The spring has become campus visit time for many families in the United States. The universities are always careful to present their best faces, tour prospective students to the most desirable spots on campus, and talk up the “services”, the “college experience”. This is pure theatre, and you are being manipulated by some of the most high-priced PR firms in the country. The quality of learning has very little to do with any of the “benefits” your tour guide’s script will be boasting about.
Our society has become convinced that the only way to a secure, middle class life is through a college program which confers a degree in a “marketable” set of skills. From the time our children are quite young, they are told by parents and teachers, by counselors and advisors, that they must prepare for college. Even elementary school children are told how important it is to work hard, get good grades, learn as much as possible in order to do well in middle and high school, in order to “get into a good college”. There is a discussion which will be tabled for another day – examining whether this constant message and deeply ingrained belief in college as the one sure route to a successful life is, in fact, true. For now, the discussion will focus on just what a “good” college is, and how to assure yourself that your child will be attending one. We know that a very important, exciting, and frightening, time in a teenager’s life is that time when he or she begins to search for colleges.
Discussions of “college rankings” are everywhere. Books are sold yearly, offering information about the colleges and universities of our country and other countries, in order to help the students and families make reasoned decisions. What is the tuition? The average SAT or ACT scores? Do they have fraternities and sororities? How are they ranked regionally?….nationally? Some very important and significant information is not contained in those books, and certainly won’t be found on the websites of the schools themselves. This missing information is directly related to much of the current conversation about the state of America’s colleges, the learning outcomes of our students, the crippling debt caused by explosive tuitions. It is what the universities have managed, for nearly a generation, to conceal from the general public.
So, here is a list of questions that should be answered by your own research before making a final decision about your own, or your child’s, college choices. You can try asking the universities you are considering; but I suspect that you won’t get a straight answer. These questions constellate around issues like faculty hiring — over-use of underpaid part-time faculty and teaching assistants, a glut of administrative jobs and a dearth of classroom support — corporate involvement in educational institutions, and most especially just how much of the tuition money being spent goes directly into classroom and educational costs. Over the last thirty years, unbeknownst to most people outside academia, there has been an enormous shift in the way universities hire the professionals who teach our students.
In the 1970s, more than 70% of all college professors were hired as full-time, tenure-track faculty. As you might expect, they were given private offices in which to do their work and meet with their students and colleagues. They had office staff to assist them in their daily activities. Reimbursement for their professional development costs, like that of their medical and legal counterparts, was considered part of the compensation provided by their university. Part of their responsibilities included researching and writing in their field, publishing, offering lectures, engaging in academic conversation internationally in order to move the knowledge in their area of expertise forward for the next generation. They were also engaged in what is known as “governance”, which means the administrative work required to run a department, a program, a university. This included committee meetings, faculty meetings – a variety of responsibilities that faculty shouldered in the management and maintenance of the university community, in order to shape and support the mission of the school. And what was the mission of the school? It was to provide a community for the scholars, and a system of education for the students; it was to maintain the highest possible educational standards and scholarly output, for the benefit of students, university, community and society.
Fast forward to 2018. More than 70% of all college professors are now hired “part-time” — many for only one semester at a time — for wages so low that it is necessary for our college professors across the nation to take on several jobs in order to cobble together a meagre living. University professors now, contrary to the “lazy tenured professor” illusion perpetrated by so many in the media, in industry, and in the country in general, earn an average of $30K gross salary by simultaneously working several jobs, without benefits, without healthcare, and without any form of job security. Of the 1.5 million university professors working in America, a full one million of them work in these precarious jobs. They are given no private offices in which to work, or meet their students. When they are offered offices at all, they are “group” offices, crammed with half a dozen other part-time faculty — spaces where no one leaves their belongings, no one can concentrate to do any work, and certainly no one can have a private meeting with a student. Office staff is nearly non-existent, and those who remain are not there to support the needs of the part-time faculty. There is no one to offer office support, to answer a telephone when a student calls, to accept papers or messages from students.
Because America’s part-time professors are working several low-wage, precarious jobs, their ability to research and publish in the field they dedicated an average of ten years worth of graduate work to is close to non-existent. They receive no financial support for the professional development necessary to stay abreast of new developments in their field. They are not designing courses in their areas of specialty which can be offered to students. These part-time professors are also excluded from the governance of the universities in which they devote their teaching time. Replacing them are the ballooning number of administrators who now constitute a majority class, holding the preponderance of power. These administrators are now the ones deciding on curriculum changes, on allocation of funds, on which college programs receive support and which ones do not. These non-educators are often directly involved in issues related to the educational content of the school’s programs, even though most of them have never set foot in a classroom as a teacher. These administrators are hiring PR people, lawyers, outside consultants – an army of very expensive “professionals” to help them “manage” the university. And to see just how much this system of administrators and expensive outside “experts” has failed, we need only look at the last ten years of statistics about the skills of our students, the drop-out rate, the ranking of American programs and students against universities and students internationally.
Why should any of this matter to parents and students when they are choosing a school? Because the ludicrous administrative-run programs of our universities have all but driven us over a cliff academically. Because professors who can’t practice their profession fully cannot continue to develop to their own fullest potential, and certainly can’t provide their students with an ever-changing and growing body of their own work. Because the horrible working conditions of 70% of America’s poverty-stricken faculty become the horrible learning conditions of America’s college students. Because the debt incurred by so many of our students is not being used to benefit their own instructional excellence, but to pay for the administrators, consultants, PR firms, lawyers — not to mention sports coaches and teams! — who are the only ones benefitting from this new, awful system.
Over the last several years, I have had friends taking their children on college visits. So, I’ve sent them with ONE question to have answered on those tours: “How many full-time faculty will be teaching my undergraduate?” These friends visited colleges all over the country, yet they all came back with the same answer: “All our faculty are professors.” My friends, none of whom work in academia, were satisfied by that answer, thinking that it actually said something. What none of them realized was that this response does NOT answer the question that they asked. How strange do you find it, that on every campus, in answer to that very specific question, the same answer was given? It was clearly a rehearsed dodge with the intent of not answering a very important question. What should that tell us? It tells us that the colleges don’t want parents to know the fact that most of the faculty who will be teaching their children are low-wage part-time contract hires without offices, without benefits, without the ability to meet and conference, to mentor, their students. Colleges don’t want parents to know that the majority of the faculty teaching undergraduate classes are working under academic sweatshop conditions.
It also tells me that arming parents with ONE question is not enough. Parents and students need a list of questions, and an explanation as to why each of the questions is important. These questions must be part of your own research because they are, if not more, as important than the pieces of information you receive from the published college guides.
So, let’s start with that first question again.
1. What percentage of the faculty teaching your undergraduate classes is full-time? What percentage is adjunct? Why is this important? For several reasons. To repeat what I said above, unlike full-time faculty, who receive a respectable professional wage, staff support, professional development support, and an office, part-time faculty are paid, on average, 30% of what full-time faculty are paid, for teaching the same class. They receive no staff or professional development support. They are not given offices — or at best, are given offices shared by a rotating number of other part-timers — an “office” which more closely resembles a public restroom or janitor’s closet than an actual office space.
So what? Well, to begin with, because of the precarious state of their worklife and the extremely low wages, which rarely exceed $15,000/year gross at any one school (since there are limits to the course assignments they can receive) with no healthcare or any other benefits, part-time faculty have no choice but to work several jobs. Other professors combine their teaching work with service or retail work, often earning more money waiting tables than they make teaching their university classes. Sometimes the jobs are other teaching jobs at a variety of universities, which require them to spend most of their time traveling from campus to campus rather than being available between classes for their students. Of course, the fact that they have no offices in which to conduct private meetings with their students is an additional issue. Students have a right to private consultation with their professors, to mentoring and time for conversation and guidance.
Think of it this way: You need an attorney. You make an appointment at a law firm with a good reputation. Your attorney meets you in the lobby, with a rolling suitcase; s/he explains that, since s/he doesn’t have an office space, you’ll need to meet there in the waiting room. Unzipping the rolling suitcase, your attorney explains that, without an office, s/he has no place to store forms and files. During the conversation, your attorney realizes the time and makes an embarrassed excuse, “I have to leave; I have another part-time job at Starbucks.” Say that, despite this, you hire this person, only to learn that every fifteen weeks, the firm requires that each part-time attorney reapplies for their same job, and there is no guarantee that your attorney will be back again. “But there are plenty of other part-time attorneys,” you are told, “who will handle your case just as well.” Do you think there is any possibility that an attorney with so little support from its firm, no matter how excellent or smart they are, can represent you fully? Do you think that any professor, with so little support from its university, can educate and support your child fully? That is why you should care.
Of course, it should also be pointed out that parents who would never allow their kids to wear clothes made in sweatshops overseas, have been sending their children to universities where exploitation and misery are the reality of most faculty.
2. A related question: what percentage of my child’s classes will be taught by Teaching Assistants? Remember the days when the title “teaching assistant” was given to someone who assisted a professor in teaching his or her class? Well, forget it. In today’s university, a “teaching assistant” assists no one. Instead, they are given full responsibility to teach a class. These are graduate students, perhaps only in their first semester of graduate school, being put into classes with undergraduates, and expected to teach — while also carrying their own full-time load of graduate classes. Bottom line: these TAs have to prioritize, and what is their priority? Their own classes and their own grades, of course. No matter how much they care about their students, or want to teach well, the stress of trying to juggle it all is impossible to disregard. These are young, inexperienced and overextended people put into the entry level classes where your students will be exposed, for the beginning of their college career, to enormous amounts of work and challenge. These are the classes where students need even more support, more guidance, more expertise — and they are getting less. That is why you should care.
3. Are undergraduate students guaranteed full access to their professors on campus? What is “full access” you might ask. Well, “full access” means that a professor is available on campus during times other than class times. It means that your student can arrive in a department and expect to see faculty in their offices, doing their own research, their own class preparation, meeting with students. It means that those professors might be offering seminars or departmental talks which they can attend. Full access does NOT mean email exchanges, or telephone calls. Full access means face to face conference and mentoring time. Personal support. It means the possibility to develop strong, personal and professional relationships with professors who will continue their mentoring and support long after the semester is over. If, instead, your student is forced to depend on email exchanges, text messages, brief telephone calls, what is the quality of the exchange or the support that can be expected? If your student finds a favorite professor or two and wants to continue pursuing study with such a professor, will they be able to? Or is that professor limited to one or two courses, taught again and again because of this new assembly line kind of education?
4. Are undergraduate students guaranteed private meetings in their professor’s private offices? Why are such meeting spaces important? Privacy, for one thing. How many students want to have a conference with a professor, discussing their difficulties with an assignment, or their less-than-stellar work on a particular paper, in front of a half dozen other people? Doesn’t your student deserve the respect of private consultations? Would you want to have a medical or legal consultation in a public space? Isn’t the quality of conversation that takes place greatly impaired without the possibility of some privacy and dignity? I have seen professors meeting their students in hallways, in outdoor spaces on campus, sitting on windowsills, for heaven’s sake. One professor I know opens his car trunk, and sits inside with students, going over papers. Heaven help him on especially rainy or windy days.
5. Are undergraduate students guaranteed advising from their departmental faculty? Will they have advisors who they can know and trust, and work with throughout their college career? Most parents remember meeting with advisors from their department — English professors if they were English majors, History professors if they majored in History, etc. There has been shift away from that, to an “advising department” where full-time advisors work in a kind of “pool”, and meet with students in what more closely resembles an assembly line. It doesn’t matter what your major is, what your concentration is, what your specific needs or interests are. You are merely one in a long line of students being pushed through the “advising process”. So? Isn’t it more streamlined? Isn’t it possible to train these advisors really well so that this is the only job they do, and they do it with expertise? No. As a professor myself, I have heard hundreds of horror stories my students tell, where they have been given the wrong advice, registered for and took unnecessary classes. They have lost time and money; they are never financially refunded. Faculty advisors, on the other hand, know their departments, know their programs, know their colleagues. As they work with an undergraduate student, they also get to know that student. Their advice and guidance would go beyond what courses to take in any given semester. It would include advice on how to shape the study, how to look for inter-disciplinary enrichment of their study. It would include advice on conferences, or other activities taking place at their university or others in the area which could enhance their understanding of the field in which they were studying. This kind of division of work depends on a factory model. It is sometimes called “unbundling” — meaning that all the skills and jobs that had been done by one professional have now been parceled out, unbundled as it were, into separate jobs handled in a more rote fashion. This is the fast food model, a factory model, where people are trained to do a limited amount of things, over and over and over again. It makes everyone more easily controllable, and much more easily replaceable. “Efficiency” and “cost effectiveness” are argued. But how efficient and cost effective is it for the student who has to take six years to earn a four year degree? Just who is saving the money? Not our students.
6. What is the number of “general education” or “core” classes required of my student’s major, or of the general university degree? Are these administrator-designed, common syllabi courses with common reading lists? Or are these individually designed courses by professors? How many courses are being offered to undergraduates that are designed by faculty in areas of their own specialty? Ask to see a few semesters of course selection guides, and you will see how “canned” the courses might be. Why should you care? Because this isn’t McDonald’s, is it? Why should every student be forced to take a large number of administrator-designed cookie-cutter courses with common book lists, taught by faculty with little to no say in the actual course content or reading material? Why shouldn’t your student be given a smorgasbord of class offerings each and every semester, designed by professors fully engaged in their own field of study, researching and writing and offering courses in their latest area of endeavor? Why shouldn’t there be that kind of lively scholarship and professionalism and academic growth at the college your student attends? It’s not like the tuition prices have gone down for this “one size fits all” education. Why should your student accept an off-the-rack education for couture prices?
7. Will undergraduate students be given ample access to the courses required for graduation within four years? This is a huge issue, and one about which universities must be required to provide assurance. As mentioned above, the average number of years a student studies before receiving a B.A. is now six years, not four. Why? It isn’t because your student is lazy or foolish or careless. It is because a) the advising is horrible (see above) and b) because the ever-growing number of “core courses” or “general education” courses required are nearly impossible to get. Again, why? Because schools are cutting and cutting and cutting the number of sections of these gen. ed. courses offered each semester. Students are unable to register for the courses they need, they are unable to take a leave of absence without their student loans kicking in, and they are told by those in the “advising pool” to take other courses “to raise their gpa” — and I know this because my students tell me that they are nudged into taking courses they don’t need, spending money and time they can’t afford, to merely tread water, hoping that they can get into the courses they really need the following semester. But here is the final kicker: they are never guaranteed preferential placement — so it is a miserable and stressful struggle each and every semester trying to get the required courses.
8. Will the university be willing to guarantee that my child’s classes will be taught by faculty who are compensated equally, provided with private offices and professional support, who will be available to mentor and guide my child outside of class as well as in? In the alternative, is the university willing to discount my child’s tuition each time they are taught by an under-compensated, unsupported part-time faculty member? If universities are now using over 70% part-time faculty, paying them barely 30% of the full-time pay for that class, offering those faculty members no benefits, healthcare or job security — why is it that tuition is exploding? Where is the money going? If your student is being taught by a faculty member receiving significantly less pay, who will be less available to your student – why should full tuition be charged? I suggest that we require that universities put in writing a guarantee of the quality of education, the years it will take, the work status of the professors in the classroom. I suggest, moreover, that these universities be required to agree, in writing, to the compensation or tuition reduction a student will get when the conditions of his/her education are not sufficiently met.
9: Where does the tuition go? Will universities provide a full accounting of a) the number of administrative jobs and their salaries in comparison to the number of faculty jobs and their salaries, b) the presidential salary and full compensation, c) the salary of sports coaches and their support staff d) the cost of the new buildings and development projects on campus? What is the pay of a full-time professor, and the average pay of an adjunct professor? If the president of the university is making $2 million in salary, and a full compensation package of closer to $6 million, and that university is paying 70% of its faculty $2500 a course, or $10,000 a year, with no benefits – is that a school whose values are reflective of your own? Do you want to be supporting the CEO-like lifestyle of such a college president when the professors teaching your student are living on foodstamps and medicaid?
10. Finally, you might want to ask them about their corporate partnerships. These partnerships influence everything that happens on campus — which buildings are built, which programs receive the most funding. For instance, corporate contributions to the science and technology departments essentially give them control of those departments, so that the work done there, the research conducted, will be owned by the corporations. The faculty and students are controlled by the interests of the corporations. Objectivity? Hardly. Public good? Are you kidding? Ask on which corporate boards the president of the university sits, and how much is earned from those board positions.
Over the last thirty years, government has consistently defunded public education, making room for more and more corporate money. The more corporate money that has flooded our college campuses, the more “vocational training” has been touted as the value of a university education. The more corporate money, the more uneven the support for our college departments and programs has become. Liberal Arts and the Humanities are not easily “commodified”, and have been on the short end of budget decisions for over these last 30 years. Yet, all recent research shows that a liberal arts degree, especially in these precarious times, provides the greatest most broad-based education as well as the most flexible and wide-ranging set of reasoning, writing and communication skills possible…skills that are most valuable to our students as they face a horrible job market. So, even IF the value of a college education is primarily “vocational”, the latest statistics show us that the Liberal Arts and the Humanities should be more highly funded, and more highly valued.
With all the conversations taking place now in the halls of Congress, in the media, on talk shows and news programs, about the sorry state of our higher education in this country, there is a taboo in talking about the core problem — the corporatized take-over of the college’s mission of high-quality education. Until we force a return to that mission, reprofessionalize our faculty, and restore control of the university’s functioning to faculty governance, that mission will never be the central concern of the universities. Without that central concern guiding our principled decisions about the ways American higher education is run — and for whom — we will continue on this ruinous path. Without knowing the facts listed above, you and your children will be caught in the ruination, and will pay dearly for the experience.