Posted by: Jeff | January 28, 2011

“Winning the Future” and the Crisis in Higher Education

President Obama’s State of the Union speech prominently featured education as a core tenet of his “winning the future strategy” – a series of platitudes about preparing and equipping young people today for the innovations needed of them tomorrow.  Pointing for the need for innovation and discovery in the realm of science and alternative energy, Obama implied that innovation starts in the classroom.  He called for more and better teachers, as well as a new approach.

What he didn’t say, however, was that in the case of higher education at least, the old approach worked, and the new approach is failing.

The New York Times ran a series of commentaries on the state of higher education this week, and the reports were grim.  Students emerge from college less and less prepared for real life, and Universities struggle to adapt to a world of shrinking budgets and tougher admissions marketing.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension between admissions and academics in many major Universities not named Harvard or Yale.

In order to attract top students, colleges and Universities resort more and more frequently to pledges and promises about post-college life.  “If you come here, you’ll be prepared for a job in x.”  “Our students go on to successful careers in business, or law, or medicine.”  Admissions becomes an exercise in showing off alumni and not academics.

The tension this causes is that Universities then need to deliver upon the promise of pre-professional programs designed to prepare students for specific career paths.  Less emphasis is placed on the liberal arts and critical thought, and more emphasis is placed on the nuts and bolts of what students (and parents) feel they should be learning.  As budgets simultaneously shrink – or are diverted to marketing avenues – Universities put students into larger seminar rooms and scale back the curriculum.

According to Mark C. Taylor of Columbia University:

[E]ven well intentioned teachers who would like to do more for their students often face insurmountable difficulties. Growing financial problems make it virtually impossible to provide the kind of education students deserve. While faculty members and graduate students are being cut, many schools are trying to increase income by admitting more students.

When there is pressure to teach large classes to help the bottom line, the wisest policy is to assign little reading or writing and to grade easily. Teaching well takes lots of time and helping student to learn to read critically and write well cannot be done in lecture halls with hundreds of students.

This is a troubling development, and one that has a serious impact on students.  The result is that writing skills are down, critical thinking and analytical skills are down, and the ability of students to make cross-cutting inferences and apply knowledge to disparate areas is fading.  Students do not gain the skills they need to be well-rounded, capable of succeeding in any path they choose.  All emphasis is on the degree and the career, and not on the process.

The result is that students aren’t trying as hard, in part because they no longer need to.  Some troubling statistics from Philip Babcock:

Full-time college students in the 1960s studied 24 hours per week, on average, whereas their counterparts today study 14 hours per week. The 10-hour decline is visible for students from all demographic groups and of all cognitive abilities, in every major and at every type of college.

It is visible for students who work for pay while in college, as well as for those who don’t. Of course, new technologies could have made students more effective at studying than they used to be. But most of the decline in study times predates these technologies. Given that there is no evidence of rising preparedness of college students, the conclusion is hard to avoid: things have been made much easier.

Most of us in higher education believe that the skills that are truly worth acquiring involve hard work. Put simply, thinking requires effort.

If colleges no longer require this kind of effort, how could students hope to acquire these skills and how could colleges hope to instill them?

If we are to win the future as President Obama pledges, we need to think seriously about the objectives and outcomes of our higher education system.



  1. Hello, you used to write fantastic, but the last several posts have been kinda boring… I miss your great writings. Past few posts are just a little bit out of track! come on!

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