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Higher Ed’s Dirty Little Secrets

Five secrets too hot to share.

November 1, 2020
 
 

Everyone harbors secrets not shared with anyone -- not a partner, a therapist or a physician. Typically, these involve fantasies, emotional infidelities, family and financial secrets, and health or hygiene. The reason: they’re too intimate, embarrassing and humiliating. They conflict with our self-image and our ego ideal.

Concealing secrets, all of us recognize, exacts a cost. Sometimes the cost is mental: carrying a secret requires us to expend mental energy that could otherwise be directed elsewhere. It may leave us feeling guilty or ashamed or remorseful.

But the cost can also be interpersonal. Hiding secrets from a partner or a close friend is emotionally taxing. It raises the specter of deceit, disloyalty and duplicity. It creates a wall that separates us from those we are closest to.

Higher education, too, has many deep secrets that deserve a public airing. Some secrets aren’t secret to academics:

  • Many, perhaps most, colleges favor higher-income applicants.
  • Four-year institutions are graduating a third more women than men; community colleges, 50 percent more.
  • Nearly 40 percent students at four-year institutions fail to graduate after eight years.
  • Three-fifths of college graduates would change majors if they were starting over (30 percent for better job opportunities; 26 percent to pursue their passion).
  • Prior to the pandemic, 43 percent of college graduates were underemployed in their first job; two-thirds remained in jobs that don't require college degrees five years later.
  • Most professors have no formal training in teaching, learning or course design.

Other secrets seem to be secrets only to journalists and affluent parents:

  • Of freshman, fewer than half -- 49 percent at private nonprofit colleges and 36 percent at public four-year colleges -- live on campus and get a “traditional” college experience.
  • Less than 20 percent of colleges and universities admit less than 50 percent of applicants -- and just 46 percent admit less than 20 percent.
  • “Free college” programs like New York’s Excelsior contain loopholes (like requiring continuous full-time enrollment) that make it difficult for students to remain eligible.

Then there are the secrets that higher ed hides from itself. Here are five.

Secret 1: Our system for funding higher education is profoundly inequitable.

Higher education benefits from many sources of public funding, some direct, others indirect. These include federal grants and contracts, state expenditures, loan subsidies, tax revenue, and tax breaks.

But this funding favors certain institutions and certain students much more than others. In general, research institutions receive the largest number of public dollars and community colleges the least. That is, funding is in inverse proportion to need.

In addition, our current approach to funding postsecondary education greatly favors those seeking a bachelor’s degree over those who seek an associate’s degree or who need vocational and technical training.

Of all the inequities, the biggest involves those who enter the workforce immediately after high school. Our existing approach discriminates most heavily against those who decide not to go to college.

There are reasons, of course, behind these deep discrepancies in funding. But whether those gaps are appropriate is not a subject often openly debated -- unlike the gaps in funding for K-12 education, which are frequently litigated.

It’s time to do the right thing and assure that every level of education, including technical and vocational training, is adequately funded. We also need to recognize and support multiple pathways. Not everyone is ready for college at 18, and we might create more options, which, like the military, can help late adolescents make the transition to adulthood.

Secret 2: The payoff of a college degree is much less than graduates expect or that some reports claim.

Look at the figures provided by the National Association of Colleges and Employers and starting salaries for bachelor degree holders look pretty good: $53,889 for the Class of 2019. Unfortunately, that figure bears scant resemblance to those provided by other sources -- including the IRS for University of Texas system graduates. As one recent commenter noted, according to NACE, “the average starting salary in 1969 was $9,504, which in 2019 dollars works out to, erm, $68,351.”

A 2015 report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that the median salary at that time for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree was $33,000 annually at the entry level and $61,000 at prime age. An online tool created by the University of Texas system uses IRS records to track the median earnings of UT graduates working full-time by degree level in 300 areas of study one, five and 10 years after graduation. It reveals the extent to which earnings vary by major and institution and also reports that wages hover around $60,000 10 years after graduation.

As a society, we need to recognize that we face an opportunity crisis. A college degree helps, but is not, for too many, sufficient. This is evident in the large number of college graduates who default on their loans and who are employed in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Colleges aren’t employment agencies, but they could certainly do more to provide information about employment options obtained by past major and growth sectors of the economy and offer certificate programs in areas of high employer demand such as data analysis and management, marketing, project management, and technical writing.

Secret 3: Our system of nonprofit higher education contains many misdirected incentives.

Four-year institutions are not currently incentivized to enroll more low-income and community college transfer students. Nor are these institutions under much pressure to reduce equity gaps in high-demand majors such as accounting, computer science, engineering and nursing. Meanwhile, training in pedagogy and course design remains largely voluntary and most institutions lack the ability or will to identify and address achievement gaps in key gateway and advanced courses.

We should also bear in mind Goodhart’s law (“Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes”) and Campbell’s law ("The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures"). Although there has been intense pressure to raise graduation rates for first-time, full-time students, much less attention is paid to retention and completion rates for part-time and transfer students, since those figures are seldom showcased.

Somewhat similarly, we know that institutions with similar student demographics have very different graduation and postgraduation outcomes. But because such comparisons are rarely publicized, institutional leadership isn’t held to account.

Secret 4: College business models often conflict with their institutions’ professed mission and values.

Colleges are caught in a catch-22: their costs rise, but fewer families are willing or able to pay list price, while public funding has stagnated or declined. This situation forces institutions not only to increase operational efficiencies and development efforts, and recruit new student markets more vigorously and broadly, but to make a pact with the devil: cutting benefits; outsourcing essential services; cutting liberal arts programs; forging partnerships with for-profit firms; using ancillary and auxiliary services, including housing and dining, to finance core operations; and treating master’s, professional and continuing education programs as cash cows.

Of course, the most obvious contradiction lies in the increased reliance on instructors outside the tenure system: adjuncts, grad students, postdocs, professors of practice and staff.

Secret 5: Many institutions’ appeal lies not in education but elsewhere.

An essay in the most recent issue of The Atlantic makes an argument at once shocking and self-evident: the pandemic, Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech professor writes, “has revealed that higher education was never about education.”

Rather, it’s about credentialing, coming of age, learning to live independently and making the transition to a self-sufficient adulthood. Above all, for many students and their parents, it’s about the college experience: casual socializing, parties, clubs, athletics, cram sessions, late-night heavy raps, studying alone or with others, romantic and sexual experimentation and, in some cases, community service and political activism.

Obviously, the college experience is most intense for the privileged minority who attend a residential college. But many students do not. Over a quarter of students at four-year institutions live with their parents, and many others who live independently off campus have job and family responsibilities that offer minimal time to spend at their college. Yet even many commuting students crave campus life and take advantage of wellness centers, dining halls and coffee shops and find time to socialize in libraries and lounges.

Some students find ways to blur the lines between the academic, the extracurricular and the co-curricular. Here, one thinks of the journalism students who contributed to the campus newspaper, communication majors who run the campus radio station and arts students who assist in a campus museum or make use of studios after hours.

My own view is that campuses could do much more to integrate the academic and extracurricular, for example, by creating more museum labs and history labs and maker spaces where students can apply the skills that they learn in their classes, by supporting civic engagement projects in schools and neighboring communities, and awarding academic credit for experiential learning, whether this involves internships, supervised research or other mentored activities.

Keeping secrets is not a victimless crime. The personal secrets we harbor can be psychologically damaging, undermining intimacy, eroding trust and fostering dishonesty and inauthenticity.

Higher education’s dirty secrets are also harmful. We overpromise and underdeliver. We repeatedly disappoint our stakeholders. We leave our biggest challenges unaddressed.

We need to remember: few secrets remain hidden forever. Secrets eventually surface, revealing our deceptions and duplicity. We need to level with our students, their parents and legislators, and, above all, with ourselves.

Freud used the phrase “infantile sexuality” even though the phrase elicited cries of derision and disgust from those who considered the words a violation of propriety. His response was straightforward: first, we cloak our language and in the process blind ourselves to the realities that we need to confront.

Let’s not allow our fears of disclosing our dirty secrets to prevent us from addressing the challenges we face.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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