Marty Nemko & The Modern University

One of the most sobering interviews I’ve conducted on Radio Free Penn State on The LION 90.7fm was with U.S. News & World Report editor, author and career coach Marty Nemko.

In his recent column, “America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree,” Marty writes: Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item, while research is a profit center. As a result, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with necessary small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students. At many colleges, only a small percentage of the typical student’s classroom hours will have been spent with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor.”

This is one of the many salient points raised in the column, questioning the value of today’s college degree.  For decades society has accepted the idea that college is the only real ticket to real success.  With millions not knowing what to expect, colleges are populated yearly by droves of young people holding the anticipation of college as a path toward some promised land, told by parents and teachers alike to enroll, only to have their hopes dashed for mountains of debt.

As Anthony P. Carnevale, director of The Global Institute on Education and the Economy at Georgetown University refers to “college for all,” as “a populist promise to put a bookish chicken in every pot.”

He writes: Public support of “college for all” unifies the aspiring middle class with those who have already arrived but have a fear of falling and a dread of downward mobility for their children.

With billions of dollars poured into higher education through state appropriations, government grants, student loans, tuition payments, tax-exemptions, and tax-deductable donations, the education business enjoys advantages rivaled not even by defense contractors.

The question is accountability. Where is it? Where is it in the classroom? Where is it in the Ivory tower, the budgeting offices, and in the trustee board meetings? When important questions were raised from the Pennsylvania Academic freedom hearings, the over-whelming conclusion was to leave faculty to sort out matters of scholarship and academic integrity to themselves.

When University administrations seek to aggrandize their infrastructure in size and scope – hospitals, medical facilities, hotels, law schools, state-of-the-art recreation facilities, dorms, beautification projects, and the rest of the country club campus — the fear among legislators and politicians is to avoid being branded as unsupportive of education. When students graduate with mountains of debt and little to no prospects of gainful employment, the first phone call they get from their school – by minimum-wage employed students who haven’t graduated yet – is to give back with donations.

Education is treated like a business, but in all the wrong ways.  In the private sector, any product or service has benchmarks of success and is held to account by market forces.  Boards of directors actually have a bottom line to worry about and must make prudent choices about their rate of growth and how to live within their means.  While their products and services may benefit the consumer and the public at large, there is a real sink-or-swim profit motive.

In the case of higher education the market model is not applied when it should be, and misapplied when it shouldn’t be. Of the three-fold mission of a major land grant college, consisting of education, research, and outreach, undergraduate education has taken a back seat to the latter two.  As long as millions are banging down the door racing to get in, there remains no reason to keep tuition at a moderate rate, nor is there any real emphasis for quality in undergrad education.

And with the general costs of the operation, upkeep, maintenance and mortgaging of buildings, facilities, and costs of programs, bureaucracies, service personnel, and the rest of the “job-creation” that universities use to justify greater appropriation requests, the institution saves money by relying on underpaid and less experienced graduate students to carry an ever-increasing burden of teaching undergrads, many of who are just a few years their junior.

In a March 2008 column by Chicago Tribune reporter Ron Grossman, In the professional pecking order, productivity outside the classroom trumps productivity at the podium.  Professors demand reduced course loads so they can focus on research and scholarship.  So to keep classrooms staffed, universities hire adjunct faculty, part-timers and graduate students.  They make up about 70 percent of college teachers at the moment.  And they earn a pittance.

Taking the model a step further, associate professor of English at Hope College in Michigan, William Pannapacker, authoring under the pen name Thomas H. Benton, wrote in the April 4th 2008 Chronicle of Higher Education: the completion of a doctorate in the humanities now marked the logical end of one’s academic career rather than the beginning of it.

We were waste products who needed to be flushed from the system to make way for the next serving of exploited “apprentices”.  Higher education—which I had always assumed to have my best interests at heart—had become a kind of pyramid scheme with us at the bottom, the new academic proletariat.

Marty Nemko details from personal experience and wide research the erosion of the quality of higher education. Many students are simply unprepared for college, and when they get there find themselves spending a pretty penny on remedial courses they can’t even count for credit.  And while some professors are too busy with research, as they are advanced by either ‘publishing or perishing,’ and may not even care to be good teachers, the vast majority of their grad students don’t have the mastery of material nor experience in their field of scholarship to teach a subject as an authority.

Marty cites in his column: “A 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts that found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below ‘proficient’ levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.”

He further cites a Spellings Report finding, released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education which stated: “Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined.”

At the same time these trends have gotten worse of the years, the cost of higher education has gotten astronomically higher.  Ron Grossman writes in his column: “When I attended the University of Chicago in the 1950s, tuition was $600.  I worked part time as a florist for $2.50 an hour.  The relationship between the cost of college and what I earned kept me financially afloat.  I graduated unencumbered by debt.  Currently, the University of Chicago’s tuition is $35,169, about 58 times what it was in my day.  Florists make four to eight times what I did.”

In our interview Marty makes the loose analogy between the Tuskegee experiments and higher education, in which African-Americans were given certain medical treatments and died, as they weren’t told of the risks.  Likewise, colleges are not telling people the frightening statistic out of the US Department of Education. Nemko states that among college freshmen who graduated in bottom 40 percent of their high school class, only one third ever graduate even if given 8 and a half years.  Instead they graduate with a “mountain of debt and assaulted self esteem” and don’t do well in the job market.

Marty concludes that colleges should be forced to advertise accurately the chances and results of a college track. Just like government approved tires that must state their tread live, traction, and temperature resistance, higher education too should disclaim the many pitfalls during one’s tenure as a student, and statistics of what became of so many that graduated, how much they’ve gone on to earn, etc.

As a career counselor Marty helps prospective students make the right decisions about college and other forms of post-secondary ed.  But the final point that we should investigate as elected officials, tax payers, alumni, and parents of current and/or future students, is what is going on financially at many universities – how is money spent, and what is going on with the state of undergrad education.

We are not doing a service to society by blindly pouring more and more public money into “education” — which as Marty and many others point out is only serving to drive up the tuition costs rather than keeping them down—only to have millions of people strapped with insurmountable debt, and working jobs that did not require a college degree.