This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on February 9, 2015.
In an interview last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker fired a shot across the bow of academe. Defending his proposal to cut $300 million over the next two years from the University of Wisconsin (UW) System, Walker opined, “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.” His proposal aims not only to make the UW System “more effective, more efficient,” but also brings to light the little-discussed scandal of poor collegiate learning.
Although his budget-cutting is unlikely to receive an enthusiastic response from universities, a “more efficient”—and thereby less-costly—higher education system would be met with great applause by the students, their parents, and the taxpayers who help fund public higher education, as evidenced by a Pew Research Center national study, which finds that 57 percent of prospective students believe a college education today costs more than it is worth. Worse, 75 percent of those surveyed believe that college today is simply unaffordable. Their apprehension is understandable. Nationwide, college tuitions have increased 440 percent over the past quarter-century—far outpacing both general inflation and even health-care cost increases over the same period. Attempting to keep pace with tuition hyperinflation, students and their parents are yoking themselves to an historic level of student-loan debt, which, at $1.2 trillion, for the first time in history exceeds total national credit-card debt.
But the governor’s exhortation to faculty to “teach more classes and do more work” goes deeper than the economic benefits this would produce, as important as those benefits would be. His proposal goes to the heart of the crisis afflicting not only Wisconsin but higher education nationwide: Teaching and learning increasingly are taking a backseat to other priorities at too many institutions of higher education.
Consider the opinion on this subject of Derek Bok, former Harvard president, according to whom too many students graduate from college today “without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers . . . reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems.” The 2011 landmark study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift,validates Bok’s observation through its longitudinal study of students from across the country. Adrift finds that 36 percent of students show “no statistically significant gains” in “general collegiate skills”—critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills—after investing four years in college.
Attempting to explain the college-learning crisis, Adrift cites evidence suggesting “that college students’ academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades.” Adriftcites a finding by Babcock and Marks that, in 1961, 67 percent of college students reported studying more than 20 hours per week. Today, only 20 percent report the same. They also demonstrate that “[s]tudy time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within race, gender, ability and family background, overall and within major, for students who worked in college and for those who did not, and at four-year colleges of every type. . . .”
Equally alarming, the decline in study hours has not resulted in lower grades. Quite the contrary. A national study by Rojstaczer and Healy finds that the percentage of A’s awarded has nearly tripled over the past half-century. “Most recently, about 43 percent of all letter grades given were A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960” (when roughly 15 percent of all grades were A’s). A’s and B’s today constitute 73 percent of all grades awarded.
Rojstaczer and Healy’s analysis constitutes an indictment of today’s academic culture. “When college students perceive that the average grade in a class will be an A, they do not try to excel. It is likely that the decline in student study hours, student engagement, and literacy are partly the result of diminished academic expectations.”
How are students able to study less and yet receive higher grades? Adrift cites the research of George D. Kuh, who holds that a “disengagement compact” has been struck between students and faculty generally. This compact, writes Kuh, consists in the following: “‘I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.’ That is, I won’t make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well. . . . There seems to be a breakdown of shared responsibility for learning—on the part of faculty members who allow students to get by with far less than maximum effort, and on the part of students who are not taking full advantage of the resources institutions provide.”
In discussing the responsibility faculty bear, Adrift acknowledges that the percentage of full-time faculty in degree-granting schools fell from 78 percent in 1970 to 52 percent by 2005. Moreover, citing the work of Jencks and Riesman, faculty today generally are expected “to focus on producing scholarship rather than simply concentrating on teaching and institutional service.” Add to this Ernest Boyer’s research, which finds that “21 percent of faculty in 1969 strongly agreed with the statement that ‘in my department it is difficult for a person to achieve tenure if he or she does not publish.’” Twenty years later, the number of professors agreeing with this statement had doubled to 42 percent. Boyer finds it especially troubling that this research-over-teaching agenda has “spread widely beyond the research university to a much larger set of otherwise institutionally diverse four-year colleges.” Massy and Zemsky refer to this teaching-undermining process as the “academic ratchet,” which “shifts output from undergraduate education toward research, scholarship, professional service, and similar activities—a process that we have termed ‘output creep.’”
Falling teaching loads are the natural response to the fact that faculty promotion and prestige today are based in large part on publications, which enhance a school’s national reputation (through raising its ranking in U.S. News). Under the current system, both faculty and administrators see lower teaching loads as a verification of excellence.
Adrift outlines additional factors that have contributed to declining attention to undergraduate teaching: the rising leverage of research-oriented faculty who, unlike their more-teaching-oriented colleagues, can bring to the institution a larger share of newly available research funding; the “growth of commercial opportunities associated with research activities in higher education” (which has been enhanced substantially by passage of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act); and administrative neglect of the fact that their institutions are “drift[ing] away from an undergraduate instructional focus.” For evidence of this last point, Adrift cites staffing decisions of higher-education institutions over the last few decades. “. . . [A]cross the country, not only have part-time instructors increasingly replaced full-time professors, but resources have increasingly been diverted toward nonacademic functions.” Gary Rhoades’ research discloses that most of the increase in nonacademic functions has occurred in “the broad area of student services, including admissions, financial aid, career placement, counseling, and academic services such as advising and tutoring that have been reassigned to non-faculty professionals.”
Regardless of the weight one puts on the various factors rehearsed above, write Arum and Roksa, “one thing is clear: undergraduate education in many colleges and universities is only a limited component of a much broader set of faculty professional interests, and one that generally is not perceived as being significantly rewarded.”
In light of the collegiate-learning crisis, Governor Walker’s proposal offers reformers the opportunity to speak not only to money matters but also, and more importantly, to mission matters. It provides not only Wisconsin but the nation an opportunity to reaffirm and recommit itself to the proposition that undergraduate teaching and learning—the central aim of public universities—is the mission that matters most.