Calling Out the Professoriate

Author of the 1988 book Profscam, conservative talk radio host Charles Sykes, discusses his new book that again takes on higher education. 

August 18, 2016

Charles Sykes riled many in higher education with his 1988 book, Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. Now the senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and Wisconsin-based conservative talk radio host is back with a new book, Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education (St. Martin's Press), which hit the shelves earlier this month.

As with Sykes's last book, this one is sure to have many critics within academe. Some of Sykes's broadsides apply much more to selective research universities than to the public, four-year institutions and community colleges that most students attend. Examples include his criticisms of the campus safe-spaces push and of tenured professors who focus more on research than on teaching undergraduates.

Sykes probably isn't too worried about angering folks in higher education -- he's made plenty of enemies. For example, shortly before the Republican primary in his state earlier this year, he dismantled Donald Trump with a series of tough questions during a radio interview. The Republican nominee later called him a "such a dope" but eventually reached out with a conciliatory, handwritten note.

Inside Higher Ed and Sykes recently discussed his new book and whether he thinks change is coming to higher education. The emailed exchange follows below.

Q. In the almost three decades since Profscam's publication, the problems you identified in higher education have worsened, according to your new book. What makes you think real fixes are possible this time?

A. Back in 1988, I was naïve enough to think that we might see some meaningful reforms. But I underestimated higher education’s resistance to reform and the willingness of parents and students to pay more for less as long as they got the coveted bachelor’s degree.

So, what has changed?

There may be a perfect storm -- of cost, value and technology -- about to hit higher education. We now have $1.3 trillion in student debt and higher education increasingly looks like a bubble. At the same time, the explosion of the cost of a degree has been accompanied by increasing doubts about the value of that education. The B.A. is no longer is the automatic ticket punch to the middle class. The result is that the public is more skeptical.

Also, new technologies -- including MOOCs -- have the potential to be highly disruptive to the business model of academia. Plus, I’m a believer in the adage that if something can’t go on forever … it won’t.

Q. You take on most of the academy's longstanding traditions -- shared governance and college athletics, to name a couple. Which single change would have the most important impact?

A. Restoring respect for undergraduate teaching.

If anything, the flight from teaching has escalated since I wrote ProfScam. If universities want to continue to justify their massive costs, they need to reallocate more of their resources to the classroom -- as opposed to continuing to bloat their administrations, engage in massive building binges and emphasis on (often worthless and unread) research.

I know it’s anathema to even suggest it, but perhaps professors ought to actually teach students more often, as opposed to sloughing off undergrads to the growing ranks of the academic underclass (TAs, part-timers, adjuncts).

Q. The book calls for a shrinking of overall college enrollment. Why? And aren't there downsides to rolling back the access gains of recent decades, which women, minority groups and low-income students largely drove?

A. We should make access to higher education as open as possible. But the reality is that the “college for all” mantra is a delusion that sets too many students up to fail. Far too many students enter college without adequate academic preparation; far too many end up dropping out. The real irony here is that the students who are most likely to be hurt by the higher education complex’s indifference to undergraduate teaching are precisely those vulnerable student groups who need more attention.

Of the 1.8 million students assessed for college readiness in 2014, ACT found that only 26 percent met college-ready benchmarks in all four subjects (English, reading, math and science). Charles Murray notes that an SAT score of 1180 will give a college freshman about a 65 percent chance of maintaining a 2.7 grade point average. But that is a score only about one in 10 18-year-olds could achieve. “So,” writes Murray, “even though college has been dumbed down, it is still too intellectually demanding for a large majority of students.” Even so, in recent decades, 30 percent of students with C grades in high school and 15 percent with grade point average of C-minus or lower have been admitted into four-year colleges. That has consequences both for the students and for the institutions, which often have to adjust their standards to the new demographic realities.

It also often ends badly. While the debate over a “college bubble” often focuses on the costs of student debt for students who have graduated, the reality is that somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of students who enroll in college drop out. The dropout rate among lower-income students is much higher. For those students the wage premium for attending college without getting a degree is basically zero.

Q. You say more people should skip college for technical and trade education, but community colleges already do much of this training. So isn't your beef with the bachelor's degree, not “college for all”?

A. To some extent yes. We ought to have education/training available for all. But community colleges have their own problems. According to the Beginning Postsecondary Students Survey, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of public community college students took at least one remedial course, and those students generally ended up taking three remedial classes. From there, the numbers get even uglier. A Fordham Foundation study notes that only about 60 percent of the community college students in remedial classes pass the classes and just 22 percent of those students go on to pass courses that actually earn credits. Few of these non-college-ready students ever end up actually getting degrees. Overall, only one out of five community college students go on to earn four year-college degrees.

This suggests that we cannot fix our system of higher education without addressing the problems of K-12 education as well.

Q. If higher education has become "Grievance U" -- rampant pursuit of victim status and liberalism run amok -- is changing this stance from within possible?

A. Possible, but not easy. If anything the political culture on campuses has become more homogenous over the last three decades. Administrators continue to demonstrate a consistent lack of moral courage in the face of protests, and the federal government has ramped up its pressure on colleges to avoid creating “unsafe” spaces.

But, there are reasons for some hope. Faculty members -- including many liberal academics -- are pushing back on the excesses, including the Orwellian attacks on academic freedom and due process. Many of the critics of the new culture that I quote in the book are men and women of the left who are disillusioned by the new trends. Students have also been more willing to object to heavy-handed attempts to enforce victimist “sensitivity” or label words and ideas as “microaggressions.”

There is also pressure from the outside. Frankly, a lot of the grievance culture -- what I call the Snowflake Rebellion -- looks overwrought and silly to anyone outside of academia’s bubble. Media coverage is often scathing and there are indications that donors are now closing their checkbooks to institutions that wander too far into the fever swamps of political correctness. As we know, the best way to win the hearts and souls of college presidents is to hit their bottom line.

Q. Hillary Clinton would expand what you call the "federal bailout" of higher education with debt-free college, while Donald Trump mostly has been mum on higher education. Will this election affect the college bubble?

A. So far the choice seems to be bad ideas and no ideas. “Free” tuition would not solve the underlying problems of cost or value to students. The bailout would (1) shift hundreds of billions of dollars of costs onto taxpayers, many of whom have not had the benefit of a college education themselves, (2) encourage more students to make poor educational choices, (3) inevitably drive higher education spending and tuition even higher, and (4) protect the higher education industry from having to reform itself.


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