Higher Education

| June 12, 2014

Are higher-education consumers — and taxpayers — getting what they pay for?

Consumers of higher education — including students and parents, as well as society — expect to invest time and money in a degree that will prepare graduates for work, citizenship, and in some cases further education in a profession. That has been an implicit bargain long inherent in the very name “university,” derived from the Latin universitas, or “the whole.” In short, higher education, especially at our so-called flagship public universities, is supposed to create a “whole” person well-grounded in a wide range of academic subjects.

But is this happening? A new report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni titled “Getting What You Pay For” casts some serious doubt.

The study surveyed 52 major public universities, including the University of Oklahoma. It found that few were requiring graduates to complete courses in many of what we have long considered core academic disciplines, that many were loading up on non-teaching administrators at the expense of classroom resources, and that such plagues as grade inflation have seriously diluted the end product — when there is an end product at all, thanks to low four-year graduation rates.

“Overall,” the report summarized, “the institutions, often called ‘flagship universities,’ do a poor job of ensuring that undergraduate students engage in an intellectually vibrant campus culture and leave with a solid foundation of common skill and knowledge.”

The report cites seven core academic areas where a flagship university ought to mandate at least basic study and knowledge — composition, literature, intermediate foreign language, American government/history, economics, mathematics, and natural and physical science. Most would agree that if you complete at least one or two basic courses in each of those areas you should emerge at graduation as a well-rounded, decently educated person. Sadly, the report suggests that many higher education policymakers don’t share that view.

Of the 52 schools studied, 17 required graduates to complete courses in just two of those areas. Another 21 required just three areas of study. (To its credit, OU was somewhat above the norm, but it still required no courses in literature or economics.)

It’s not that these institutions are lacking for money; between 1983 and 2014, tuition costs at American flagship universities increased 231 percent, even adjusted for inflation. Observers of higher ed have known for years that many schools have abandoned or neglected the traditional core curriculum for trendy, often nebulous courses of study like “women’s studies” or “liberation theology.” The result is predictable. The report notes that barely more than half of modern graduates know that the U. S. Constitution specified a separation of powers, or that 62 percent did not know that Congressmen serve two-year terms. And let’s not get started on Hamlet’s motivation, the cosine, or the periodic table of the elements.

Grade inflation appears to be rampant; at the University of Colorado in 2007-08, for example, 73 percent of all grades awarded were A’s or B’s. That’s a bell curve for the ages!

Flagship universities also appear to be addicted to the hiring of more and more non-teaching administrators. At OU from 2007 through 2012, spending on instruction rose a modest 13.9 percent, while administrative expenses jumped 18.5 percent.

Unsurprisingly, many universities deploy resources to support questionable non-core academic programs. OU has 30 bachelor’s degree programs with fewer than 10 graduates per year. That is a bizarre way to deploy supposedly precious resources.

Worst of all, many students aren’t even completing those softer, less-demanding degrees within four years. Of the 52 universities studied, most reported that less than half of entering freshmen graduated within four years. OU was among the worst, with a 2010 four-year graduation rate of just 36 percent.

More money? A better approach would be higher academic standards and a renewed emphasis on the subjects that once made our flagship universities special.

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