‘We are creating Walmarts of higher ed’

“Speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down,” according to some professors, reports Timothy Pratt in The Atlantic.

Under pressure to turn out more students, more quickly and for less money, and to tie graduates’ skills to workforce needs, higher-education institutions and policy makers have been busy reducing the number of required credits, giving credit for life experience, and cutting some courses, while putting others online.

Now critics are raising the alarm that speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down.

. . . “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate,” says Karen Arnold, associate professor at the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at Boston College.

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education — mostly university professors — will meet in January to discuss the rise of online courses and performance-based funding.

If states fund universities based on measures such as graduation rates, rather than enrollment, faculty will face a “subtle pressure” to pass more students, says Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors.

Only 56.1 percent of college students earn a degree within six years. President Obama has called for increasing the number of college graduates to make the U.S. first in the world in educated workers.

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  1. Making it cheaper is fine; large pots of money are being wasted on plush dorms, fitness centers, student centers etc. which add nothing to the academic quality. (The fact that they might appeal mostly to the least-academically-capable/preprepared students – beer and circuses mentality – should be disregarded). Even larger pots of money are being poured into administration, with no academic benefit. The best way to avoid further dumbing down is to admit ONLY those students capable of, prepared for and motivated to do REAL college-level work. Presto, no need for extensive tutoring programs, academically useless aggrieved victim studies, diversity apparatus etc. It won’t happen because of the non-PC demographics, but it would increase the value of the degree – particularly if a real core curriculum and freshman weeder courses are also restored.

  2. Higher ed is losing its way, making it vulnerable to number-crunching reform zombies, who don’t really comprehend the disjunct between an education and a credential.

    The difficulty lies at the level of fundamental assumptions, and those interested in a liberal education will find the caterwauling about grades, diplomas, and workers uninteresting and unhelpful–not to mention inescapable. Reformers mainly want to make a name and continue building their imaginary tower to heaven. It’s a great civic project–turning all free citizens into compliant workers in an economy whose chief characteristic is the way it is organized around a Commanding Heights.

    Better conversations are also ongoing but in different places and with a different telos.

  3. If we end up with “Walmarts of higher education”, meaning educational environments that deliver high value at low prices for vast numbers of people with a minimum of administrative overhead, we should be all for it.

    What we have right now is something more akin to a defense contractor model: huge expense, “cost-plus” accounting, and silly regulations and perverse incentives making an already expensive process even more expensive and administrator-intensive.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Since much of the value of the higher ed credential is the credential, with some subject-specific knowledge thrown in, there is no reason to price it at such a high rate.

    “Education” is valuable in a citizen, but we haven’t been getting much out of the required courses in history or western civ or some such as it is.
    Personally, reading up on this sort of thing could be a lifetime’s work/avocation. But getting such things through to undergrads is kind of Sisyphean. I mean, you have to know at least SOMETHING of how the world works. And if you graduate not knowing who was on whose side in, say, WW II, or the century of the Civil War, not much progress has been made.
    My son asked what the book “Neptune’s Inferno” was about. The naval battle of Guadalcanal. “What’s Guadalcanal?”
    And he’s well-educated by current standards.