‘Cracks in the Ivory Tower’

Authors discuss their new book on "moral mess" of higher education.

May 24, 2019
 

A new book about higher education spares no players in academe today. The book criticizes administrators as wasteful, professors as more concerned about their own disciplines than student needs and students for cheating. Yes, Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education (Oxford University Press) likely will anger many Inside Higher Ed readers, even if different chapters may anger different readers.

The authors are Jason Brennan, the Flanagan Family Professor at Georgetown University, and Phillip W. Magness, senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

They responded via email to questions about their book.

Q: Your book criticizes many players in higher ed as responding to the wrong incentives. Let's start with administrators -- what do you see as the major flaw in their thinking?

A: Most administrators, we think, care about their jobs and the purpose they serve. Nevertheless, they face a common incentive problem.

Any given administrative unit has a clear sense of what it’s doing but only a vague sense of what else the university does. If administrators had purely altruistic motives, they would still have limited knowledge. They’d have an incentive to increase their budget, add new members and expand their mission. They would see the good they do, but they wouldn’t easily see the opportunity cost of such expansion -- the way it drives up costs for students or comes at the expense of other valuable pursuits. Since university resources are scarce, any money spent by one administrative unit must come from somewhere, and that means less money to do other things. But in real life, administrators are normal people. Like most people, they are predominantly if not entirely selfish. Many work in fields where it’s difficult to measure their output or get a clear sense of their value added. For any given administrator, the easiest ways to justify a salary increase, a promotion and/or increased status for yourself is to a) add additional staff beneath you, b) expand the kinds of things you and your office work on, and c) try to be as busy as possible. The same goes for entire units, which have an incentive to maximize their discretionary budget.

So every administrator and every unit has a selfish incentive to add people, activities and work. Since others pay the costs, they have little incentive to engage in cost-benefit analysis -- that is, to ask whether the marginal value of what they do is higher than the marginal value of the resources they consume to do it.

The result: the total number of full-time faculty at American universities has essentially doubled since the mid-1970s, but administrators have quadrupled in the same period. Today, there are more nonexecutive administrators in higher ed than faculty …

Q: Your book says universities are admitting too many Ph.D. students. Why do you think this is?

A: Everyone likes to blame the poor state of the academic job market -- especially in the humanities -- on alleged cuts to faculty lines … The problem is not that humanities jobs are disappearing, but that many academic fields are graduating new Ph.D.s even faster than their full-time job market grows.

U.S. Department of Education data (see, e.g., IPEDS tables 315.20 and equivalent in earlier reports) show that the total number of tenure-track assistant professors in four-year colleges has grown steadily since 2002, and is keeping pace with student enrollment … Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the total number of humanities professors (excluding part-timers) has not only increased by about 60,000 between 2000 and 2015, but that humanities professorship employment grew faster than any other field except all the health sciences.

The annual Survey of Earned Doctorates shows a similar pattern. In 2015, the humanities reported 1,383 full-time hires among newly minted Ph.D.s. The social sciences showed 1,215 hires (excluding psychology, which is sometimes categorized as a preprofessional discipline); life and agricultural sciences posted 920; math and computer science posted 441; engineering posted 399; and physical sciences posted 246 faculty commitments from the newest class of Ph.D. students …

The real problem is that while the humanities jobs are growing, Department of Education and other data sources show that the rate at which humanities departments graduate new Ph.D.s is even faster. So, the job market “shortage” is really job market glut of our own creation.

Both administrators and faculty have perverse selfish incentives to churn out Ph.D.s. (For example, professors in doctoral programs get free grading, higher salaries and more prestige.)

Q: Your book accuses professors of using general education as a tool to drive enrollments in certain disciplines. Isn't it possible that faculty members genuinely believe that a degree should be accompanied by more than the major, and that general education prepares a student for the future?

A: We believe that all college graduates should have a wide range of skills and knowledge not captured by any one major. But, unfortunately, empirical work shows gen eds don’t deliver the promised skills or knowledge. Most students do not gain any significant increase in their soft skills such as critical thinking or writing ability from gen eds -- and they generally become worse at mathematics unless they actively study it in their majors. Students forget most of what they learn outside of the narrow areas of their majors. Students don’t learn how to transfer their knowledge. College education falls far short of what most academics, including we, want it to achieve.

If faculty were genuinely interested in educating students, they’d pay great attention to work in educational psychology. They’d want to test to see what works and what doesn't, and they’d modify their methods accordingly. But most don’t do that. They just do the same old thing everyone’s done since the dawn of time, and they either yawn or get mad when you show them the scary studies saying it fails.

We also found that the more financially insecure a department is -- e.g., by having a high faculty-to-major ratio, declining enrollments, a bad job market or few opportunities for outside grants and revenue sources -- the more often its classes seem to appear as gen-ed requirements. Also, mandatory gen-ed credits have gotten more stringent over the years -- especially in writing composition, foreign languages and the “first-year experience” classes that many universities now require. Keep in mind that in most universities, the more butts in seats, the more money your department gets. If you can’t get volunteers to take your classes, you can always force students to take the classes instead and say it’s for their own good. It’s also pretty easy to convince yourself it really is for their own good.

A learning objective that looks good on paper ends up actually becoming a way to prop up departments that need enrollment, even though students are not learning much in their courses. And the students -- or others -- end up footing the bill through tuition payments on a largely ineffective product.

Q: Many of your criticisms seem to apply to institutions that have lots of money, many students, many programs, etc. I imagine a professor at a community college, or an adjunct or someone who works at a poorly resourced institutions that serves low-income students, saying that you are tarring them with the same brush. What would you say to that critique?

A: We focus mostly on four-year colleges, both rich and poor. Both face the same basic problems: they make promises they don’t know if they can keep, and that independent research shows they often fail to keep. They incentivize students to cheat, and students take the bait. They respond to perverse incentives to increase their budgets irrespective of actual value delivered. The primary form of feedback they issue to students is grades, even though psychological evidence shows that grades generally hinder learning, and even though, as we explain in the book, the mathematics of grade point average calculations are literally incoherent.

We suspect the problems are generally worse at institutions with weaker finances. Poorer colleges unfortunately draw a greater number of less prepared and lower-income students. You may know that there is a significant college wage premium. But you secure this premium only if you actually finish college. The sad fact, which we don’t know how to rectify, is that the bottom 50 percent or so of high school students (in terms of preparedness/aptitude/etc.) who begin college actually get a negative return on investment because they don’t finish. They spend time and money, often taking on significant debt they cannot repay, but don’t get the return of a completed degree. Unfortunately, many of these students also tend to be lower-income students, so the financial loss is very serious. Money isn’t the only thing that matters, sure, but it’s sure easier to say that when you have lots of it.

The adjunct issue is complex because, while adjunct faculty use has markedly increased in recent decades, it’s also typically tied to supplemental instruction, additional course offerings and reducing the teaching loads of other tenured faculty -- recall the stable 24-to-one ratio of full-time professors to enrolled students.

One point we stress in the book is that many of the unethical behaviors we see in higher ed also impose the heaviest costs upon underprivileged students. We might ask: Is it worth building a rock-climbing wall in the campus rec center, running a green sustainability drive on campus or doubling the staff of the advising office if these costs are also passed through onto students in tuition hikes and fees? Should we subsidize more faculty careers in unpopular majors if it also means saddling a first-generation college student from a lower-income background with decades of student loan debt?

Q: Are there colleges you think are well run today?

A: Brown University, Jason’s former employer, doesn’t have gen eds. The University of Chicago and Columbia University have specialized core programs which escape the criticism we make in our book, though that doesn’t mean these programs work. (We don’t know if they do.)

Hampshire College used narrative evaluations instead of grades, to its credit.

But, beyond that, our general answer is no, we can’t think of any institutions that are in general well run. Every institution we can think of makes the same basic mistakes and has the same failings.

Q: With "moral mess" in the subhead of your book, I have to ask about the admissions scandal. How does that relate to the issues you raise?

A: Jason works at Georgetown University, one of the schools involved. Georgetown’s former tennis coach allegedly accepted $2.7 million in bribes to help place about 12 students.

Universities are perplexing places. They are filled with left-leaning faculty (like Jason) and even more left-leaning staff and administrators who profess a commitment to social justice. Yet most universities work hard to increase their status by becoming ever more exclusive and elitist. Universities are hierarchical in their own operations, and reinforce other social hierarchies in their outcomes. They serve as gatekeepers of prestige, power and status. Many top institutions have plenty of physical capacity to expand the number of students they admit, but they instead work to keep admissions rates and the number of undergraduates as low as possible, all to enhance the elite status of their brand.

The main value of the Ivy League or equivalent degree is not increased learning. Indeed, the main reason Ivy League students do better than others when they graduate is not that they actually went to those Ivy League schools but that they were impressive enough to get in.

The ratio of, say, Ivy League undergrad spots to the general population is much lower now than 50 years ago, which means in turn that special status attached to having an Ivy League degree is much higher. For every student an Ivy admits, it probably has another six or so competent and qualified to attend. As a result, people have a stronger incentive to cheat their way in.

The scandal also reveals that many people believe it’s far more difficult to be admitted to an elite school than to graduate from it. Parents wouldn’t pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to game the admissions system if their kids had little chance of graduating.

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