The Ugly Side of the Elites: Derek Bok Knows What’s Good for You

Former Harvard University President Derek Bok has an essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed that I find disturbing. It’s not that Improving the Quality of Higher Education contains frightening revelations about the current state of post-secondary education–indeed, for most of the essay Bok simply repeats points he has made in his earlier books Our Underachieving Colleges (2007) and Higher Education in America (2013) and elsewhere–no, it’s Bok’s narrow focus on all of the things that higher ed is supposedly doing wrong that bothers me. The lack of context, if you will, or, put another way, the myopic disregard of the unintended consequences that lay waste to the best intentions of education reformers.

Let’s look at some of the particulars in Bok’s bill of indictment: “Increasing graduation rates and levels of educational attainment will accomplish little if students do not learn something of lasting value,” he begins, then adds

Yet federal efforts over the last several years have focused much more on increasing the number of Americans who go to college than on improving the education they receive once they get there.

By concentrating so heavily on graduation rates and attainment levels, policy makers are ignoring danger signs that the amount that students learn in college may have declined over the past few decades and could well continue to do so in the years to come. The reasons for concern include:

  • College students today seem to be spending much less time on their course work than their predecessors did 50 years ago, and evidence of their abilities suggests that they are probably learning less than students once did and quite possibly less than their counterparts in many other advanced industrial countries.

  • Employers complain that many graduates they hire are deficient in basic skills such as writing, problem solving and critical thinking that college leaders and their faculties consistently rank among the most important goals of an undergraduate education.

  • Most of the millions of additional students needed to increase educational attainment levels will come to campus poorly prepared for college work, creating a danger that higher graduation rates will be achievable only by lowering academic standards.

  • More than two-thirds of college instructors today are not on the tenure track but are lecturers serving on year-to-year contracts. Many of them are hired without undergoing the vetting commonly used in appointing tenure-track professors. Studies indicate that extensive use of such instructors may contribute to higher dropout rates and to grade inflation.

  • States have made substantial cuts in support per student over the past 30 years for public colleges and community colleges. Research suggests that failing to increase appropriations to keep pace with enrollment growth tends to reduce learning and even lower graduation rates.

I’ll be addressing each of these points in subsequent posts, but for starters let’s take Bok’s last particular first. We’ll assume his assertion that per-student state spending has decreased at public and community colleges over time is correct. Some studies I have seen confirm it, others do not.

First of all, so what? Looking at a thirty-year spending trajectory, one would hope to see a per-student reduction in costs. More reasonably, one might expect a sharp decrease. Why? One hopes the stewards of public monies (the states) seize every opportunity that presents itself to improve efficiencies, thereby reducing the tax burden on its citizens and ensuring they get the most bang for their hard-earned bucks.

In addition, the proliferation of on-line courses, distance learning, and computer-assisted learning all reduce the #1 driver of higher ed expense, faculty salaries.

Another reason, perhaps the main reason, is that during this same thirty-year period the federal government has stepped up its spending on higher education, thus relieving the states but not adversely affecting the dollars spent per-student. See this 2015 Pew study for more information.

But more importantly, Bok’s conclusion that a reduction in per-student (FTE? Headcount? Who knows!) spending “tends to reduce learning and even lower graduation rates” is based on…what? Here is where I begin to suspect advancing age has rendered Bok tone-deaf to the multiple demands visited upon public colleges and universities, or perhaps he has turned a blind-eye to the mission of public institutions, which, briefly defined by Campus Compact, is that they be “vital agents and architects of a diverse democracy.”

The diversity of the student population in all of higher education has grown wildly in the last thirty years. Nowhere is this growth seen more clearly than on two kinds of campuses: the super-rich, which can and do buy the students they fancy, and the public, which do the hard work of attempting to educate anybody and everybody who knocks on their doors.

When a changing society demands–or requires–that the individuals attending college increase both in number and in kind, dollars (the tax-payer kind) have to stretch further. Unlike, for example, Amherst College, with a current nest egg of just over $2 billion in endowment and a student body that claims to be 45% “students of color,” Bunker Hill Community College (BCHH), located in formerly lily-white Charlestown, educates a student body that is 63% “students of color,”* with an endowment of zero and an open enrollment policy. So, yes, President Bok, you might find when state institutions answer the call to serve a diverse, disparate, and often disastrously underprepared student body, they do everything they can to make their dollars go as far as they possibly can. To do otherwise would mean that many students who in college would be denied that opportunity–which I suppose is your point.

But let’s get real. These students aren’t classics majors. Some of them aren’t even planning to graduate. They are, instead, learning how to draw blood or take x-rays; they are learning how to fix your Audi or your Prius; they are learning how to prepare nutritious and delicious meals. In short–they are getting the education they need in order to do the kind of work your kind of Americans prefer to hire somebody to do for them.

Why not let these students–and they states that provide them the opportunity–pursue the education they want without the potshots.


*BCHH is so diverse in fact that its “director of diversity and inclusion” is one Thomas Saltonstall. I guess they had to put the token WASP in the workforce somewhere.

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