Blog author: ken.larson
by on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In the opening scenes of the classic movie version of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” the narrator tells us that the newspaper boy we are watching toss papers onto the porches nearby will go on to college — an ivy league college I recall — but is sent to Europe during WWI and dies. “All that education for nothing,” he laments.

Naomi Riley has written another book about academia. The large type on the book jacket reads “The Faculty Lounges”  but under that banner is the book’s real warning: “… and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for.”

That second part is addressed to the payer, and in most cases, the payer is mom and dad. So if you’re a mom or dad you’d best take a look at this offering from Ms. Riley while the kids are still in grade school and start your homework lessons on where you’re likely to get the best bang for your buck. Because although Riley offers good suggestions and a smattering of potential improvements to the business plans of America’s college and university campuses, they aren’t likely to be implemented on any large scale by the time little Jimmie or his sister is ready for college. The wheels of the academy turn slowly.

In a recent column reflective of his tv shows, John Stossel remarks, “What puzzles me is why the market doesn’t punish colleges that don’t serve their customers well. The opposite has happened: Tuitions have risen four times faster than inflation.”

That reality and more is provided in Faculty Lounges but not by tv personalities. No, the sources of Ms. Riley’s information in many cases are members of the education establishment themselves. And they’re not very forgiving in the criticism.

But Stossel’s comments are poignant. As consumers, parents and the children they finance through four or more years of college tuition, room and board are getting screwed to put it bluntly, or at least defrauded, and nobody seems to care about the protection these consumers aren’t getting. Certainly not the education industry.

You can only get the full picture by reading the book but I can tell you that faculty tenure and the unreal situation it nurtures is a big piece of why college costs so much and continues to get more expensive. Imagine having a workforce that agreed to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2:00, notwithstanding the time it takes for lunch? But despite that work schedule continues to be paid like a full time 40 hours per week employee. Now imagine having an entire workforce of such folks but a physical plant with classroom space based on a capacity that is suited to having students in the rooms from 8 am to 5 pm. In business we call it underutilized plant capacity. It’s the reason you have a night shift or swing shift when business is booming.

In the surreal world of academia, such concepts would never be discussed. Instead, buildings continue to be built, new departments funded and staffed, and tuition raised, raised, and raised again. Where will it end? A tilting point is often reached when mom and dad, facing financial calamity or at the least really tough times, tell little Jimmie to find a job and put college on hold. That’s what happened to my mom and dad in 1932. They met and were married a few years later.

One thing stands out in the many anecdotes in this book and that is how the undergrads financially support the graduate programs. If you know someone who has been accepted or is participating in a PhD program you might have also been told that the tuition, room and board and a stipend were part of the deal. Of course these opportunities are only available to really bright kids but still, haven’t you wondered who’s paying the bills. Well, it’s you and your undergrad. And who’s taking care of the tenured professor’s classes? one of his grad students. And not getting paid for it either. That’s a good reason to think twice about little Jimmie attending the prestigious university with the myriad of researching scholars.

For many, tenure or lifetime job security is what makes the academic life palatable. Yet many use the “academic freedom” argument to make their case. Liberals argue that they’d never survive proposing their enlightenment theories without the protection of tenure. Conservatives argue that they’d never be able to come out of the political closet without tenure. Both making this case in a country that links its founding to freedom of speech, assembly, faith. It makes you wonder if anybody could pass a civics test — teacher and student alike.

Of course all of this talk of college, money and careers has been the subject of the month of June since school calendars were first printed. Books rush to the shelves and abound on how to get into college; is college for everyone; the missing “core” curriculum; and is it all worth the money. But until we consumers really start to push back, it’s likely that for many schools, nothing will change despite the revelations and suggestions like those in Riley’s book. And it’s parents who have to lead here. And either way prepare their children for life with a eye on the unexpected and the common sense to avoid danger.

In April a Yale senior astronomy and physics major was found dead in a college lab. She was working alone during the night with a machine tool — a lathe — and somehow her hair which was long and dangling had been wrapped around the spinning chuck and she had either choked or her neck was broken. Some, reacting to the tragedy, blamed Yale for not sufficiently supervising her.

“All that education for nothing.”


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

    A friend of mine whom I respect (and who happens to be a hard working tenured professor) had recently promoted the work of this institute.  I thought I’d give it another look but have not been impressed at all.  This article was absolutely ridiculous.  As someone who has been a campus pastor at a university and presently pastor a church attended by numerous faculty and graduate students, I can assure you that this critique is absolutely ridiculous. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.m.haines Andrew Haines

    This is a curious look at the topic of tenure. I’ll take the chance, here, to make a case on behalf of those who will be seeking tenured positions in academia in the coming years (myself included).

    Mr. Larson astutely points out a few of the glaring problems facing higher education today: super-inflated tuition, over-dependence on graduate teaching assistants, a lacking sense of what it means to put in a “good day’s work,” etc. I, too, think there’s something amiss when, as Stossel says, these things somehow evade correction by the market. Something artificial prevents that from happening. And it’s pretty clearly — at least in great part — related to tenure.

    On the other hand, rather than suggesting an annihilation of the tenure system — something Mr. Larson seems to favor in his talk of constitutional freedoms sufficing as job security — maybe there’s a way to fix the system while at the same time preserving the unique benefits it offers.

    I for one found this article to be a bit dismissive of the value of good, old fashioned research. Sure, many of the tensions alluded to exist because some faculty mistreat their right to spend time out of the classroom. But the fact of the matter is that the human capital we’ve invested so much money in still exists throughout the university system; we just have to find a way to make it count for something rather than nothing.

    In short, university presidents — with loyal deans at their sides — have the power to change the tides, specifically by enacting policies that incentivize active research and publishing. (And when I say “active,” I don’t simply mean in terms of quantity but also quality.) Presumably, major advances in both the hard sciences and humanities are worth their weight in gold. We’ve got plenty of gold, now we have to make the advances.

    At any rate, I suspect the problems mentioned here (and presumably in the book) wouldn’t be solved by abolishing tenure altogether. That seems to be a shortcut to a solution, but one that misses the core of the matter: namely, that many academics simply don’t possess the intellectual and personal curiosity necessary to maintain and improve upon the foundations that make academia such a treasure to civilization. Creative policy changes and more careful hiring — not the abolishment of tenure — would be a better first step in making sure that treasure goes unsquandered.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

    One irony of this piece is its appeal to a consumer mentality– encouraging students to see view themselves as “customers.”  The fact is that it is just that mentality that contributes to the inflating costs of tuition.  In order to retain students, universities have to build fabulous exercise facilities with climbing walls and cafeterias offering wood-fired pizzas. 

  • Ken Larson

    To both Mr. Roeda and Mr. Haines I first want to remind you that the article was meant as a kind of book review, albeit one whose theme found some receptiveness with me. If you are members or aspiring members of the academy or their friends you may have seen much of what Ms. Riley describes but I could only touch on. You may know that even at prestigious schools, Freshmen with high school GPA’s of 3.86 are nudged into remedial writing and math labs so as to make their efforts in class understandable to the TA’s who in many cases grade their work. 
    The best way to test the book is to read it and I refer you to the Amazon link above. It’s not expensive. 

    As to the matter of dealing with education from the perspective of being a consumer and wanting some of the benefits of a fair exchange, you seem to look disparagingly at my point so I’ll explain. And I agree that climbing walls and cafeteria menus that rival food courts at the most well known shopping malls in the country are b.s. and over the top. But so too is 24/7 attachment to an electronic device that allows you to leave the house without any idea of what the day will be like and have your every moment consumed by a gaze into the 2″ x 4″ screen as you grow to not even notice the device hanging over your ear. Do you really need that? Do all the people not in your bubble need to see and hear you needing that?

    I paid for my children’s college mostly out of cash flow. On days when I would get a phone call and learn that the ice storm had cancelled classes I wondered out loud when the class would be made up. The same went for times when papers were not returned for weeks, mid term exams cancelled due to a professor’s car breakdown or sick relative. When I called dean’s offices and asked how tuition credits would be made to my account — that plumbers didn’t get paid when they didn’t fix the leak or even show up — I could see that I was walking on new ground with these people. Most kids they advised me don’t complain or tell their parents when classes are cancelled.

    And please understand, the school I’m talking about is one of the best. And I love their mission. But this way of looking at the system as a customer is what Ms. Riley touches on and it’s relevant, Mr. Roeda. And in the case of public academies [my kids attended private colleges] the ever present factor is with the school’s assumption that the private property [money] of an individual can be claimed by the state and then used as it is in these large wasteful factories to guarantee eternal income to some when such a bargain is not available to the citizens. That is immoral. 

    As Fr. Sirico writes in “A Moral Basis for Liberty” — “A purely secular state of mind exalts skill above faith, technique above prayer, the practical above the principled, relativism above standards of faith.” 

    • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.m.haines Andrew Haines

      I should clarify: I realize the article was somewhat of a review; but the points upon which I disagreed with the article were more those that had an original voicing in your words, and not necessarily points to which I’ve not had access since I’ve not read the book. My apologies if that was unclear.

      To be honest, I don’t really follow your response. Perhaps it wasn’t intended as a reply to my initial comment so much as simply a justification of your own (understandable) frustration with shelling out big bucks to a largely non-responsive institution. I can sympathize, truly.

      Again, though, I don’t think anything you’ve offered on the personal level leads (necessarily, or even convincingly) to the conclusion that the abolition of tenure would do much to fix the bigger problems of the academy in the long run. I hold, still, that such a solution is a mere shortcut, and that it misses what’s really at stake — a portion of which is alluded to by Jordan and Roger in their comments.

  • Roger McKinney

    Don’t worry about education. Most of the problems with it are the result of the state lavishing money on it. As the debt/budget crisis grows worse, state spending on education will collapse. Schools will go broke and those that remain will compete on price and quality for private dollars.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

      And, Roger, you don’t see any problems with the university depending on private dollars?  What happens when academic research is all funded by corporate dollars?  I thought Inside Job did a remarkable job of showing the kinds of conflict of interests that arise.  This American Life also did a pretty damning expose of Penn State and its relationship to the Natural Gas Industry.  Your post, Roger, strikes me as both cynical and naive.

      • Roger McKinney

        No I don’t. All university education depended on private
        dollars exclusively until the GI bill after WWII, and it didn’t do too badly.

         

        I see a lot of problems with government funded education and
        research. Privately funded research produces useful results. The state funds
        mostly waste and fraud.

         

        Your faith in bureaucrats is irrational. You can cure that
        by reading anything from the public choice school of political economy founded by
        Nobel Prize winner Buchanan.

         

        Study the history of DEA funding in energy research. A
        Congressional bi-partisan committee declared it a total waste of hundreds of
        billions of dollars.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

          “Your faith in faith in bureaucrats is irrational.”  Just because I express reservations about the kinds of conflict of interests that can be created by corporate funding, I suddenly have an irrational faith in bureaucrats? 

          • Roger McKinney

            Yes, I think you do. You see no conflicts of interest in government funding of education and research when they are abundant and egregious.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

            Tthere are possible conflicts of interest when research is federally funded.  I don’t deny that at all.  Remember this all started as a critique of your point about private funding.  I was simply saying it was overly simplistic.  That doesn’t mean that swinging the opposite direction isn’t also overly simplistic.

  • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan Ballor

    I do think higher education is in a crisis, and it is a complex one; not merely economic, but spiritual, cultural, and intellectual as well. Here’s one recent data point among many, many others: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/the-history-of-college-grade-inflation/

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

      It’s a data point that illustrates the problems with a consumer mentality. 

      • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan Ballor

        There’s certainly a problem with treating 18 year-olds like “customers” who are “always right.” But I’m not sure grade inflation is attributable only to that mentality. It seems to me it also has to do with an egalitarian impulse and the idea that in order to fulfill the American dream you must get a college degree, which quickly turns into a “right” financed by student loans, and so on. A school isn’t a business or a church or a government and the metrics (quantifiable and non-quantifiable) should be tailored to the institution’s unique telos, it seems to me. So I think it’s right to critique when “market” or “consumer” ways of thinking are simply transposed into other contexts (e.g. church consistories!). But again, I don’ think that’s the only thing going on in the crisis of higher education and it’s reductionistic to claim that.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

          No, I wouldn’t say that grade inflation is solely attributable to students thinking “the customer is always right”– as though students themselves are solely to blame.  In fact, I agree with what you’ve written.  I would simply say that what you’ve written illustrates the pervasiveness of a consumer mentality and the problems with it.  Grade inflation being one.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Roeda/2260805 Mark Roeda

    The issue here is not whether I have concerns about the skyrocketing cost of tuition and whether it’s worth it.  I think it’s nuts.

    But I don’t take a lot of comfort in your vision for specialized education options. It may be inevitable simply because the consumer mentality has become so pervasive.  “I just want to learn what I want to learn in order to make the money I want to make.”  You don’t find that troubling at all?  You don’t want to defend a liberal arts education? I sure as H do.

    The problem is that we’ve reduced education to simply a means of earning income.  Education is not valued as a good in and of itself.  This isn’t just an issue in higher education it’s what we teach kids early on– except then we focus on grades. 

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  • northern MN girl

    Something to consider with this discussion is the perceived “need” of a college education in order to get a good job.  Right now in northern MN, for example, a skilled tradesman with two
    years of post secondary education, in today’s market can make
    upwards of $70,000/year plus benefits. Few college grads, even
    if they complete their degrees in 4 years and are successfully
    employed, will see such income for a decade or more. Add in the cost of the 4 years of loans, and one would wonder why a graduating senior would not consider becoming a welder or a plumber instead.  There is a shortage of skilled tradesmen right now.  Why do we think everyone needs a 4-year degree?

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