by Dennis Selder
It seems paradoxical to suggest that administrators and college presidents may be partly responsible for public disinvestment in higher education when the principal justification for having them around is to secure funds for their respective institutions. And yet, in examining the evidence, the conclusion is hard to deny.
For a long time now, public disinvestment in education has been worsening across the country, as The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s interactive: 25 Years of Declining State Support for Public Colleges shows. Additionally, many people have pointed out, much of this disinvestment has been loaded onto the backs of part-timers; the other major chunk has been handed over to students and their parents. Being an ex-student with student loan debt, a parent with a child about to go to college, and a part-time teacher, I am confronting the triple whammy of public disinvestment, and it’s not a bright future.
So what is the root of disinvestment, and what role are administrators of higher ed playing, if any, in encouraging this weed to get harder to pull out?
The obvious cause for public disinvestment has been the sharp shift in public perception to the right since Reagan. The “pay-for-it-yourself, loser” philosophy has been encouraged unrelentingly, and funded as it has been by the billionaires among us, the idea has only gotten more entrenched. The Right’s success in pushing this attitude, which economist Robert Reich suggests has done nothing if not damaged the American economy, is evident in the current patterns of wealth distribution in the United States. Class mobility, while no worse than it was in the seventies, falls below that of many industrialized countries. And wealth distribution trends now mean that even the upper middle class is losing ground. But what about the less obvious causes that are more specific to higher education itself? I argue that the policies and agenda administrators have been pushing have worked to erode the public’s willingness to spend more on education. Specifically, at the same time that colleges are starving for money, administrators feed the public an ongoing diet of platitudes and assurances, telling them that everything is wonderful. It’s a PR campaign designed to make them look competent, but in reality it just leads the public to conclude that they are spending enough on education and could probably spend less.
Below I describe three areas where the ongoing public relations campaign of “community colleges as bowls of cherries schtick” is prominent in creating the public’s misperception of education:
In my neighborhood, when I see someone adding an addition to the house or remodeling the kitchen, my first instinct is to think, “Oh, Jerry must be doing well.” Contractors are expensive, and we all know they are. But on college campuses, the contractors project more the feel of a military operation for the size and scope of their projects. They leave the homeowner with “Joe’s Doors and Cabinets” emblazoned on the side of his van in the dust by comparison. So–I argue–the act of construction itself sends the clear message: “We’re rolling in dough, thank you very much.” If the campuses have so much disposable income to maintain ongoing construction, then why in the world would they need more public money?
Add to this subtextual message that ongoing construction continues unabated. The Movie The Never Ending Tale should have been about infrastructure development on college campuses. (And it should have had a bigger budget.) In this fantasy world, the movie would start with administrators consulting with the spiritualist who told Mrs. Winchester that she would die if she stopped building her crazy house.
My personal pet peeve in this regard is the massive stadium going up at Southwestern College. At the same time the tinted glass is going in so that sports commentators can look straight into the sun, no individual office space exists on campus for seven hundred part-time teachers. Part-imers dwarf the full-time teaching population by four to one, and yet we have no place to meet privately with students. Build infrastructure, sure! But build where it’s actually going to benefit students, not where it serves to simply raise the profile of the community college.
The Language of Continuing Success
One of the unfortunate outcomes of collaboration between business and education has been the temptation, to which education has succumbed, to borrow technologies of management and foist these on educators. This development is then converted into a series of quantified outcomes that show continual improvement without regard to public investment. For administrators, who do not have any direct control over teaching themselves, the temptation to exercise their will through these mechanisms has been irresistible. As a result, they have found it convenient to reconceive the “community of learners” as a manufacturing operation in which students are both consumer and end product. Under this model, instead of colleagues, full-timers and chairs have become “managers.” Part-timers, crucially, have become the factory workers. (And if full-timers are wise, they will realize that as managers, not many are needed on the factory floor.) The technologies employed to ensure a consistently well-made product include student and teacher evaluations, student learning outcomes, assessments, and a range of metrics, including quantified graduation and certificate awards, transfer rates, success rates upon entering a four-year institution, or whatever metric need be invented for the situation at hand.
In the end, though, from a public relations perspective, what do all these numbers amount to? I argue they become one giant PR campaign designed to sell the message that education is improving even when it’s getting worse. Even when the numbers work against these narratives, the quantifiability of students and teachers allows them to assure the public that control is being exercised and identified and will be corrected. And the messages are endlessly repeated: “Progress is being made.” “Education is progressing.” “Students are learning more than they were a year before.” At the same time, the relationship of spending to classroom size, work assigned, office hours, teacher turnover rates, quantities of new hires, campus climate “snapshots” are left out of the picture.
Technology to the Rescue
The promise that through technology learning can be mechanized or mass produced, delivered and consumed goes along with the manufacturing model described above. It works for cars, right? Why not people? That is the “Technology to the Rescue” message: cheaper, better, faster. The problem with technological fixes is that they leave out the development of higher order thinking skills and the key role that mentoring plays in its development, a consciousness best fostered in a reasonably-sized classroom in conversation among peers. It’s a false promise being sold to the public, and it leads the public to conclude more cost savings in education may lie ahead.
An example of how this inattention to what is most important in education–thinking–is evident in a recent issue of the Community College Journal, in an article is entitled “Game Changers: Six technologies that are transforming community college education and training.” The author, Steve Furier, who writes about technology in corporate environments, suggests that MOOC’s, 3D printers, game-based learning, mobile devices, media literacy, and big data are going to make education better and cheaper. Integrating tablets, for instance, is something teachers are starting to do in the classroom, why, we are not told, although in one particular case, he points out that a class in how to make apps for mobile apps is a useful skill to learn. This is true, but it’s not making the app that’s important so much as having someone guide the learners through the process of making the app that makes the exercise meaningful.
Where Do We Go from Here?
What can college administrators do to stop shooting us all in the foot? First, they can start spending more money in the places where it matters. With respect to infrastructure, part-timers don’t have adequate office space. Sure, building cubicles with the occasional window and computer hookup doesn’t make the same splash as the new stadium, but it will actually help students rather than add one more distraction.
Second, they can balance the rhetoric of testing, monitoring, evaluation, and assessment with the acknowledgment of the reality that it’s ultimately the ability to observe carefully, think critically and creatively that’s going to prepare students to deal with globalization, climate change, population growth, mass extinction, and threatened food supplies that we may soon as a species be facing. In the case of the two most basic of skills, the ability to write well is not just about mastering the rules of Standard English and grammar; it’s also about being able to respond with a real argument to real problems that people find themselves in and using the writing process to further that thinking. This is not something that can be measured on a standardized test or taught to a passive student.
Even math, which appears on the surface to be so eminently testable, in the end requires enormous creativity and patience for a person to be be any good.
Third, the shortcomings of technology in education need to set against “their enormous promise.” Trekkies and optimists have always been helpful that technology can solve all our problems. But we need to acknowledge the reality that they also create problems. Most particularly in the case of community colleges is this latest administrator obsession with MOOC’s or (Massive Online Open Courses). Studies in pedagogy established long ago that lecturing is the least effective approach to teaching that educators have available in their classrooms. And yet with MOOC’s, its proponents take lecturing even further away from the student by shooting it through a computer screen at the student, hoping something other than boredom is going to transfer. For the populations of students we teach at California Community Colleges, this is a pipe dream, and the sooner administrators wake up from it, the better off we all will be.
You can follow Dennis Selder on twitter at @erasmusonline