‘Two Cheers for Higher Education’

What if the critics are (mostly) wrong? Author discusses his new book about why American colleges and universities are stronger than many believe, even though they do face challenges.

January 25, 2019

In much of the world, American colleges and universities are seen as a model to emulate. In the United States, politicians and pundits bash higher education all the time. What explains this paradox? A new book, Two Cheers for Higher Education: Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever -- And How to Meet the Challenges They Face (Princeton University Press), argues that too many ignore the strengths in higher education and exaggerate the weaknesses. At the same time, the book says higher education faces genuine challenges today.

The author is Steven Brint, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. He responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: So many people criticize higher education for all kinds of faults, real and imagined. Why do you think people see higher education in the United States as failing?

A: The issues that show up most consistently in public opinion polls are high cost, uneven quality and allegations of liberal political bias.

Cost has increased, but college remains a very good investment. The average college graduate earns a million dollars more over the course of their work life than the average high school grad. That’s a great return on investment. Student debt is a problem, but it is often overstated in the press. Most students do not have unmanageable debt. As the economist Susan Dynarski has emphasized, the problem is that they are required to repay loans when they are least able to do so, right after college. As a country we do need to consider the adoption of universal income-contingent loan repayment plans similar to those that many other countries have now adopted.

It is also true that many students are not learning as much as they could. Fortunately, cognitive science has provided convincing findings on techniques that improve student understanding of course materials. Tens of thousands of college instructors are incorporating the lessons of this research into their classroom practice. We need to accelerate the diffusion of these evidence-based teaching practices. They involve active learning practices, mechanisms to ensure greater student accountability for study and teaching for deep understanding (as opposed to teaching for rote memorization).

Critics have found disturbing examples of political bias and the silencing of dissenting voices on campus, but the research evidence, such as it is, suggests that the vast majority of college teachers do try to keep their personal political views out of their classrooms. Even so, we could use quite a bit more evidence-based debate and discussion about important public issues on campus. I don’t think the issue for universities is so much one of encouraging “viewpoint diversity” as one of encouraging a heightened respect for evidence and contextual understanding among all students, regardless of the viewpoints they hold.

Q: What do you consider the major strengths American higher education has shown over the last generation?

A: The research output of universities is just overwhelming. R&D expenditures have increased by 10 times since 1980 in inflation-adjusted dollars, publications in high-quality journals have increased by approximately four times and citations by a proportional amount. Some of this research is relevant to innovations that have improved the quality of life in the United States and brought new jobs and new wealth to communities. University researchers have been responsible for many of the country’s most important innovations -- from the last generation’s laser and MRI to today’s gene editing and quantum computing. They have given rise to important companies, including Google and Broadcom, and even entirely new industries -- biotechnology in the 1980s and nanotechnology now. Many of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy -- not only communications technology, but finance, medicine, national security and business operations -- depend on the innovations and training produced in universities. Much of the rest of the research produced by universities contributes to a refined, literate culture and better understanding of the world we have inherited.

Students and their parents are not turning away from higher education, in large part because of its investment value. Instead, undergraduate enrollments have nearly doubled since 1980, and enrollments for higher-level degrees are rising at a similar rate. In addition to providing solid skills for those who apply themselves to study, colleges and universities provide opportunities for students to become more thoughtful and better-informed citizens, and they build ladders of ascent for hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged young people every year.

Americans are being encouraged by President Trump and others to hunker down and turn inward. But further progress, however we define it, will be achieved only if our universities remain focused on discoveries that lie over the horizon and remain well supported by the federal government, the states and philanthropists. These commitments are essential ingredients of an American success story that is still unfolding 70 years after the end of World War II.

Q: You note the rise of "practical arts" programs, which some in the liberal arts fear are skewing priorities in higher education away from traditional disciplines. How do you view this trend?

A: My research group collected data on degrees awarded going back to the late 1920s, and, except for several years in the 1960s, most college students have always majored in job-related subjects like business, education, engineering and health professions. A big shift toward the practical arts occurred in the 1980s, and since that time the proportions studying basic and applied fields have been quite stable at about three occupational-professional students to two liberal arts and sciences students. All students take liberal arts general education courses in lower divisions, so it is possible to argue that the overall tilt is still slightly in the direction of the liberal arts.

The growth fields during the period I write about in the book were closely related to the power centers of American society: business, technology, health, government and media. Some liberal arts fields also grew. For the most part, these fields reflect the culture of the coastal upper middle classes: cognitively oriented (neuroscience, psychology), environmentally conscious (environmental science), socially inclusive (non-Western cultures, gender studies) and aesthetically aware (the visual and performing arts).

I am a proponent of high-quality liberal arts education, but I am somewhat less concerned about what students are studying than how they are studying it. Student utilitarianism is a problem of long standing, and it is tough to confront. College teachers contribute to the problem when they expect little of their students. This is a problem that affects every discipline and every type of institution. We also need to find ways to shore up critical thinking in the undergraduate classroom. Students need assignments that require them to find evidence for propositions, to compare and contrast rival interpretations, to decompose the logic of arguments, to consider “what-if” questions, and to exercise evidence-based skepticism about sources. Too often instructors fail to capitalize on opportunities to foster their students’ cognitive development because they teach in a didactic way that encourages memorization rather than deeper thinking.

Q: During the period in which you focus your book, many states have pulled back from investing in public higher education, and many research universities have increasingly come to rely on nonstate sources of revenue. How do you view this trend?

A: I am not in favor of the state as the sole patron of public higher education. One of the strengths of research universities is that they rely on diverse sources of revenue. That increases their autonomy and reduces all the potential restrictive dependencies that come with single-source funding. Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that families that can afford it will pay for part of the cost of attending public universities because there are substantial private benefits associated with a college education.

At the same time, even in the narrowest sense of what we mean by a public good, higher education qualifies. Students who graduate from college provide a larger share of tax money to the state and are much less likely to use state welfare services. The benefits of higher education of course go well beyond its contributions to state tax coffers; college graduates tend to be healthier, more trusting, better informed, to volunteer more and to be more active, engaged citizens.

Governors know the economic and social benefits of higher education. The problem is that there are many claimants on the public purse and universities do have alternative sources of revenue, so states tend to use them as a balance wheel in the budget process rather than as a fixed priority.

I hope the states will come to invest more heavily in higher education. There are good pragmatic reasons for doing so. But the pattern since the 1970s has not been encouraging: disinvestment during recessions and reinvestment but at reduced levels during good economic times. Perhaps in the future voters will demand more state investment in higher education or state officials will determine that some current obligations should be treated as lesser priorities or subjected to more stringent cost controls. In the meantime, we have to plan for what is likely to happen, not what we hope will happen.

Q: Your title offers only "two cheers," and you do identify problems facing higher education. Which problems do you consider most serious?

A: Of the problems raised by critics, the uneven quality of college teaching could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the American higher education system. So far, students and their families seem to value credentials as much or more than evidence of skill development, but we don’t know how long this can or will continue. The surest way to secure stable public support is to make sure colleges and universities provide substantial value added to students’ overall development and particularly to their cognitive development.

The growth of poorly paid and sometimes poorly prepared adjunct faculty has not been identified in public opinion as a major problem, except in so far as it is related to quality concerns. I consider it another major problem because universities have allowed themselves to create an academic proletariat over the last 30 years and students are often being shortchanged as a result. I argue that colleges and universities should convert more of these positions into lectureships with potential security of employment. Appointments to these positions should be made on the basis of outstanding teaching qualifications, including knowledge of the relevant literature on teaching in the discipline.

I also discuss the issue of online competition. Online courses are entirely appropriate for subjects that are mainly informational, and they can be especially well suited for mature learners. At the same time, the physical campus and physical classroom have many potential advantages that online courses cannot replicate. These advantages have to do with immediacy, interpersonal engagement and the electricity that can be generated by a common ritual focus and participant community. Just like going to an online church is not like going to a real church or watching a concert on television is not like watching a concert live, going to an online class ought to be a dim reflection of what it is like to be present in a real classroom. Of course, that’s not always the case, as we all know.

I don’t see higher education being disrupted in the way that the advocates of an online future hope it will be, but those who prize the physical campus should be doing a much better job of thinking about what diet of online courses is appropriate for different types of students and about how to maximize the opportunities for growth that only the face-to-face experience affords.


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