Future of Education 11/18/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Today I came across an article saying that we cannot allow educational quality to decline as a result of recent changes.  It seems to me that ever since education experts have gotten involved to tell us all how we’re supposed to teach our position in global educational quality has been slipping.  So, let’s be fair.  I’m not an education expert, I don’t have a degree in educational theory, and my doctorate is not in education, but I’ve been involved for most of my life, so maybe, just maybe, my opinion is worth considering.  But, then again, maybe not since I’ve never written a “lesson plan” in my life, relying instead on the syllabus. 

The pandemic has truly changed the way education is provided, but to be honest, the educational landscape has been changing long before it began.  I believe the main impetus for this change came when our country stopped viewing higher education as an investment and began treating it is an industry.  Two of the universities in which I was involved have brought in experts to look at the institution and make suggestions on how to improve, but the company (the same one in both cases) was a large and expensive consultancy firm that focused on industry, not academia.  In both cases the institution spent half a million dollars that, if they successfully increased enrollment, it would still take a decade to make back the money they spent for the plan.  The annoying part is that, in the reports, there was never a mention of quality of education.  All of it was increasing enrollment by adding new sports, or advertising, or improvements to the campus.  Frankly, it was disgusting, and many of my faculty friends noted the same thing.

The problem is that modern university administration is no longer in tune with the high morals of the educators.  My friends (and myself included) tend to believe that the first priority for an institution of higher learning should always be quality of education, but administration (who report to trustees or regents who are often business executives) focus on making the institution financially viable.  This become increasingly difficult as students want more and more student services that are not related to educational quality.  I’m not suggesting that these services are not good, but simply that they take more and more budget, leaving less for faculty and educational technology.

As universities attempt to become increasingly profitable, their tuition continues to increase.  Be careful of any institution claiming their tuition hasn’t increased in so many years, because there are also back doors to increasing tuition.  For example, fees will often increase, including required residencies, equipment fees, and even course specific fees such as science fees to cover laboratory expenses.  These used to be covered by tuition, but this is a thing of the past.  In fact, when I went to graduate school, my doctorate was better than free.  In exchange for my work as a teaching assistant, I had full tuition remission and took home a monthly stipend for living expenses.  I certainly didn’t get wealthy off of it, but this parchment that keeps falling off of the wall didn’t cost me a dime.  I’m told that’s a thing of the past, and modern graduate students are paying their own way.  Is it a wonder that enrollment is dropping?

As the cost of education continues to increase, it’s not really a surprise that modern students are beginning to consider the cost/benefit ratio of education and looking for more cost-effective alternatives.  Community college has been around as long as I have, but even this is changing.  When I went to college, much of what community college offered was a cost-effective alternative to the first two years of college.  That means, for the most part, general education courses such as first year science, math, English, social studies and so on.  You could get your associates degree, but even at this they included the generals and a few additional courses.  Today, community colleges are, more and more, offering technical degrees. 

These technical degrees often do not include any general education courses (or not many), but rather if you want to learn to work on motors, or become a police officer, or weld you can get these technical degrees at community college.  Unfortunately, as enrollment in these programs increase and in universities fall, major universities have started offering their equivalent of technical degrees, including, much to my shame, the one I wrote.  Personally, I think educational quality in institutions of higher education will continue to decline if this trend continues.  The purpose of education should be problem solving, that is, to be able to apply general knowledge (such as chemistry) to solve new modern problems (such as forensics).  A degree in forensics (which is the program I was pressured into writing) causes a narrow focus.  In chemistry, you can get a job in forensics, but you can’t get a job as a chemist with a forensics degree (generally speaking). 

From the concept of the technical degree, the next and less expensive option is the certificate of accomplishment.  These are strictly online programs, for example in programming languages, where if you show proficiency, you can get a certificate proving that you can perform the task (such as program in that language).  I’m actually taking one of these now to learn to program in Python, and although they claim that the certificate can get me a job, that’s not the reason I’m taking it.  For me, I want to use the language to perform research.  But with these certificates, there are no general education courses at all.  This raises an interesting question as to what, exactly, constitutes an educated person?  Can you blame students bypassing institutions of higher education for less expensive alternatives? 

So now we need to consider the role of each of these pieces.  More courses and programs offered even by colleges and universities are being offered online.  I believe there is still some doubt about this since it seems like it would be easier to cheat in these programs, which happened at the university where I was a dean.  There needs to be consistent standards for courses and programs regardless of the modality in which it is offered which has been a serious problem at that university.  As more courses are offered online, more adjunct faculty were hired and while we could ensure the credentials of these individuals, there were those who decided to forego the standards of the institution because they were certain that they knew better.  Unfortunately, whether they did or didn’t was irrelevant, and the case that I’m thinking about right now was one where the faculty refused to acknowledge that the course he was teaching was one of a two-term course.  He insisted on teaching the entire book, sacrificing depth in the chapters he was supposed to cover for breadth that was not supposed to be covered.  The administration, unfortunately, sided with the faculty (over me, the dean) because it was less expensive to do so. 

Historically, only the very well off could afford to go to college to get a degree, and this is the direction we are moving again.  As students look for less expensive alternatives, those that will give a net income rather than perpetual debt in paying off loans, we’re looking at technical degrees and certificates.  Studies have shown that these students do just about as well when starting a job, that is the same rate of landing a job and about the same starting pay, but they don’t advance as quickly.  It seems as though we are heading back to the day when the bosses are the wealthy, that is, those who could afford the higher full degrees, while the rest are stuck in the positions in which they started. 

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