(Higher) Educational Lament

Now that I’ve been teaching for a couple of years, I see a few things over which I lament.

One thing I’ve lamented since my own college days (in the early 1980s) is the high rate of inflation in higher education. From the time I started college to the time I finished (three and a half years), tuition doubled. Fortunately it hasn’t kept up at that rate, but it is generally now at least ten times what is was in those days. I lament that college is harder to afford for so many.

College is not, however, completely unaffordable. One of the great things we have are community colleges. These offer an increasing array of opportunities to students. Now as they have more agreements with other institutions, some four year degrees can be completed through the institution.

Other institutions also often turn out to be more affordable than one might assume from looking at their price tags. But this leads to a second lament: that much of this education is being funded by the easy availability of student loans. On the one hand, I lament that so many students are piling up huge debts. Too many pile up huge debts and then fail to graduate. Others graduate, but their field of study combined with the current economy leaves them unable to attain financial security and pay off their loans. On the other hand, some students are deceived into thinking that the loans are free money, leading them not only to take on more debt than they can handle, but also inclining them to devalue their education. The money “magically” appears each semester. It seems to cost nothing. That which costs nothing is not as highly valued as that which is perceived as costing a lot. I think students would put more effort into their education if they felt that they were paying for it. But the fact that they are not now paying for it masks that fact, making it easy to slack off.

I don’t know the way around this. As college costs rise, those costs need to be paid somehow. Loans have been the main strategy of choice lately. For at least a fair percentage of students this strategy is working neither educationally or financially.

I also lament the standardization of teaching. I moved to Texas when I was in high school. One aspect of the culture where I lived was the telling of Aggie jokes. One of the jokes I heard went like this.

Bob the Aggie was overjoyed to hear from NASA that had been selected for the space program. After extensive training, he was finally assigned to a mission. The flight coordinator explained, “Now Bob, you will have a partner in your mission. He is a highly trained monkey. You will each have a series of tasks to perform. The mission depends on both of you doing your part. When the red light in the capsule comes on, there will be an instruction for the monkey. When the green light comes on, there will be an instruction for you.” Bob indicated that he understood. Well the day came and the capsule was launched into space. Bob was so excited – he was in space and would soon start doing the work of an astronaut. The red light came on with instructions for the monkey: “Reduce thrusters.” The monkey complied, adjusting the thrusters. Soon the red light came on again: “Check and adjust atmospheric gasses.” The monkey performed this task, too, without a hitch. After several more instructions came through for the monkey Bob was overjoyed when the green light finally came on. His instruction from mission control? “Feed the monkey.”

The quest for productivity, efficiency and effectiveness, is leading to increasing reliance on technology in higher education. I like technology. As much as I can afford it, I’m an early adopter. The level of automation in educational technology, however, sometimes leaves me feeling like the days are approaching when most faculty will be reduced to being like Bob: feeding the monkey. It will be our jobs to monitor the systems and courseware, all envisioned and created by someone else. The idea that faculty will have independent judgment about what should be taught in a given subject and how that material should be taught will give way to the proven strategies offered by the major publishers or the MOOC material put out by the big name people.

What’s the solution to these laments? I don’t know. We’ll see.

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