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Education United States

What's Wrong With the American University System 828

ideonexus writes "The Atlantic has an excellent interview with Andrew Hacker — co-author with Claudia Dreifus of a book titled Higher Education? — covering everything that's wrong with the American university system. The discussion ranges from entrenched tenured professors more concerned with publishing and parking spaces than quality teaching; to 22-year-old students with unrealistic expectations that some company will put them in a management position after graduating with six-figures of debt; to football teams siphoning money away from academic programs so that student tuitions must increase to compensate. It really lays out the farce of university culture and reminds me of everything I absolutely despised about my college life. Dreifus is active in the comments section of the article as well, lending to a fantastic discussion on the subject."
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What's Wrong With the American University System

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  • by sethstorm ( 512897 ) * on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:20PM (#33087338) Homepage

    Fix that first.

    • by Tailhook ( 98486 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:09PM (#33088312)

      most employment...

      ...has been shipped to China.

      Thanks for playing, USA.

      Your decline won't end in a nice environmentally sustainable hippydom either. Alchys and neglect are your future. Detroit, writ large.

      Happy Friday.

    • by SpeedyDX ( 1014595 ) <speedyphoenix@gm ... m minus math_god> on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:52PM (#33089116)

      You know, before I went to university, I thought the exact same thing. What's in it for me? I'm a smart guy, have a high IQ, know a lot. I'm generally smarter than many people who've graduated university. So why do employers insist on a post-secondary degree or diploma to hire for certain positions?

      Then I went to university. Shortly after I got in, my world view got blown the fuck up. There are a lot of important lessons that I've learned in university.

      Humility, respect, and perspective were the first to come. Most of us here were probably at the top of our graduating classes in high school in practically every subject. But once you get into a good university that requires you to take different courses (mine requires at least one full year course or equivalent in each of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Sciences), while you may excel in your own particular field of study, you'll also start to realize that people in other fields of study are equally impressive in their reasoning and knowledge. You'll also start to realize that your interests and expertise do not encompass the world, and that the world is a lot bigger than we tend to give it credit for. People are more intellectually diverse, and that diversity does not mean that they are intellectually inferior. You gain a lot of perspective.

      Your social skills will also improve if you choose to engage in campus social life. Once you get past high school and into university, it seems like most people just press a social reset button. Gone are candies and nerds and other cliques, everyone's just a student. You'll quickly learn the benefits of networking, especially with those people with interests outside of your own, both as a social support mechanism as well as for professional purposes. If you're in the sciences, you'll often find yourself having to work with other people and improving your co-operation and leadership skills, two skills that are key to your professional success.

      Individual work ethics and research skills will also be developed. You learn that there's a lot more to research than Wikipedia (your ass will swiftly be kicked if you try to use it as anything other than a quick overview/starting point). Your post-secondary institution will grant you unlimited access to many research portals, where you can find papers on practically any field of human knowledge. If you do well in university, your employer will know that you've had experience doing a lot of individual research and with strict deadlines approaching. Having good time management skills, self-control, and generally good work ethics are also key to being a good employee.

      Then there's the actual knowledge. I can't personally speak to computer programming/science/engineering, but I do have a friend who graduated with a BSc in Software Engineering. He's told me over the years that he's really learned a lot about programming and software engineering from the school. Software engineering in particular requires you to be open minded and have different perspectives on possible solutions. He learned how to look at the problem from different angles, and different ways to attack similar problems. From my own view, there can really be no replacement for the knowledge I've gained in the past few years at this school. In fact, if I never attended this school, I wouldn't even have known that I was interested in what I'm doing right now, philosophy.

      That's only a few of the many things that I can easily put into words about my experience in university. I've experienced and learned so much more, but I wouldn't have the time, nor the words in many instances, to write about them here. The catch is that you have to be willing to learn. You have to open your mind and look at university as a whole life learning experience. I know many people who just come to school in order to get that piece of paper that will get them a better chance at a job. Some of those people end up realizing the social and educational potential of the university experience at-large, but most of them learn n

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:20PM (#33087340)

    In all fairness, most football programs MAKE money for the University. The ticket sales and merchandising are a HUGE boon for most universities, with little in the way of player salaries to cut into all that phat cash.

    And, even if they didn't make money directly, popular sports programs are often a huge draw for the local donors and alumni supporters that keep most universities going. Like it or not, wealthy alumni and locals are a helluva lot more interested in how the football/basketball teams are doing than how many papers Professor Dipschitz published this year, or how much you've improved your graduation rate.

    And before a bunch of you non-Americans kick in with snide "handegg" remarks, yes I'm aware that you're "football" is different from ours. But we *are* talking about American universities here.

    • by tiptone ( 729456 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:29PM (#33087474)
      It's often the case that the football teams generate a lot of revenue, but that revenue goes to the athletics programs and not back to the university at large.
    • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:37PM (#33087642)

      No, they don't. The ONLY thing they do is raise enrollment. The year after a team wins a championship or does well, they've seen enrollment rise.

      UConn lost roughly $280,000 in football, according to the numbers. Only three BCS programs lost more — Syracuse, which lost $835,000, Wake Forest ($3.07 million) and Duke ($6.72 million). Rutgers, which spent $19.07 million on its football program, was the only other school to fail to make a profit, although the Big East school broke even. [courant.com]

      Basketball doesn't make money either. [csmonitor.com]
      "Let's just take a look at two schools, my own Holy Cross and big-time power North Carolina to highlight the flaws. According to the article, the Holy Cross basketball team racked up $1,549,329 in expenses while generating an identical amount in revenue and therefore exactly broke even.".

      And as a whole, only 19 D1 Football schools were in the black. [sectalk.com]

    • by $hecky ( 445344 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:44PM (#33087772)

      I'm a member of a college athletics committee, and I can tell you with all confidence that while is the common perception of college and university football programs, it simply isn't true. Even in Division I institutions football teams are, as a rule, largely funded by state dollars, student fees, and creative tax exemptions rather than by ticket sales, television contracts, etc. And this has been shown in study after study -- it's even a line that the NCAA toes.

      You can check NCAA financial disclosures to verify this at http://www2.indystar.com/NCAA_financial_reports/ [indystar.com] thanks to a study completed by Mark Alesia in 2006, but a quick Google should point you to a bunch of other studies that give this position the lie. If you'd rather not click through and see the reports yourself, this is a nice summary statement:

      "First off, he [Alesia] found that athletic departments at taxpayer-funded universities nationwide receive more than $1 billion in student fees and general school funds and services, and that without such outside funding, fewer than 10 percent of athletic departments would have been able to support themselves with ticket sales, television contracts and other revenue-generating sports sources. In fact, most would have lost more than $5 million."

      While this is a statement about athletics programs in general rather than football programs specifically, the NCAA financial reports make it clear that even among popular sports like basketball and football, the overwhelming majority of programs are perennial money losers.

      • by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:55PM (#33089202) Journal
        Good post, but the college football revenue landscape has changed dramatically (for a minority of schools) since Alesia's report (2006, using 2005 data).

        TV contract revenue, the prime source of revenue for athletic programs, has more than doubled since Alesia's report -- it's through the roof (well, for domed stadiums; I guess it's over the upper bowl for open stadiums). As of 2008, 58 of 120 D-IA athletic departments were break-even or profitable (source [go.com] -- note that "university" revenue in the source includes government funding, which is channeled through the university). Note that 2009 TV revenue was even higher than 2008. It's probable that over half of DI-A athletic departments are currently profitable.

        Alesia's report is incomplete for some other reasons, notably the correlation between athletic programs and general alumni donations/endowments, and the local economic impact to businesses.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Carik ( 205890 )

      Well... except that according to the article, you're wrong. Straight from the article:

      "And then you look at the so-called big-revenue teams--football and basketball. Those are the powerhouses where there's a lot of recruiting, a lot of it underhanded. Yet if you look at all those powerhouse programs across the country, only seven or eight actually rake in money. All the rest of them lose money."

      I don't know who's right here, but I'd be inclined to trust the researchers writing a book. Also, I can certainl

    • by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:45PM (#33087800) Homepage

      "In all fairness, most football programs MAKE money for the University."

      Not for the university, no. Football funds generally go to the athletic department, which still runs at an overall loss to the university. This is according to the NCAA.

      Those funds are typically used to support the rest of a university's athletic department budget. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, most departments operate at a yearly multimillion-dollar deficit. [PBS Nightly Business Report: The Business of College Football, Part 1]

      http://www.pbs.org/nbr/site/onair/transcripts/071112c/ [pbs.org]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      In all fairness, most football programs MAKE money for the University. The ticket sales and merchandising are a HUGE boon for most universities, with little in the way of player salaries to cut into all that phat cash.

      That's a commonly made claim that's not borne out by facts. There are several books, such as The Game of Life that have examined what data is public (a lot of football programs will guard their finances jealously, even from their universities) and for the most part, football teams are a net money loss for the university.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by moosesocks ( 264553 )


      At my university [wm.edu], ~$1300 of undergraduate tuition/fees per year went toward (our hilariously awful) intercollegiate athletics program.

      On the other hand, our intramural sports and fitness programs cost each student about $130, and had nearly a 100% participation rate.

      Guess which one had its funding cut last year?

  • Corporate (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pak9rabid ( 1011935 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:20PM (#33087342)
    Well, for starters they're operated like for-profit corporations, instead of education institutions
  • by jgtg32a ( 1173373 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:24PM (#33087394)

    The biggest problem with higher education in the USA is it is just a few ticks above what the high-school diploma used to be. IMHO that's because our high-school system is rather poor when it comes down to it. In the end experience is what gets you a job and diploma and degrees simply show that you aren't an absolute idiot. There a lot of jobs that require a degree when there is no need for it.

    • Orange County (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jgtg32a ( 1173373 )

      Shaun: I have to go to college.
      Cindy: Why?
      Shaun: Because it's what you do after high school.

      Just remembered this quote

  • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:26PM (#33087426)
    What is wrong with the university system is because we've screwed up our high school system to pretty much let -everyone- graduate, a diploma now means nothing. Because of this, people who usually should go to a trade school, or just have on-site training from high school is now attending university to stand out in the job market. So because of this, universities are forced to hire sub par teachers to meet the demand and because no one wants to attend a university with a 60% flunk-out rate, universities lower standards. Of course this is just a cat and mouse game, eventually employers are going to require things beyond a bachelors degree for entry-level jobs, etc.

    Fix our high school system by actually -failing- kids who can't do the work. None of this "can I please have extra credit despite me doing nothing but talking in class?" crap that keeps high-profile athletes who are dumber than rocks with "passing" grades.
    • by hibiki_r ( 649814 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:46PM (#33087828)

      Coming from a European high school, and having spend a decade in the US, it seems to me that the courses that everyone that graduated my high school had to take would be equivalent to what many Americans get if they take a whole lot of AP classes. My biggest gripe with the American University was that the entry level general courses had no material I had not covered in High school: Physics I and II, Chemistry I and II, Calculus I, II and III and College Algebra were all covered in HS. Everything higher level than that had better quality content than what I'd have seen in the local University back home.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      What is wrong with the university system is because we've screwed up our high school system to pretty much let -everyone- graduate, a diploma now means nothing.

      Well, except that the US highschool graduation rate peaked in 1969 at 77%, and is now below 70%. So, not only does your complaint not accurately reflect the current state of our high school system (without a ridiculously loose definition of "everyone"), it doesn't even reflect the direction of the current trend.

      But don't let facts get in the way of

  • by Palestrina ( 715471 ) * on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:29PM (#33087472) Homepage

    Name one profession that is _not_ filled with petty politics, sucking up to superiors, back stabbing and arguing over parking spots?

    The difference is only academics write a thick book about it.

  • Almost had me... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:29PM (#33087476)

    The summary started out good but:

    "They blame a system that favors research over teaching and vocational training over liberal arts".

    "The second reason to go to college is get a good liberal arts education."

    I'm not saying get rid of liberal arts. They're great. I loved taking them when I got my BSME. I'm probably going to sneak into a few when I go back for my masters. But there is no reason every decent sized school needs to be graduating even 20 theater majors a year. Hurray, you spent 4 years and $50k to learn to do theater. Now what? Most highschools require you to have a teaching degree too. So now you're limited to off broadway and the such. Something tells me that there isn't a huge demand (at least not enough to match supply).

    The most successful liberal arts major you'll ever meet was most likely one of your liberal arts professors.

    We NEED to be focusing more on vocational training. The world needs ditch diggers. The world also needs mechanics, electricians, welders. We need to quit making high schools force someone who would be an excellent mechanic into going to college 'just because'. Too many parents push their kids into college thinking either "I'm successful, they have to go to be successful too." or "I want my kid to go to college because I didn't to get rich".

    Personally I've liked what I read about other countries where they sort of guide you into a track early in high school. I'm sure it's not perfect and they get the track wrong, but it's a ton better than graduating 10,000 students a year from a decent sized education, 50% of which have a degree that is more or less 100% useless. WTF does an "Art Appreciation" major do?

    I wish I could go back to my high school and give a swift cock punch to my guidance counselor that told me I couldn't take welding because I was college bound. There is so much stuff I'd love to make. Thankfully my dad taught me wood working and home repair and I learned to solder in an internship.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Liberal Arts is not about Theatre, Liberal Arts at the core is about thinking. This country needs more people who can think before they do, not more doers whose educations become obsolete before the ink on their diploma is dry.

      there are many good essays on exactly what Liberal Arts is, you should try reading a few of them before penning ignorant rants.

      This is one of them, http://www2.fiu.edu/~hauptli/MyViewofTheNatureofALiberalArtsEducation.html
      This is a page that describes the expectations of a student th

      • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:59PM (#33088078)

        Liberal Arts at the core is about thinking.

        No, Liberal Arts is about thinking the way pre-scientific people did it.

        Read CP Snow's "Two Cultures", which laments the divide between the sciences and the liberal arts, and justly so.

        So long as the liberal arts fail to adapt to the scientific world-view, including accepting the importance of mathematical reasoning alongside poetry etc, they have ceased to be what they once were, which is the living voice of Western culture. Instead they are just a cozy backwater for the scientifically illiterate.

        The sciences, at the same time, become a cozy backwater for the poetically illiterate.

  • by smoothnorman ( 1670542 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @03:30PM (#33087506)
    "What's wrong with the American University System" is also what's wrong with any university that i've taught at, (ok, that's just the states and a random sprinkling in Europe). "entrenched tenured profs" -hah- in Germany, they don't even have to get out of bed after tenure. and what 22 year old anywhere has realistic expectations? granted, the american university athletic industry connection is an ugly situation special to america, but the rest is just stating an obvious "problem" with universities since 12th century Bologna (no... not some old lunch meat)
    • by Xelios ( 822510 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:18PM (#33088498)
      I've spent semesters at both a Canadian and German university and for the most part they were pretty similar. Most of the professors spent the entire lecture copying the notes posted on the course website onto the blackboard, and in most courses your final grade was entirely dependent on a single exam (and an optional, harder re-exam a few weeks later). Don't expect big differences in that department.

      But in the end I enjoyed the German university far more. For one, tuition was free*. Dealing with the bullshit that comes with a higher education is so much easier when you know you're not digging yourself into five figure debt for the privilege. Aside from that there were lots of perks on the side. The cafeteria served a choice 6 complete meals at lunch time, all between 2 to 4 euros for students including some salad, dessert, soup and a main dish. Students were able to ride all in-state public transportation for free, and it was good public transport. Single dorms were about 250 euros a month. Student loans were provided by the government with 0% interest, 50% to be paid back with payments starting 5 years after graduation. Good marks and early payment could lower that amount even further.

      Last but not least, I was able to get a part time job at the university helping with research projects in my field. I probably learned more about programming through this work with the professor and his staff than I did in any of the lectures, and I was paid for it at the same time. These sorts of jobs were available in almost every department if you cared to ask.

      I still had plenty of gripes, but I'm sure it could have been far worse.

      *Before I get the inevitable "But it's not free you pay for it with taxes" reply yes, you're right. The point is the cost of your education is spread over your entire working life, instead of being dropped on you all at once. And I still had to pay a 120 euro/semester "fee" for administration, student union and so on.
  • by couch_warrior ( 718752 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:16PM (#33088446)
    A modern liberal arts degree is a mostly worthless piece of paper. The degree is chock full of courses in dead literature and useless philosophy. All of which are a holdover form the days of royalty and privilege. The upper classes didn't have to work, so they spent their leisure time filling their heads with literature and philosophical trivia. This made them appear more intelligent than the working-class slobs whose days were filled by 16-hour shifts in the coal mines. And this in turn was used to rationalize a mythical genetic basis for the wealth and leisure of the upper class. It's time to bring colleges and universities into the 21st century. Instead of trying to recreate the old European culture of wealth and privilege, let's trash the whole university system, and create a whole new, publicly funded set of technical degree generating institutions that don't bother with dead and arcane subjects like English or Art. It would be well worth the investment of public funds to have a populace that can compete on a global scale in technical fields. Of course the useless f-tards from wealthy families can still waste their lives on "private sector" liberal arts degrees, the difference being that their lack of technical focus will label them as useless idle slugs instead of the erudite and effete members of the upper crust.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Quirkz ( 1206400 )
      I'm all for practical education, but while I was working on my physics degree (not nearly as practical as I thought it would be), I have to say that the most entertaining, educational, eye-opening, and engaging classes I took in four year of college were my two art history courses. I liked them so much I'll tell any student who will listen they should take one. For me it was just one of those "see the world a completely different way" kind of experiences. Third and fourth favorite were two history courses I
  • Tuition increases! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dougmc ( 70836 ) <dougmc+slashdot@frenzied.us> on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:17PM (#33088480) Homepage

    From the article -- "Tuitions now are twice what they were 25 years ago".

    Hmm, I started at the University of Texas almost 25 years ago. Tuition has gone up by a factor of *10* since then.

    (Seriously -- it was about $400 per semester back then, and now it's over $4000/semester now.)

    Back then, I put myself through college. No loans. Not sure that kids could do that now ...

  • by Yold ( 473518 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:20PM (#33088536)

    From TFA:

    One of your more controversial points is the idea that every student should major in liberal arts...

    ..liberal arts, properly conceived, means wrestling with issues and ideas, putting the mind to work in a way these young people will only be able to do for these four years. And we'd like this for everyone. They can always learn vocational things later, on the job. They can even get an engineering degree later--by the way, in two years rather than four.

    Disagree. Engineering classes also allow people to communicate and explore new ideas, the subject matter is simply more practical and concrete (i.e. the correct answer is more narrowly defined). Also, many quality engineering programs have liberal-education requirements for this reason. People pay a lot of money for college, and forcing them to take non-practical classes won't solve any problems, it will just further burden them with debt when they go back to "engineering school", or whatever the author is suggesting.

    ...you even suggest that graduates should work at Old Navy for a year and ruminate on their lives.

    In our economy, they're not really ready for you until you're 28 or so. They want you to have a number of years behind you. So when somebody comes out of college at 22 with a bachelor's degree, what can that person really offer Goldman Sachs or General Electric or the Department of the Interior? ... There's no rush. That's why I say they should take a year to work at Costco, at Barnes & Noble, whatever, a year away from studying, and think about what they really want to do.

    ARE YOU SERIOUS!? I quit reading the article at this point. I worked my ass off in shitty IT jobs over the last 7 years, double majored in 5 years, and this guy want me to go fold shirts or flip burgers?! I didn't expect (and don't have) a fat salary, but I do well enough to be comfortably middle-class at age 24, doing work that I somewhat enjoy. Also, there is a "rush", its called interest on my student loans.

    I agree that there is a lot of stuff wrong with American Universities. Rich kids have an inherent advantage because they don't have to work during college. They socialize in Greek organizations, making connections to their future rich buddies, while lower and middle class kids like me bust our asses.

  • by Alaska Jack ( 679307 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:21PM (#33088572) Journal

    Football (and athletics in general) are not causing tuition to skyrocket. As much as I wish it were so, the numbers just don't add up. For example, tuition has also skyrocketed at schools (like mine) that don't even have football teams.

    I think the cause is even simpler. The problem is, no one wants to talk about it because there is no easy, feel-good solution.

    Thesis: The raise in tuition rates over the last 40 years or so is largely due to the easy availability of *cheap student loans.*

    I don't think this should be particularly controversial: It is a logical outcome completely consistent with classical supply/demand economics.

    Let's say the government prints money and starts giving it away. Everyone is richer, right? Wrong, of course -- that money is now worth less, so prices all go up. That's inflation. This is the same scenario, except that the money can only be used for one specific purpose: education. It should logically follow that the price of that education will simply go up correspondingly.

    I'm not going to propose any solutions, because I don't want to start some stupid partisan flamewar. I just want to suggest that the widely perceived *solution* to high education costs is actually the *driver* of those costs.

        - AJ

    EDIT: Just found this:

    "The simple economics of student loan crises"
    http://dmarron.com/2009/09/15/the-simple-economics-of-student-loan-crises/ [dmarron.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Shados ( 741919 )

      Exactly. This isn't the only field where thats true either. There are places where the government tries to help people buy houses in similar ways. End result: house price skyrocketing (that happened pretty badly in places that started allowing people to use their retirement money to pay cashdowns on mortages. House price goes waaaay up instantly.)

  • The real reason (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hdparm ( 575302 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:51PM (#33089114) Homepage
    The discussion ranges from entrenched tenured professors more concerned with publishing and parking spaces than quality teaching

    My daughter yesterday received her Masters Degree from the Auckland University of Technology (NZ). Guest speaker at the event was eminent New Zealand scientist Dr Ray Avery. One of those brilliant scientists who actually did some great things and provided for underprivileged around the world.

    He also has a lot of experience teaching at some of the best known schools. The one thing he underlined in his speech yesterday was the fact that New Zealand students have a big advantage to the most of the places he visited in being taught by educators who not only are of the highest professional calibre but people who, almost across the board, have retained the most important attribute of any educator at any level - their humanism.

    Now, if indeed there is something wrong with the high education system in the USA, I'd suggest this would be the starting point in fixing it.

  • by hoppo ( 254995 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @05:45PM (#33089938)

    Because so many people go to college, curricula are dumbed-down to appease the masses. Universities want to be seen as paragons of learning. However, so many kids go to college for no other reason than because they feel compelled to do so, in order to prepare them for the working world. The providers are pushing knowledge for the sake of gaining knowledge, but the consumers are looking for job training. This is a big dislocation -- the majority of students do not have any interest in the core competencies of the university system, and the university system is ill-equipped to provide what much of their market demands (how many CS or IS grads come and work in your companies and have to unlearn just about everything they've learned over the previous four years?).

    The notion that white-collar training should come from college should be obsolete. Reviving and expanding vocational training would have a positive effect on higher education. Take skill set programs, such as IS (not CS though), accounting, and (especially) management, just to name a few, out of the college system, and put them into a more vocation-oriented education system. You'd end up with happier students, more appropriately-focused universities, and a workforce whose younger members are more prepared to be productive.

Neutrinos have bad breadth.