By Rich Lowry
Student debt just surpassed the country’s credit-card debt for the first time. It is projected to top $1 trillion this year, according to The New York Times, when it was less than $200 billion in 2000. For the class of 2011, the mean student debt burden is nearly $23,000, up 8 percent from a year ago.
There’s no doubt that graduating from college brings a significant economic advantage, but that doesn’t excuse the waste and self-satisfied lassitude of American higher education. Colleges appropriate tuition dollars from America’s students with an ever-accelerating voracity, yet don’t deliver any additional educational benefits — indeed, they do the opposite. Higher education is one of the sectors of American life that most desperately needs a thorough re-conception.
What are students going into hock for? In their book “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa sift through data that only Bluto could relish.
They cite the work of labor economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks showing that in the early 1960s, college students spent 40 hours per week on academic work; now they spend only 27 hours per week. In 1961, 67 percent of students said they studied more than 20 hours per week; now only one in five study that much.
Miraculously, grades haven’t dropped, despite less study. Such are the wonders of grade inflation and students selecting the classes where they can most easily slide by. The two labor economists believe that students have mastered “the art of college management,” whereby they succeed at “controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors and limiting workload.”
There are fewer professors to tame than in the past. Full-time instructional faculty dropped from 78 percent in 1970 to 52 percent in 2005. “On average,” Arum and Roksa write, “faculty spend approximately 11 hours per week on advisement and instructional preparation and delivery.” The rest is devoted to research and sundry other professional and administrative tasks.
The hiring binge on campus has been devoted to what sociologist Gary Rhoades calls “managerial professionals” specializing in sundry student services. What kind of learning environment is it, after all, without a director of sustainability initiatives?
If increasingly students don’t study, teachers don’t teach and college employees aren’t primarily concerned with either, it raises the question of what the hell happens on campus. Well, many students have a grand time during a years-long vacation from real life. They enjoy state-of-the-art facilities, socialize and figure how to come away with the credential of a degree in exchange for minimal effort. (That is, if they graduate at all — four-year institutions only graduate about a third of their students in four years, and two-thirds of them in six.)
This is not a formula for drinking deeply from the fountain of learning. Arum and Roksa find only minimal gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing for many students. Forty-five percent of students barely ticked upward after two years, and 36 percent hadn’t budged after four years.
Reformers are brimming with ideas to renovate an expensive and inefficient system. Economist Richard Vedder suggests dismantling the current architecture of financial aid — which helps drive up costs in a never-ending cycle — and giving help only to truly needy students who are performing well academically. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R.- Tenn., asks why we can’t move toward three- rather than four-year degrees. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute wants other ways to credential young people besides a B.A. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is embarking on a controversial push to get the state’s universities to devote themselves more to teaching than to obscure research.
In their book, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska make the elementary suggestion that colleges foster “a culture of learning.” That would seem to go without saying, except in the groves of academe.
Rich Lowry can be reached via email: email@example.com