What Ails American Higher Education?

female prfoessor

Image: Bigstock

American higher education has some big problems. We still have a world-class network of colleges and universities. Students from less developed and from highly developed nations come to the US to get BAs and advanced degrees. Our teaching practices are copied, our researchers have made English a universal scientific language, and our graduates can compete across the globe.

The hundreds of small colleges scattered across the US represent a unique American contribution to undergraduate education, which is being copied in Europe. Not only has American higher education led the world in the integration of women and minorities into faculties and administration, but American scholars have developed the broadest critique of economic inequality, abuse of political authority, and social discrimination.

Yet in recent decades, three major problems have developed in American universities which threaten the whole system:

  • exorbitant funding of athletics,
  • replacement of full-time faculty with temporary part-time staff, and
  • the growth of for-profit institutions.

Sports as entertainment is beginning to overwhelm the educational enterprise at large universities. Admission is driven by athletic recruiting, professors are paid a fraction of what coaches receive, and ethical transgressions in the name of winning no longer even make headlines. Big-time sports have become a central mission of what used to be fine academic institutions. Can you imagine a sexual scandal in some philosophy department bringing down an entire administration, as Penn State’s scandal in the athletic department did?

If we follow the money, we can see the outsized role of sports at major universities. Among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision institutions, average yearly spending per athlete in 2010 was $92,000, while spending per student was less than $14,000. That gap has been growing rapidly. In the 240 universities in the FBS and the Football Championship Subdivision, that is most of the large universities across the country, spending per athlete between 2005 and 2010 increased about 50%, while spending per student grew only 23%.

Where does all this money come from? Although television rights and ticket sales bring in millions to a few of the best-known universities, most athletic programs are funded by the institutions themselves, that is, by students, by government grants, and by endowment. Fewer than one in four of the 97 public universities in the FBS make money on their athletic programs. Across the FBS, student fees and institutions contribute an average of 18% of the athletic budget; in the less prestigious FCS, the contribution is 70%, and in those Division I schools with no football, the contribution is 78%.

Most of the professors at American colleges and universities do not really belong to the faculties or to the institutions. They are “contingent employees” or “adjuncts”, usually part-time, with few benefits and little allegiance to the institution. Very often, they are hired at the last minute, so they cannot adequately prepare. They do not receive the same institutional support for their teaching that the traditional full-time tenure-track professor enjoys: office space to meet with students, secretarial help, advanced technology, sometimes even a telephone. They often are unacquainted with other members of their department and thus with departmental practices and expectations. At 4-year institutions across the country, two-thirds of the teaching staff are impermanent, a proportion which is increasing every year.

Adjuncts are woefully underpaid. A new report about adjunct pay in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows an average of less than $1000 per credit-hour. The average salary for untenured assistant professors in 2012 was $66,500. For an adjunct to earn that much they would have to teach 22 three-credit courses in a year.

Many adjuncts are excellent teachers. But the sub-standard conditions under which adjuncts teach in most universities means that students pay the salaries of the tenured professors, but are often taught by part-time gypsies, flying from one job to another, trying to put together a living.

The third problem comes from the boom in for-profit universities, which enroll about one-tenth of students in higher ed. The graduation rate at for-profits is about 30%, less than half of the rate of traditional non-profit institutions. Enormous quantities of federal student loans are going to students at institutions owned by Wall Street companies who will never graduate or pay them back. The loan default rate of their students is twice that of public universities and three times that of private institutions.

Steve HochstadtEach of these weaknesses in American higher education is connected to money. Universities spend far too much money on athletes and sports. They try to save money by hiring part-time faculty to teach students. Students try to save money by enrolling in for-profit institutions which make money for big corporations by promising more than they can deliver and getting government to pay for it.

There is no cheap way to educate the next generation of scientists, teachers, and business leaders. Education is not a money-maker, and athletics is not education. We are watching the greatest educational system in history slowly fall apart.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Tuesday, 29 January 2013



  1. harry wood says

    I feel it is time the citizens did something to increase the
    education of our children. The current
    school system does not seem to being doing a complete job. There are too many school drop outs at too
    young an age. I do not have access to
    the local or state stats but my guess is children with two parents in the
    households are doing better in school than families with one or zero parents
    (child living with relative). A feeling
    in my gut tells me the current school systems do not serve the disadvantaged as
    well as they do others.

    I think it is time for ALL
    the churches to begin teaching our children how to become a success in our
    country. Our children are the only
    remaining resource that has not been used to the maximum degree, they are being
    short changed. This is not an easy thing
    to do as we may need to pay twice for the education of our children, once to
    the state and then another time to the church.

    The down side is that children who drop out from public or
    private schools tend to end up in another school, the school of hard knocks,
    also known as the justice system where they learn new trades. We would be better served if they did not go
    into the justice system as they come in contact with teachers who train them
    how to be better criminals.

    As the attendance rate at public school systems shrink,
    their state funds should also shrink as they receive X dollars per
    student. Some public schools will be
    closed due to this or combined with others.
    This brings up the dollar cost per student. It will increase as some of us pay twice to
    educate a child. The up side is more
    children will be educated and that is an advantage to us all. More educated children will provide more workers
    to the economy, who pay taxes.

    If you think this idea may cost you some extra money, keep
    in mind that local police agencies use the school drop out rate to determine
    how many new jail cells they will need to build in the future and you pay for
    that. This tells me that you will be
    paying for something, a school for disadvantaged children or a jail cell for
    disadvantaged children. The later is
    also a school where mature criminals teach young children how to be a better
    criminal.. Which one of these plans
    would you rather have? Which one of
    these school systems is more likely to produce new tax payers? I read the cost
    of a jail cell runs from $25,000 to $65,000 dollars per year, the more security
    jails have, the more they cost.

    In the 1930s, my semi-retired grandfather taught young men
    how to work with their hands. He taught
    at what he called a trade school for wayward boys and what might called a
    reform school. It was a school for
    homeless boys/young men, a place where they could learn a trade to use to
    support themselves and a family. They
    lived there year round until they were 18 years of age. In those days, someone
    knew that this was a cheaper long range plan than building more jails. We can teach trades to young people on how to
    make a living by using their hands to build or fix things,like plumbers, AC
    workers, carpenters and home building, home roofing those with college
    educations buy. My grandfather was the
    son of a well known Winchester
    tailor and he taught that trade at the Washington
    D.C. school for many years. Other trades were also taught. These days,
    most suits are ready made. Years ago,
    ready made suits were called rack suits.
    Now, it is hard to find a tailor who makes custom made suits for the
    average guy. My last custom made suit
    was made in 1968.
    We need to improve the students more than we need to improve the schools, teachers can not force educate a child.

  2. harry wood says

    A lot of people do not care much for history, but I on the other hand know it often repeats its self, so I am a big fan, military history for sure. As for tenured teachers, I have no interest in that. Do to my being a person who travelled the world, I went to many colleges/universities until I graduated with a BS-CIS degree. I feel too many tenured teachers are stuck in their subject and do not add to it as time passes. If a student brings up a study from another source, the tenured person discounts it. They are only satisfied with the current status and are not likely to change.

    As for football, at big schools,it pays the cost of running almost the full athletic departmant. I think you may want to check your figures as I understand most athletic departments help fund other projects. True it is the big schools that get the big bucks, but can you ID a school that is taking student money and giving it to the foot ball program? I think the other happens, the foot ball program gives to other departments. At small schools, this may not be as true as it is with big schools. I am sure you are aware of title 9.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *