Kevin Carey has written a great article for Democracy about college teaching–no, not an oxymoron, but too close for comfort. His basic thesis is that colleges would rather jack up prices and compete on prestige than teach their students even basic skills–and that government subsidies to poor students are largely wasted as a result. He makes a very good case. Particularly shocking, and new to me, was the fact that high quality (he claims), essay-based entry and exit tests for college students actually exist. But not only are they voluntary; the higher-education lobby has furiously and successfully lobbied to keep them secret so that students, the ones most affected, can’t discover where the education is any good. This must be a very good secret: I hadn’t heard of them.
I’d add only two observations, one minor, one major. The first is that tuition inflation isn’t merely prestige-chasing. It also reflects Baumol’s cost disease. Sectors of the economy that use lots of technology can benefit from productivity improvements, while those that rely on human interactions can’t. I say this is minor because we have a long way to go before this is the rate-determining step. Much of what universities do is prestige-chasing–we heavily subsidize gyms and athletic teams–and most responsible college teachers would cheer if it stopped. (Kudos to Mike for taking up the cudgel at Berkeley.) That’s true, at any rate, at big state universities. At community colleges, it’s probably less true, and there Baumol might kick in more quickly. Yes, there are big potential efficiency gains from technology in areas like math. For what I do, which involves discussing ideas and correcting papers line-by-line, not so much. We could, of course, outsource some instruction. But while that might not be a bad idea, I doubt it would work well beyond the most basic courses.
The bigger observation is that the idea that “faculty don’t want to change” must be broken down. This is a huge collective action problem. Think about what would have to happen at UCLA (yes, even we have some students who graduate without the right skills) to ensure that our graduates learn, for instance, how to write. Resources–that’s academese for “money,” such a crass word–that are currently spent on people like me would have to go instead to people who teach writing-intensive courses for forty hours a week. These wouldn’t have to be Ph.D.’s: unemployed journalists might even do it better.
To dramatize this, imagine that a department with twenty faculty members were required, when the next person retired, to replace that person with a writing instructor, not a research professor. There would be two reasons I’d oppose such a move by any department that I taught in. First, it would make us look bad. (“Why does UCLA have to hire writing tutors? Are its students so much worse than everybody else’s?”) Second, it would reduce our competitive advantage for both faculty and students. Professors want interesting colleagues, not ones who only teach basic things that they already know. And students might not be able to perceive that the writing help would get them better jobs in the future, but would perceive that famous professor X, whom we could have hired, is now at USC.
Both these objections would evaporate very quickly, though, if every department, at every university, were forced to make similar hires—or accomplish the same goals in other ways—by adminstrators facing incentives to make damn sure students passed the national essay tests on pain of losing well-informed students or federal subsidies. At that point, I’d positively welcome the move. Suddenly, I’d have students who could all write, and could concentrate on teaching them what I really care about. That would be more than worth the lost academic slot.
Please stop us before we fail to teach again.