declining by degrees: higher education at risk


At a time when a college education is vital to an individual's future and our nation's economic standing in the world, "Declining By Degrees: Higher Education at Risk," a two-hour documentary airing on PBS, explores the simple yet significant question: What happens between admission and graduation? The answer: often not enough.

With more than 14 million students at 4,200 colleges, serious questions are being raised about the quality of teaching and learning, retention and graduation rates and the skills of those students who earn their diploma. As Lara Couturier, a higher education consultant explains, "There's been report after report and commission after commission formed of business leaders who are calling out to higher education and saying 'We need to change the system. We are not satisfied with the level of skills that our employees are showing up with.'"

"Declining by Degrees" takes viewers to college campuses around the country to hear firsthand from students, teachers and administrators who provide candid insights of the national problems and challenges facing higher education in America. It's a topic too important to ignore. As Richard Hersh, former president of Trinity College and Hobart and William Smith College says, "Higher education is about the future. And it is about the way in which we travel to the future in terms of being prepared, or it's the way in which we fail the future."

Being prepared is one of the first and biggest challenges freshman college students encounter. As Matt Morris, a freshman at a regional university in Kentucky, was moving in he was already aware he was not ready for the academic demands of college. "I could have been a straight 'A' student in high school," says Matt, "I was 'A-B', without bringing a book home, so I don't have very good study skills."

Hersh says Matt represents an increasing problem. "I think we're taking many, many more students who are not prepared for college. I think that's true. I think we have to ask questions about who should we be admitting, and how should they be better prepared before."

Another obstacle to learning has to do with size. Across the country, students and professors cited large lectures on large campuses as an easy way to get lost. As Keith Caywood, a student at a public research university with more than 37,000 students, put it, "I got swallowed up. I didn't know where any of my classes were. It was such a large campus." He says he had classes of 200 people and, "no one knew if I was there or not." Caywood dropped out after his freshman year, as did 22% of the other freshman students that year.

Other students felt college was not demanding enough. Robin Bhalla, a senior at the same large university, recalls his years of getting by without much effort, "Teachers always say, you know, 'read this and this and this'," says Robin. "'For every class, you should have a certain amount of readings done.' I never did that. At the beginning of each class, I just start scanning the reading or looking at my notes to see what the teacher said was important, and I usually do fine." Despite frequent nights of drinking, Robin made the Dean's List and ultimately graduated.

George Kuh, the director of a national survey for college students, estimates about 20% of college students drift through their college years. "A sizable number of students are enrolled, stay enrolled and graduate from college having been required to put forth little effort into their studies. A substantial number of people kind of sleepwalk, if you will, through college."

Teachers have different challenges that can compromise the quality of teaching and learning. One problem often reported is that rewards aren't given out based on teaching.

Brian Strow, an economics professor who hopes to get tenure, says there is a lot of pressure from his college administration to engage in more research. "Clearly if I want a raise, it's going to be through research," he says. "I'm not going to get raises based on quality of teaching, no matter how good that teaching is."

"Declining by Degrees" also highlights the impact of market forces in higher education today. The reality of the college experience today often depends on the bottom line: money. As one university president described it, "The state taxpayer support for public universities is eroding. That creates financial stress that we all understand and we just manage it. We just deal with it the best we can."

The two-hour documentary examines the public and government's decreasing financial commitment to higher education. Sixty years ago our country entered into what amounted to a social contract to ensure access to college for all despite family income. States supported public colleges and the federal government helped with money for the poor. Today, the funds and the support for the social contract are diminishing.

As Pat Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, explains, "The federal Pell Grant program is the nation's largest program that focuses on the lowest income students who actually get to go to college. In the early 80's, that program had about 3 or 4 billion dollars in it, and it covered over 95 percent of the average tuition at a 4-year public college or university." Today it's about 57%.

The impact on students is a decrease in access to higher education. Ceylon Hollis, a student at a midwest regional college, illustrates the reality of how hard it is for many to afford college. By day, Ceylon is a full-time student. At night, she is a full-time factory worker on an assembly line. "When I first started college, I used to have credit cards, and that's what I used to pay my classes off with... classes and books," says Ceylon. "I thought that I was going to be able to get those credit cards paid off, but the ... it just got bigger and bigger and, the next thing you know, that card was maxed out and I got another one in the mail." Ceylon expects to owe about $26,000 when she graduates.

Ceylon is not alone. One in five college students works full-time while pursuing a full-time degree plan.

In an effort to balance budgets, colleges and universities are increasingly depending on part-time teachers. Bob Gibson, a philosophy professor, teaches 280 students in nine classes at three colleges in the Denver area. "I wish I could tailor-make my delivery and my tools for each class for each student," Gibson says, "Can't do it. Too many kids. Too many students. Too many classes."

Nationally, nearly half of all college faculty are part-timers, up from only 22% in 1970.

Other market influences impacting higher education today that are explored in the program include the "arms race" in building and creating campus amenities to attract students, increasing importance of college rankings by the media, and big-time college sports.

The news is not all grim. In our reporting, we encountered people and programs aimed at making higher education in America better. We met dedicated teachers using technology to more effectively engage and educate students in large lecture classes. We observed learning communities where students are grouped to facilitate learning as well as students who illustrate the power of higher education in opening doors of opportunity and deepening learning.

Educators and experts across the country say the time for reform is now. "The system is at great risk. And we don't have the liberty of waiting to see what happens," says Couturier. "We have to stop now. We have to have this conversation now... about what does society need from higher education? We're going to look back in 10 years and see how much we've lost."

Learning Matters Inc., a New York City based non-profit company, spent two years on college campuses around the country. We visited an elite private school in Massachusetts, a large public research university in Arizona, a community college in Colorado and a midsize regional university in Kentucky. The challenges facing teaching and learning at our country's institutions came alive through the students, teachers and administrators we met.

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