ACT entrance exams, and not admit any students falling below the college-ready threshold (about 1575 on the combined SAT and on the ACT 18 in English and 22 in math).
Expect some controversy, as there's evidence that high school grades are a more dependable signal of college success than test scores are.  But admissions boards could be more explicit about favoring transcripts heavy on English, Mathematics through calculus or pre-calculus, laboratory science, and foreign languages with high marks.  Mr Salins continues, though, noting that the absence of the equivalent of senior non-coms in introductory classes is a false economy.
The first two years of undergraduate coursework are short-changed more fundamentally by the paucity of instructional resources devoted to them.  Well-endowed private universities and the best of the public ones divert resources away from early undergraduate instruction to allow their senior faculty to engage in serious research (on which both the faculty's and the institution's reputation depends), and to pay for it.  Less research-driven baccalaureate colleges and community colleges skimp on lower level instruction because they need to conserve their resources to pay for the more expensive upper level and professional coursework on which their reputation rests.  The way in which in almost all American colleges and universities square this resource circle is to cheat their freshmen and sophomores by placing them in oversized course sections and assigning poorly paid "adjunct" faculty and graduate students to teach them.  Given how important the first two years of college are, this state of affairs is scandalous.
Even so, the presence of Distressed Material contributes to the rot, perhaps more than the careerism of matriculants treating their core courses as an obstacle, or the rent-seeking of faculty wanting a counter at the distribution requirements food court.
Having chosen to be less selective in admissions, most baccalaureate colleges anticipate a less than complete graduation rate, and congratulate themselves when they exceed their mathematically calculated "expected graduation rate."  Given their open-admissions mission, almost all community colleges have very low graduation rate expectations to begin with and adamantly reject this as a qualitative criterion.  To be fair, some colleges and statewide higher education systems take pains to preemptively advise their students online as to necessary course-taking and try to assure that all courses necessary for graduation are being offered.  But outside the insular world of institutional graduation rate fatalism and excuse-making, parents, politicians and thoughtful higher education leaders are rightly concerned.
When it comes to "what is to be done," though,  Mr Salins is partly right and partly wrong.
One of the most unquestioned assumptions surrounding the college affordability issue is that it is the inevitable result of the way in which a college education is being delivered today: courses (many of them with small enrollments) set in physical classrooms, taught by well-paid faculty, on leafy campuses with myriad desirable but not necessarily essential ancillary facilities like student unions, fitness centers, museums and stadiums.  This entire arrangement, it is widely believed, is anachronistic and must unavoidably result in a high outlay per student, to be borne at private schools by students' families and at public ones by the states.  Given this diagnosis, the fashionable remedy is to a) sever the link between college instruction and the college environment and b) deliver much or all instruction online.

Many Americans, especially those who are working, raising families, or otherwise strapped for time, might benefit from a non-campus based college experience, but there is a lot more to college than classroom instruction which is why we will still want as many students as possible getting their education in a campus setting.  And as to online instruction, there is a place for it in a college education, but in terms of educational benefit, it can never entirely replace taking courses with a live instructor, surrounded by live classmates, in a traditional physical classroom.

Just as almost no one tilling the vast K-12 education reform garden suggests doing away with our traditional elementary and secondary school facilities, there is no need today to do away with our traditional college campuses.  In fact, these places are in many ways among the most glorious of American institutions, and the envy of the rest of the world.  Nevertheless we need to definitely rethink what goes on in them, and how they are financed.
I'm going to have to keep on pushing the excess demand for perceived quality argument, apparently.  In Forbes, George Leef looks at the unsustainability of the summer camp model.
The West Virginia campus is so dominated by the party culture that students who are not partiers are “marginalized.” But when the detrimental effects of party behavior on them are brought up (including the way the university’s reputation is damaged by the partiers), the partiers turn the blame around and say that the non-partiers should have gone to some other school.

One aspect of the party culture that [Party School author Karen] Weiss might have explored further is the academic work that the heavy and extreme partiers do (or mostly don’t do). She informs us that very few of them major in demanding fields such as engineering or health sciences. Most major in a social science field or something else. I wish she had gone further into the questions raised by the intersection of a university’s academic requirements and the party culture.

How do students who get intoxicated several times a week cope with even the lightest of academic demands?  Do they search for courses that are known for easy grading no matter how little work they do and how poorly they perform? Are they prone to submitting papers that were written by others, including ones they bought from essay mills?
Going forward, the most egregious sub-prime party schools may find themselves failing a market test. And market tests have steeper grading curves than even those employed by cranky old academic ninja economics professors.
Partying has long been a feature of American college life, so it’s unrealistic to think about putting an end to it. What probably will minimize it, however, is the economics of the college experience. Partiers are spending quite a lot of money (some from their families; some from taxpayers) in exchange for a lot of immediate gratification but little or no lasting benefit. It used to be the case that merely getting a degree was worthwhile due to our mania for credentials—that is, college degrees used as a way of screening out probably unqualified, untrainable individuals.

That mania seems to be abating, however. Employers have found out that college degrees do not necessarily betoken much knowledge or reliability. They are starting to look for better indicators (such as e-portfolios with badges, certifications, and other demonstrations of competence) that don’t require graduation from college. As that movement continues, before long the mere possession of a generic degree from any school, and especially a “party school” will be unavailing.
In turn, those market tests are likely to heighten the contradictions among campuses of state university systems that currently combine flagship and party barge institutions.
Public research universities have been an essential component in the success of American higher education. During the past two decades, however, they have faced unprecedented challenges – growing enrollments, declining state funds, faculty salaries lagging far behind their private competitors.

While no one wants to see an unconstrained conflict among institutions within the states or to have the flagships beggar their neighbors, the future success of public research universities is essential to the well-being of the nation. It is time to ask whether their excellence can be maintained if they remain coupled to systems of governance created in a different time, within a different context, for different purposes.
So simplify. Whitewater and Eau Claire and Oshkosh and LaCrosse are in the same business as Milwaukee or Madison, and a state policy that reserves a slot somewhere in the state system for any graduate in the top half of any high school in the state implicitly reserves a lessened opportunity to a graduate that doesn't make the cut at Madison as long as Whitewater is getting by.  Either clean all the windows or pull the shade.  And yes, faculty, maintain social distance.
I’ve always been of the view that I don’t want to undermine my own authority in the classroom by dressing like the students, inviting them to use my first name, or making any other gestures towards “being down with the kids.” I find many other female academics also take this approach.

To add to the confusion, in most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.
Male or female, in Australia or Illinois, THIS MEANS YOU.

And master the art of the prolonged silence.  Somebody walks into your office with a dumb request, just do your best Vladimir Putin stare and say ... nothing.

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