Monday, February 3, 2014

Pragmatism Prevails at American Colleges

From 2010 through 2012, freshman enrollment at more than 25 percent of American 4-year private colleges declined 10 percent or more; from 2006 through 2009, fewer than one and five such schools had suffered a similar decline.[1] Georgian Court “University” in New Jersey saw its entering class shrink by a third in 2012. Rockford College, the administration of which had foolishly spent the college’s entire endowment to buy a college in Europe only to sell it without realizing much if any financial gain, “re-invented” the college as a university in 2013. The name-only change made it possible for more foreign students aided by their respective governments to attend. To be sure, hubris was also palpable in the motivation, particularly as the college was still a college on the ground, such as in the insistence that locals use the word UNIVERSITY. In short, the colleges having distant orbits from the academic sun self-identified themselves by their own desperate measures. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
More than one factor likely contributed to the declining trend pertaining to the small 4-year colleges. In this essay, I bring out a rather subtle contributor.
First, the usual suspects. College costs, and thus tuition, were increasing at triple the rate of inflation. Academics, at least those without business experience or a M.B.A., may not be equipped to manage a college efficiently. For example, how many colleges hire lecturers to teach the basic courses, reducing the payroll of professors? Additionally, how many colleges encourage faculty to video-tape lectures for the students to watch on-line so class sessions can concentrate on problem-solving (e.g., mathematics) and answering questions? Each faculty member would be able to teach more courses per term, hence lowering the faculty payroll.
Another factor typically in the media is the onslaught of lower-cost online courses especially at the “on-line universities” such as the University of Phoenix. The number of Americans taking at least one course on-line increased 45 percent between 2008 and 2013.[2] Although administrators at some traditional “brick and mortar” colleges were adding on-line course options, the increase of 45 percent generally put increasing pressure on courses that are delivered traditionally rather than on-line. Why pay so much more if the learning outcome is the same? Or is it? Do we know, particularly if a moving target is involved?
Lest it be thought that changing democraphics—fewer people entering college following the baby-boomers’ children—account for the decline, the on-line-oriented for-profit “universities” saw greatly expanding enrollment numbers. This is not to say that this factor is a dead-end. The very notion of a for-profit university oriented to delivering content in ways that are most convenient to students evinces a conflation of vocationalism and education—skill and knowledge, respectively. Whereas the former answers how to questions, the latter explains and thus is oriented to mostly to why questions. On-line “universities” were able to leverage the credibility in educational institution while using technology fit particularly for skills.
Moreover, the value of a college degree was increasingly based on vocational criteria. According to the Wall Street Journal, “questions about a college degree’s value” were “challenging centuries-old business models.”[3] In other words, the lack of any good job prospects for graduating seniors was assumed to mean that the college degree had lost value. That a college might exist to answer intellectual curiosity and, moreover, enable people to be educated had been largely forgotten. The value of the practical in American society had finally interlarded itself in “higher” education. What would Jefferson and Adams, who agreed that a virtuous and educated citizenry is vital to a viable republic, think?

1. Douglas Belkin, “Private Colleges Squeezed,” The Wall Street Journal, November 9-10, 2013.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.