What’s the Purpose of Higher Education?

This post’s title is the subject of next week’s Sophmore Honors Colloquium–and a question every college student should ask daily. Megan McArdle poses a similar question in Newsweek: Is College a Lousy Investment? The answer: yes, sometimes, for some people. In other words, it depends. A few of the article’s highlights:

“Even with these high prices, you’re still finding a high return for individuals who are bright and motivated,” he says. On the other hand, “if you’re not college ready, then the answer is no, it’s not worth it.”

For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.

“Why does cheating work?” If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

I Will Be Serving Flounder

You wouldn’t know it from the quantity of my summer posts, but I am still alive.

I will be teaching a freshman course for the first time in 13 years, so I think often of how they are different from the sophomores, juniors, and seniors I usually teach. An Op-Ed in today’s Boston Globe by Boston College professor Carlo Rotella titled Advice for the College Freshman captured my attention, particularly this paragraph:

Hit the marks, but find opportunities to flounder purposefully. A number of tendencies in child rearing these days, chief among them the predominance of coaching and lessons and other formal instruction, make for kids coming out of high school who are terrifically good at hitting the marks. A teacher tells them what to do and how to do it, they do it and get praise for it (because positive reinforcement really works), the teacher gives them something a little more advanced to do, and so on. This is great, on balance, but the price of all that coachability is that students are often not as comfortable when learning in an open-ended, less-guided style. College is a good place to do both . . .

Amen. Many of my assignments are open-ended and I prefer free-ranging give-and-take discussions to structured lectures. Students across the achievement spectrum can drift aimlessly if they are not told exactly what to do and how to do it. It’s not enough to be smart, to implement someone else’s concept perfectly, to shade your performance to satisfy someone else’s expectations.

Looking for My Ticket to Wonderland

My friend Mike, who got me my first teaching job at Babson College in 1997, is in town today to lead a day-long accounting course in a fast-track MBA program. It’s primarily an online course but includes in-class components. Mike is a born teacher–he possesses a seemingly innate ability to break a problem into comprehensible parts–and enjoys teaching both in-person and online.

I’m very curious about the possibilities of online education. Reading a recent article in the NYTimes about Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOCs”) was like a big gulp of Kool-Aid. While the power to reach under-served populations, to impart knowledge to those who want to acquire it for its own sake, and to use technology that requires students to engage with the material are appealing, this passage truly hooked me:

[Stanford research professor and Google Fellow Sebastian] Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.  “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

Not Getting What You Pay For

Just in time to capture the attention of graduating seniors, and their parents, who are wondering about the value they received for the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in tuition, an Op-Ed in last Sunday’s New York Times asks this question:  Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor? The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, studied the academic progress of “of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse four-year colleges and universities” over four years, finding “that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.”  They report that

[i]n a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying . . . Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test [ ] used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

Sorry results indeed.  The authors point to various possible causes–students taught by “fewer full-time tenured faculty members”–in other words, they are taught by people like me–, increased investments in creature comforts such as “deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms”–e.g. StuV, StuV II, and FitRec–and a “larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges.” In other words, students are  consumers and a college education is a fee-for-services transaction.  The authors’ proposed solutions include assessing teaching performance by means other than student course evaluations, which “create[] perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades,” reducing focus on rankings, and “parents and students on college tours . . . ignor[ing] institutional facades and focus[ing] on educational substance.”

Business Degrees Devalued

Last Thursday the NY Times published an article titled The Default Major: Skating Through B-School.  It’s premise:  “all evidence suggests that student disengagement is at its worst in  . . . undergraduate business education.”  The Times reports the findings of the National Survey of Student Engagement:  “[b]usiness majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field . . . nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class.”  Another finding from the sociologist authors of “Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses” is that “business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. And when business students take the GMAT . . . they score lower than students in every other major.” The article distinguishes between the most competitive undergraduate business programs and those “much below Business Week’s top 50.”  It cites three sources for the problem:  undergraduate business programs have a disproportionate number of students not motivated by intellectual curiosity “who approach college in purely instrumental terms, as a plausible path to a job;”  there is no consensus among business programs “about what students ought to learn or how they ought to learn it;” and “with large student-faculty ratios and no lab equipment, business has historically been cheaper to operate than most departments.”  The Times followed up yesterday with comments from various deans, academics, and others familiar with undergraduate business education.

Where does the School of Management fall? “Engagement” is one of my most important grading criteria.  Some of our students are disengaged, distinguished by their academic apathy.  Some are as fully engaged as a teacher could hope.  Some become engaged on our watch. (Teachers live for that.) Some cannot fathom why they must take any course unrelated to what they think they need to know to make money. Some view their education as a simple business transaction:  I pay tuition, after four years you deliver a high-paying job.  Some understand their education is a process that began years before they started college and will continue for the rest of their lives.

How does a business school ensure that its degree is not devalued by under-engaged students?  Find, foster, and perpetuate engagement with great students, great faculty, and great courses.  How?  If it were as easy as developing slogans the problem wouldn’t exist.  Increasing the value of our degree is our new dean’s focus–I figure Ken will be “new dean” until his first anniversary.