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Higher Education

  • Does College Matter? Of Course

    Written on June 19, 2019

    Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, adjunct professor at Duke and Columbia Universities. At Duke, he also serves as Innovator in Residence. He previously served as Deputy Schools Chancellor for New York City and is President Emeritus of the IBM Foundation and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute Board of Directors.

    Over the last 35 years, since the release of A Nation At Risk, the nation has focused on the need for school reform and used high school graduation rates as the single most important benchmark for measuring educational success. This is somewhat ironic, given that high school attendance in the U.S. was not made mandatory until the end of the Second World War. Before that, virtually every state had a requirement for school attendance from grade one through grade eight, but high school attendance, just like college attendance now, was strictly voluntary. Of course, in the first half of the 20th century, significant numbers of  well paying jobs in manufacturing and other areas of work only required an eighth grade education. Beginning in the 1970s and into 1984 and over the following three decades, the number of good jobs with competitive wages that were available to those who had only completed eighth grade began a precipitous decline. For many years, it has been clear that a high school diploma or higher is absolutely essential to achieving a pathway to a middle class life. America's response to the challenge of raising the percentage of high school graduates was far from perfect, but with exceptions, we have seen a steady increase in high school graduation rates in most though not all states. Beginning in the early years of the 21st Century, however, changes in the U.S. economy have made it crystal clear that high school diplomas, while still extremely important, are not enough to enable most Americans to achieve the “middle-class dream.”

    In this light, the recent report, "Building a Grad Nation," is an important read. It documents the progress that the nation has made in higher high school graduation rates—the overall high school graduation rate showed an increase from 79 percent in 2011 to close to 85 percent by 2017. This statistic represents an increase of 3.5 million U.S. students who graduated from high school instead of dropping out over the last 15 years.

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  • Contingent Faculty At U.S. Colleges And Universities

    Written on September 9, 2016

    In a previous post, we discussed the prevalence of and trends in alternative employment arrangements, sometimes called “contingent work,” in the U.S. labor market. Contingent work is jobs with employment arrangements other than the “traditional” full-time model, including workers with temporary contracts, independent contractors, day laborers, and part-time employees.

    Depending on how one defines this group of workers, who are a diverse group but tend to enjoy less job stability and lower compensation, they comprise anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, and this share increased moderately between 2000 and 2010. Of course, how many contingents there are, and how this has changed over time, varies quite drastically by industry, as well as by occupation. For example, in 1990, around 28 percent of staffing services employees (sometimes called “temps”) worked in blue collar positions, while 42 percent had office jobs. By 2009, these proportions had reversed, with 41 percent of temps in blue collar jobs and 23 percent doing office work. This is a pretty striking change.

    Another industry/occupation in which there has been significant short term change in the contingent work share is among faculty and instructors in higher education institutions.

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  • The Virtue Of Boring In Education

    Written on October 16, 2014

    The College Board recently released the latest SAT results, for the first time combining this release with that of data from the PSAT and AP exams. The release of these data generated the usual stream of news coverage, much of which misinterpreted the year-to-year changes in SAT scores as a lack of improvement, even though the data are cross-sectional and the test-taking sample has been changing, and/or misinterpreted the percent of test takers who scored above the “college ready” line as a national measure of college readiness, even though the tests are not administered to a representative sample of students.

    It is disheartening to watch this annual exercise, in which the most common “take home” headlines (e.g., "no progress in SAT scores" and "more, different students take SAT") are in many important respects contradictory. In past years, much of the blame had to be placed on the College Board’s presentation of the data. This year, to their credit, the roll-out is substantially better (hopefully, this will continue).

    But I don’t want to focus on this aspect of the organization's activities (see this post for more); instead, I would like to discuss briefly the College Board’s recent change in mission.

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  • In Opposition To Academic Boycotts

    Written on December 19, 2013

    Our guest author today is Rita Freedman, Acting Executive Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, and a recent retiree from the American Federation of Teachers.

    There is a growing, worldwide effort to ostracize Israel and to make it into a pariah state. (This despite the fact that Israel is still the only democratic country in the Middle East.)  A key ingredient of this campaign is the call to boycott, divest from and impose sanctions on Israel (known as BDS for boycott, divest, sanction).  Within the world of higher education, this takes the form of calls to boycott all Israeli academic institutions, sometimes including boycotting all Israeli scholars and researchers. The rationale is that this will somehow pressure Israel into an agreement with the Palestinians, one which will improve their lot and lead to an independent Palestinian state that exists adjacent to the State of Israel (although it is worth noting that some in the BDS movement envision a future without the existence of Israel).  

    Certainly, the goals of improving life for the Palestinian people, building their economy and supporting their democratic institutions – not to mention supporting the creation of an independent Palestine that is thriving and getting along peacefully with its Israeli neighbor – are entirely worthy. 

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  • The Wrong Way To Publish Teacher Prep Value-Added Scores

    Written on November 14, 2013

    As discussed in a prior post, the research on applying value-added to teacher prep programs is pretty much still in its infancy. Even just a couple of years of would go a long way toward at least partially addressing the many open questions in this area (including, by the way, the evidence suggesting that differences between programs may not be meaningfully large).

    Nevertheless, a few states have decided to plow ahead and begin publishing value-added estimates for their teacher preparation programs. Tennessee, which seems to enjoy being first -- their Race to the Top program is, a little ridiculously, called “First to the Top” -- was ahead of the pack. They have once again published ratings for the few dozen teacher preparation programs that operate within the state. As mentioned in my post, if states are going to do this (and, as I said, my personal opinion is that it would be best to wait), it is absolutely essential that the data be presented along with thorough explanations of how to interpret and use them.

    Tennessee fails to meet this standard. 

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  • How Important Is Undergraduate Teaching In Public R1 Universities? How Important Should It Be?

    Written on April 29, 2013

    Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College's interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

    I ended my previous post by arguing that (1) if teaching is at least as valuable as research, and (2) nontenure-track (NTT) faculty teach at least as well as tenure-track (TT) faculty, then the very large pay disparities between the two classes of faculty that characterize American universities today violate a basic principle of workplace fairness: equal pay for equal work. When conditions (1) and (2) are met, then, all an institution can do to defend current practice is plead poverty: we can’t afford to do what we ourselves must acknowledge to be “the right thing."

    But what about places like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where I work? Is condition (1) met in what are sometimes called “R1” universities like mine? If not, maybe big pay disparities are warranted by the fact that, in such universities, research is a much higher institutional priority than undergraduate teaching. If teaching is a low enough priority, current pay inequalities could be justified by the fact that NTT faculty are not paid to do research and publishing – even though many of them do it – and, conversely, that most TT faculty pay is for their research and publishing, rather than their teaching.

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  • Are Nontenure-Track Faculty Worse Teachers? The Short Answer Is No.

    Written on April 15, 2013

    Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College's interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

    Critics of higher education’s growing reliance on nontenure-track (NTT) faculty for undergraduate teaching routinely assert that NTT faculty are inferior teachers, and, therefore, that the quality of undergraduate education is deteriorating. This is true even of critics such as Marc Bousquet, the author of How the University Works (2008), who see themselves as friends of exploited NTT faculty and supporters of efforts to organize them into unions.

    I think that these critics are wrong, and that their error has two important negative consequences: first, it devalues the work that NTT faculty do; and second, it impedes our understanding of one of the major successes of the “neoliberal” model - that it has been able to introduce a two-tiered faculty system in which many newer faculty are paid half or less of what the top tier is paid per class, without dramatic decline in the quality of undergraduate education that would de-legitimize the two-track system.

    To understand how this has been possible – and where the critics go wrong – we need to start by asking: What determines teaching quality? I would suggest that there are five major determinants:

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  • College Attainment In The U.S. And Around The World

    Written on October 16, 2012

    A common talking point in circles in that college attainment in the U.S. used to be among the highest in the world, but is now ranked middling-to-low (the ranking cited is typically around 15th) among OECD nations. As is the case when people cite rankings on the PISA assessment, this is often meant to imply that the U.S. education system is failing and getting worse.*

    The latter arguments are of course oversimplifications, given that college attendance and completion are complex phenomena that entail many factors, school and non-school. A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this post - obviously, the causes and “value” of a postsecondary education vary within and between nations, and are subject to all the usual limitations inherent in international comparisons.

    That said, let's just take a very quick. surface-level look at the latest OECD figures for college attainment (“tertiary education," meaning associate-level, bachelor's or advanced degree), which have recently been released for 2010.

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  • College For All; Good Jobs For A Few?

    Written on August 21, 2012

    A recent study by the Center for Policy Research (CEPR) asks the question that must be on the minds of college grads, now working as coffee shop baristas: “Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?" The answer: swallowed by corporate profits and the personal portfolios of the ultrawealthy.

    Despite the fact that the American economy has experienced “enormous” productivity gains since the late 1970’s, the study finds that the number of “good jobs” (defined as those paying at least $37,000 per year, with employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan) has declined from 27.4 percent in 1979 to 24.6 percent in 2010.  This discouraging trend was strong even before the onset of the country’s economic crisis: in 2007, the year before the onset of the recession, only 25 percent of college grads had “good jobs."

    CEPR notes that the prevailing explanations for the failure to share productivity gains are “technology” and lack of necessary skills among American workers. But, if this were true, the CEPR study argues, one would expect college grads to have a higher share of good jobs than they did 30 years ago. They don’t. Instead, at every age level, today’s college grads are less likely to have a “good job” than their 1970s counterparts. This is especially surprising, the researchers note, since twice as many Americans now have advanced degrees as compared to the 1970’s.

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  • The Real “Trouble” With Technology, Online Education And Learning

    Written on July 24, 2012

    It’s probably too early to say whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a "tsunami" or a "seismic shift," but, continuing with the natural disaster theme, the last few months have seen a massive “avalanche” of press commentary about them, especially within the last few days.

    Also getting lots of press attention (though not as much right now) is Adaptive/Personalized Learning. Both innovations seem to fascinate us, but probably for different reasons, since they are so fundamentally different at their cores. Personalized Learning, like more traditional concepts of education, places the individual at the center. With MOOCs, groups and social interaction take center stage and learning becomes a collective enterprise.

    This post elaborates on this distinction, but also points to a recent blurring of the lines between the two – a development that could be troubling.

    But, first things first: What is Personalized/Adaptive Learning, what are MOOCs, and why are they different?

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