7 Myths about Why Higher Education is Failing

Okay, so I should just stop claiming that one of the purposes of this blog isn’t to talk about the current failings with higher education because obviously I can’t stop blogging about it.

I’m also a little nervous to post this, because I know there are academics who read my blog, so please, believe me that I write this out of both genuine love of what we do and genuine frustration for where it’s headed when I say, dear fellow academics, I have a question for all of us:


Seriously, we do hear ourselves when we talk?  Because we’ve been talking about why higher education is failing for a while, why we’re putting an entire generation of young people in debt, why we’ve failed to create the diversity in our admissions and recruitment numbers we so desperately claim in our recruitment material, why we’ve failed to create safe spaces for young people, how we’ve failed to address the truly staggering rates of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, how we’ve allowed racism and sexism to fester among campus institutions like fraternities and social clubs, why we continue to admit students for professional and graduate degrees only to release them into a massively oversaturated market, why costs continue to skyrocket even as we double-down on adjunct and part-time teaching, and most important, why we still expect people to send us their children and a cheque for 50 grand if we can’t answer any of these questions?!  And as of yet, the answers we’ve come up with are both (a) unsatisfying and (b) often completely untrue.

My most recent exposure to our comically incompetent attempts to address our own failings comes from a special edition of Politics & Political Science that actually came out in 2013, which lists several problems facing higher education and asks four leading political sciences to address them, which they sort of do.  Unfortunately, most of the problems aren’t actually threats to higher education (or are only tangentially related), and most of the solutions are … well, oversimplified at best.  The whole symposium is also a fantastic example of how smart people get stupid when talking about things they care about – I particularly like on page 86 (second paragraph), when the author outright contradicts existing evidence when it comes to classroom versus internet learning – “Although recent quantitative comparisons have concluded the opposite (Means et al. 2010), it seems reasonable to assume that researchers will eventually be able to document the benefits of in-person over online education.”  Nothing like basing our revolution on what seems reasonable to us, the traditional institution!

However, reading it made me realize just how often I’ve read these arguments, and just how persuasive they seem when framed in academic language with citations and charts and tables.  So in response, 7 myths about why higher education is failing:

1. It’s because of the internet.  The PS symposium doesn’t even beat around the bush on this one – it’s the internet’s fault: “The first attack on the traditional brick-and-mortar university came from the Internet, which made knowledge previously attainable only on college campuses available to all. Today, Khan Academy, YouTube Edu, Academic Earth, and other outlets make educational videos available for free; many of these videos cover topics that would be standard in many college curricula, particularly in mathematics, engineering, and science (Kolowich 2011; Sengupta 2011). The Internet also makes it possible for people from all over the world to find practice exams, problem sets, visual examples and walk-throughs, worksheets, lecture notes, academic presentations, interactive exercises, webinars, and more for free.”

Oh no!  People learning stuff!  Not in a classroom!

Okay, yes, I know that’s not what they mean, and on some level, they’re right – the internet has completely changed how we access information.  But to be fair, there was free, public information available before the internet, in the form of libraries, museums, public K-12 schools, public lectures, encyclopedias, almanacs, and just ordinary, person-to-person conversations.  It wasn’t that there was no publicly-available, free information before the internet, it’s that there was a lot less of it, and it was a lot harder to find without already knowing what you were looking for.

Moreover, the availability of information online doesn’t need to be a threat to higher education, if higher ed was willing to adapt to what’s online.  Honestly, if you’re teaching a math or science course that could now be replaced by YouTube Ed or Academic Earth, I’m sorry to break this to you, but your math or science course sucked.  Education has been moving away from the base absorption of facts for the last century; the internet just gave that process a massive kick forward.  Indeed, the example the PS authors give as the biggest threat to higher ed from the internet – library resources – is also its greatest potential benefit.  Imagine not needing a library to have a university. It could substantially decrease operational costs and substantially increase the range of subjects taught, as subjects would no longer be confined by what resources are in the library.  In theory, access to more information should always make education better, not destroy it forever.

2. It’s because of for profit education.  Again, on this one, the PS authors don’t hold back.  “The third wave of attack comes from the still fast growing group of large for-profit (or “career”) universities, which have the same accreditation as traditional universities but have the intention and potential to scale up to much larger size.”  Interestingly, though, they never really demonstrate how the rise of for-profit higher ed impacts traditional higher education.

I’ve talked before about how repugnant I find for-profit education, but when it comes to threats to higher education, this one is just nonsense.  For-profit institutions are not a threat to traditional higher education because they don’t compete, they share the market.  No student is considering Harvard or the University of Phoenix, and traditional higher ed is only attempting to be a competitor to one of those institutions (and here’s a hint, it’s not University of Phoenix).  In fact, one of the things that has gotten for-profit education in trouble is its lack of admissions standards, something University of Phoenix has recently announced that it’s changing.

The only threat from for-profit education is to traditional higher ed’s reputation, by calling attention to the massively disadvantageous system of loans and financial administration that traditional, nonprofit higher ed also benefits from.  For-profit higher ed companies have been very successful in the last decade expanding the federal laws regarding student financial aid, again something that nonprofit higher ed also benefits from.  It’s a bit like a drug dealer setting up right outside a shady pharmacist’s office – the pharmacist wants to get rid of the drug dealer, not because he cares about his community, but because he doesn’t want the cops coming around.

3. We’re tired of all these m*f*ing administrators on this m*f*ing college campuses!  The PS articles largely steer clear of this one, but there are more than enough other examples, most recently this article from the New York Times, claiming to ‘reveal’ the ‘real’ reason behind university costs (despite this being the claim that universities themselves have put forward for a decade).  The Times cite the very real fact that the number of university administrators has consistently risen for the last fifty years to claim these people are responsible for fattening up university budgets.  There are a number of flaws for this theory.

First, “administrator” is the university catch-all term for many kinds of non-exempt staff.  In any university, you’re either faculty or staff, and often any staff member who is paid a salary is an “administrator.”  So the category includes everything from HR to the office of budget to the housing and catering staff.  And as someone who works in university administration, you bet your ass there are a lot of us.  That’s because universities are incredibly large and complicated institutions.  We’re a research institute that also teaches thousands of students and awards them degrees, monitors their progress after graduation (mostly to get money out of them), while also running several hotels and restaurants to provide for them while they’re here.  We have to have the institutional infrastructure of a research institute, a school, a foundation, a financial campaign, a hotel, and a restaurant.  Some elements of those can be combined – human resources, accounts payable, purchasing, and financial management, for example, are usually university-wide offices – but even within these university-wide offices, personnel need a really massive range of skills and expertise to accommodate all of the various needs of the institution.

Even if there were a huge number of unnecessary staff members in a university, it can’t be the case that our cushy, six-figure salaries are fattening up the budget because we don’t get paid that much.  The Chronicle of Higher Education collects detailed salary data, and it’s always demonstrated the same thing – the only administrators who make six figure salaries are the President and Chiefs (CEO, COO, etc), VPs/heads of divisions, Provosts, in-house counsel (whose salaries have to be comparable to private lawyers), sports coaches (because of course they do), and Deans and some Chairs.  However, those last two categories are highly deceptive because deanships and chairships are often held by faculty members, particularly to faculty members who lose funding.  Like the university’s lawyers, deanships and chairships have to pay that much to be comparable to faculty salaries.  The remainder of professional positions in a university, including ‘nonresearch deanships’ (ie. deanships held by nonfacutly members) are significantly lower, and often even lower than comparable positions outside of higher education.  In fact, if you go through CEH’s data, one of the things that pops out over and over again is that salary is determined by education level, so that people who do comparable jobs are getting paid more simply for having a PhD, regardless of whether that degree is relevant to their job.  It’s hard not to feel like that’s because people with PhDs set the salary ranges.

4. Professors can’t do their jobs anymore!  It’s a madhouse!  A!  MAD!  HOUSE!!!  There are two halves to this myth – first, that professors are now hemmed in by crazy expectations of political correctness, and second, that their day-to-day lives are consumed with administration and paperwork (which obviously ties in with number 3 – what do all these administrators do when our poor professors are doing all the admin work themselves!).

The first half is hinted at by one of the PS responses when the author talks about how ‘quirky’ professors are: “And we do honestly believe, although we have to do a much better job of articulating this, that it is far better to educate young adults in a vibrant and eclectic intellectual campus patrolled by brilliant, inquisitive, undisciplined, and (not infrequently) ornery university professors than in specialist teaching academies staffed by finely honed and hyper-effective teachers. Whisper this quietly, but we are unreservedly prepared, and we are not wrong, to sacrifice (some) pure teaching effectiveness to expose students to (sometimes) shambolic but ferociously creative thinkers.”

After a decade in universities, including conversations with a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds, I can say, without hesitation, that “vibrant,” “eclectic,” “undisciplined,” “ornery,” “shambolic” and “ferociously creative” are all code for racist, (cis)-sexist, homophobic, ableist, and classist.

Universities are not bastions of liberal diversity, despite what all of our brochures imply.  Even as undergraduate classes continue to slowly tick upwards in terms of diversity, there is still almost no diversity among university faculty, particularly among full faculty.  At the same time, however, and as I’ve talked about before, there is a deepseated belief that “freethinking” is a movement somehow separate from questions of civil and human rights, that there’s such a thing as a “freethinking movement” that has always aimed to question everything and spread skepticism across the land while only being populated by white, straight, middle class men.

This myth of our “freethinking” past is particularly strong in universities.  Professors today complain nonstop about “PC policing” and “trigger warnings” ruining their ability to challenge their students, apparently unaware that there are perfectly vibrant conversations taking place online (on the evil internet!) everyday that manage to engage directly with complicated issues while also allowing their readers to opt out of discussions they feel will damage them personally.  Professors could use the same policies, if they bothered to seek them out, but instead, they harken back to their own experiences of higher education, which, depending on their age and background, often involves harkening back to a time before integrated or co-ed education, in which many of their students would have been actively and violently excluded from the conversation, apparently blissfully unaware of this complication.  For those of us in academia who are not straight, white, middle class, able-bodied cis men, it’s hard not to hear that as “it was so much easier to talk about you when you weren’t in the room.”

This myth of the bound academic, swimming against the tide of political correctness, may help explain why, despite the occasional wave to diversity, and despite having developed many of the tools and methodologies for studying the effects of bigotry, we’re so terrible at applying those tools to ourselves.  For my reading, at no point in the PS articles does anyone discuss privilege, bigotry or bias, which is a pretty big oversight for talking about the failures of higher education.

The other half of the myth, that academics are weighed down by admin work, is really just the intersection of number 3 and the myth of the history of higher education (number 5).  For whatever reason, many professors seem to think that their job should involve absolutely nothing but research and teaching, and really only what they personally think constitutes research and teaching.  I’ve actually had a professor make the “I’m doing too much admin” complaint about submitting grades.  Seriously.  He was okay teaching the class, but submitting the grades at the end of term – that was too much.

In my experience, a big part of this half of the myth stems from a simple lack of understanding of higher education as a job, and what the standard requirements of a job are.  This makes sense considering how many academics enter university and never leave.  Being expected to do administrative work that explains, reports, or transmits your work isn’t something in addition to your job; that is your job.  It doesn’t count if your employer can’t easily find evidence for it.

For example, academics complain about having to report on their work to a superior, apparently unaware that probably 99% of all currently employed people have to do this. Even directors and CEOs usually have to answer to investors or a board.  Similarly, I’ve had loads of academics complain about how many meetings they attend, apparently unaware that committees are artificial things that they could choose to disband or reorganize, if they could get enough supporting votes from other people.  And again, I think everyone on the planet probably thinks they attend too many meetings – there’s probably a shepherd somewhere in the world complaining about too many sheepherding meetings right now.

5. Universities are preserving centuries-old traditions.  Again, the PS article goes hard for this one: “for hundreds of years: universities are not only the primary stewards of the scientific community but the most sought after way to become educated.”  In reality, only a handful of universities can claim to have been doing anything for hundreds of years – there are maybe a thousand universities worldwide that date from before the 19th century, and many of those are no longer well-ranked (and most of them are in Italy.  Apparently the Italians loved founding universities).  In the case of the US, by 1900, there were fewer than 1000 universities in the country total (today, not including for-profit universities, there are more than 4000).  Among those thousand, the newer institutions, particularly those in the Midwest and farther west, were often smaller institutions that did admit students from a range of backgrounds (including the emergence of schools specifically for the education of women and people of color, the oldest of which appeared in the US in the early nineteenth century), but the older and more illustrious universities, like the Ivy League, were exclusively and unabashedly elite organizations that only admitted children from upper class backgrounds.

The expansion of higher education, both in terms of the number of institutions and the number of students admitted, took place in the twentieth century, and the two biggest periods of expansion correspond to the two biggest reforms to federal funding for students – the 1950s, with the GI bill, and the 1960s and 70s with the Great Society reforms.  Essentially, more people could get money to go to college, so entrepreneurial folks set up a bunch of new colleges for them to attend.

So what?  Well, when we talk about the centuries-old traditions of higher education being corrupted by commercialism and consumerism, we’re really misrepresenting the facts.  The easy majority of colleges in the US exist today because of federal financial aid – it’s not a corruption of their core principles that they’re trying to get the most students and the most aid money; that’s exactly why they were founded.  Moreover, the ‘traditional’ education program that academics are fighting to preserve just isn’t that traditional – until the big education booms in the twentieth century, a PhD was not normally required for professorships, and plenty of universities didn’t even offer graduate programs (and again, arguably many of these were invented to be cash cows – that’s not a modern perversion, either).  Many early graduate programs were based on the German model, which didn’t have a thesis component and was sometimes more of a long-service award, recognizing anyone who had participated in the faculty for a certain period of time.  The tenure system is similarly a twentieth-century innovation, and only became a written, contractual arrangement in the 1970s following a pair of Supreme Court cases about professorial contracts and dismissals.

All in all, we’re essentially fighting to preserve a system that really only dates from the 1960s and 70s.  Like the myth of professors being hemmed in by political correctness, it’s hard not to see this as at least in part professors today harkening back to their own experiences as students, without thinking critically about the ‘institutions’ and ‘traditions’ they’re defending.

6. Universities are necessary to keep research alive.  This one is tough, and I admit, I even believe this one a little bit.  So let’s be clear – there is a crapload of research being done by universities that’s simply not going to be done anywhere else because it’s not productive enough, it’s too expensive, or it’s not going to produce any kind of marketable product.

However, there’s a big difference between saying that some kinds of research are done by universities and nowhere else and saying that research itself will end, full stop.  And the latter has just never been true.  Huge research advancements have been made by private industry, military development, and by crazy-determined people working out of their basements.  To take a few of the most cliched examples – the transistor, which is essential for basically all forms of personal electronics, was invented by the Bell corporation to make telephone switchboards work more efficiently; wifi and cellphones are both based on military technology (the former of which is also based on the frequency-hopping spread spectrum invention of Heady Lamar, who started inventing to help with the war effort and because she was bored of her acting career); and both Apple and Microsoft were founded by college dropouts, initially working out of their homes.

Indeed, if we want to talk about preserving traditional education, prior to the education booms of the twentieth century, it was commonplace for research to be done by ordinary civilians who happened to have an interest in a particular field.  In the case of my own field, some of the most important scholars were never or only ever briefly professors –  Alphonse Mingana, one of the founders of Syriac studies, came to the US to work at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Section and spent most of his life as a librarian of Arabic manuscripts; Montgomery Watts, who wrote two of the first widely-used English biographies of the Prophet (pbuh) was a priest and an Arabic interpreter for the Anglican church in Jerusalem, and although he was a professor, I don’t think he had a PhD; William Nassau Lees, who produced many of the first English translations of Arabic histories, was an army chaplain stationed in Calcutta, and E A Wallis Budge, who produced the first English translation of the Syriac history of Bar Hebraeus and was a curator for the British Museum, left school when he was twelve and (rather famously in my field) supposedly studied Assyrian on his lunch break from WH Smith (a British stationery shop), eventually catching the eye of the staff of the British museum, who helped raise money to send him to Cambridge.

Again, like the myth of universities’ ancient traditions, as academics we need to be honest that the idea that how you become a researcher is to go to college, go to grad school, do a postdoc, and then become a professor is really a twentieth century innovation, and has never been universally true, even in the last century, so that the continued variations to how research is done created by new technologies and increased ease of communication is really just a new variation on a very old theme.

7. They’re not!  Everything’s gonna be fine!  As someone who works in academia, I certainly want this to be true, but I don’t think it will be.  All of the things that I ranted about at the start of this post are true.  In addition, higher education in this country isn’t just getting more expensive – because of the federal financial aid programs, it’s becoming increasingly dependent on pooled, collective debt, something that did not end well for either the stock market or the housing market.  And when the education bubble bursts, it’s going to both decimate our education and research capacities and destroy the lives of thousands of young people who just wanted to get an education.  That’s a terrible position to be in, and there’s every reason for us to be trying to address these problems.  But we need to do so honestly, not hiding behind myths and a concept of tradition younger than many of our faculty members.  We need to be willing to consider serious changes and massive overhauls, including potentially losing things we consider integral to the system, like being high-contact institutions.  We maybe should also listen to our data on that one, that low-contact and online learning styles aren’t worse than in-classroom learning.

We also need to be prepared for a lot of the problems to be our fault, since we’ve been the ones running the show, and be prepared to talk honestly about issues of bigotry and bias, and about how we’ve allowed these problems to fester even to the point of endangering our students safety and wellbeing, in large part because we just didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to talk about it.  We can’t fix the past, but there are a lot of counts on which we also can’t defend it.

Above all, I feel like we need to brace ourselves that universities now are probably not going to look like they did in the 1970s.  That’s fine – universities in the 1970s didn’t look like those in the 1920s, either.  But for the love of all that’s good, we have to pull our heads out of the sand and accept those changes because the potential downside of failing to adapt is truly terrifying.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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6 Responses to 7 Myths about Why Higher Education is Failing

  1. You forgot my favorite: kids these days!! Acting like because they’re paying tuition they’re customers and therefore always right!! And should just be handed the diplomas they’re paying for!!

    • Oh god, yes! I feel like there is so much ‘kids these days’ underpinning all of this. Especially in how we treat debt – I’ve heard so many academics who had no sympathy for students in debt, as if it’s reasonable to expect 18 year olds to manage massive debt successfully!

      • I honestly can’t have any respect for academics who say things like that. Like, what, it’s reasonable for an 18 year old high school senior to ignore the ingrained mantra of their entire culture (“go to college get a job don’t go to college work at mcd’s for the rest of your life”) and make a rational and educated decision about what the best move for them is going forward? Because I know so many 18 year olds who are like, “it’s definitely better for me to skip college and get a job and save money so that when I DO go to college I can pay for it in cash.” Mostly what I hear is “LOL BROS I’M IN OAKS 6 WHO WANTS TO GET HIGH TONIGHT AT ORIENTATION”

      • Yeah, I really don’t understand that logic at all either. It seems so obvious to me that loans are unfairly marketed to young people – we wouldn’t give an 18 year old a home loan or a small business loan because it’s generally agreed that they’re not mature enough and don’t have enough experience managing their finances. And at least with a home loan, you also have a home to live in! College loans just overload young people with expenses and guarantee they have bad credit straight out of the gate!

        It’s also sad how many academics I know who just really don’t care about loans or overhauling the loan system. They may pay occasional lipservice to it, but I’ve heard so many professors say things like “oh, students don’t really pay for their degrees because all of the money comes from the government” or “it’s really not that much money anyways.” And in terms of professors trying to preserve their nostalgic idea of what college ‘should’ be like from the 1960s and 70s, the loans are crazy different in value – my folks went to college for pennies compared to what my sister and I spent!

  2. Great article….I will be following

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