A Modest Proposal

(With apologies to Jonathan Swift!)

There are a number of serious problems facing higher education today. To begin with, as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, the vast majority of American colleges and universities are failing to deliver quality education. To make matters worse, the cost of tuition at our nation’s colleges and universities has risen nearly 440% in the last three decades leaving many graduating students deep in debt and discouraging others from even matriculating in the first place. This has given impetus to online “universities” which are proliferating at a dizzying rate while a number of legitimate universities are scrambling to get on board and marginal ones face bleak prospects. I have discussed some of these problems piecemeal in past blogs, but I have not yet discussed them as a whole together with my suggestions for a model that would address many of these problems simultaneously. That is the purpose of this blog.

I have suggested that universities might offer lower-level courses online while requiring that students attend classes on campus during the last two years (at least). I would like now to be more specific, while at the same time addressing the problem of a lack of solid core requirements in most of our nation’s colleges — as shown by studies done by the A.C.T.A. I would suggest that students be allowed to take this core of courses online — including, in semester hours, Grammar and Composition (6 hours), World Literature (6 hours, including 3 hours on campus in a 3 hour “capstone course” in the senior year), Math and Logic ( 6 hours) Natural Science (12 hours), Foreign Language (12 hours), Economics (3 hours), and Government or History (3 hours). This brings us to a total of 48 semester hours for the core. Given that the usual minimum for a B.A. or B.S. degree is 120 semester hours, this is certainly a larger requirement than is usual, but it is reasonable given the legions of uneducated college graduates who have been allowed to attend college for four years taking whatever they want outside their major requirements and are now finding it hard to succeed in the “real” world. In this regard, major requirements, which have exploded of late, should be limited to a maximum of 48 semester credits, leaving at least 24 semester credits for elective courses. If specific disciplines feel the need to pile on more major courses, they would have to encroach on elective courses, or add an additional year. Except for the “capstone course” in world literature this core program could be delivered with lectures and testing done online. Professors would be assisted by T.A.s to respond to questions and grade the tests.

Once the basic core has been completed the students would move to campus and take major classes and elective courses with other students and professors, providing them with a “college experience” that would involve interaction with other learners and teachers. It is essential that at least two years be spent on campus in classes with other students if anything approximating a genuine college education is to be achieved. Human interaction is of vital importance to any meaningful education.

Pre-med students would take the same core as other students, though they might need an additional year at the end in order to prepare for medical school. This would broaden their horizons a bit. The same is true for education students who now take a separate track for most of their undergraduate career, with many “methods” courses that are worthless. After completing their four years of study with an academic major, education students would take a year of internship with a master teacher and learn “methods” on the job. Other disciplines, such as music, for example, would have to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to remain “certified” by outside agencies, as this now translates into a great many courses on top of those that would be sensible for an undergraduate major. In my experience, many music departments, even in smaller colleges, forget that they are not the Julliard — just as many theater programs forget they are not “Actor’s Studio.” I have never seen the advantage, to the student, of piling on major requirements — though it is all the fashion these days. In my day we kept the philosophy major to 30 semester hours in order to allow students to double major — thereby increasing the breadth of their undergraduate program.

The costs to the students would be greatly reduced in this program, while more colleges and universities would survive. And it would involve a shoring up of a very weak undergraduate core requirement that we find in the vast majority of American colleges and universities. The downside is that students would miss a year or two of the human interaction that comes with life on campus and taking classes with other students and live faculty. But this is happening right now and threatens to grow worse in the years to come. This proposal would stem the tide which threatens to overwhelm what is left of higher education in this country.

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5 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal

  1. A couple years ago I read somewhere or was told by some instructor that there’s a high dropout rate in online courses. I don’t know whether that’s true. I do know I don’t like the whole online course concept. For one thing, it seems to me it will further atomize our already largely sociopathic society. For another, I see no reason to believe online courses will make college cheaper, or that it will stem the constancy of high college inflation. Let’s say higher ED makes the changes you propose. Ten years later, what will the cost trend look like? My guess: online courses will cost as much or more as regular courses do now and classroom courses will cost two or three times as much as the online offerings. And, need I even say it, tens (hundreds?) of thousands of adjuncts like myself will still be paid far below a living wage. And it must be thus, for the great mass of well paid but mostly superfluous and parasitical college administrators want to keep living the good life. And most of the privileged full-time faculty will continue to be complacent and not insist on the various radical changes necessary to bring some fairness and justice to the system. What we need to do is socialize higher education. We could set a reasonable limit for what a four year degree should cost, indexed for nation-wide inflation and exercise Nixonian-style price controls on public universities (and maybe private ones too?). Each citizen could then take whatever courses they want at the schools of their choice and draw off their government higher ED accounts as they go.. If the money runs out and they want more courses or degrees they find alternative sources of financing. The college funds would be paid by the federal government. Each generation paying for the next through taxes. If I’m not mistaken several European countries do it this way. One great and priceless benefit would be that, with the exception of the privileged cases where well to do people send their kids to private colleges, we would substantially reduce the revolting and shameful reality we have now, in which most students’ higher ED journey (in terms of the level of education, its quality, the prestige of the schools they attend) closely correlates with their economic background. And while we’re at it, we should completely ban corporations from the student loan business. Low interest loans should be available through and be completely administered by the government. So much more can and should be done to improve higher ED. We need, as Professor David Orr says, an educational perestroika. But reform along the lines I’m talking about, while having no chance of implementation in this ridiculous and vicious and declining society of ours, is, I believe, urgently needed.

  2. should have written “we would substantially improve on the revolting and shameful reality we have now….”

  3. Good comment. I tend to agree with you, but was going for some sort of compromise. Online “education” (which is a travesty, I fully agree) is here and it is here to stay, I expect. You are suggesting a cure while I am suggesting a tonic. But a tonic may be all we can hope for.

  4. For a history and critique of the online “revolution” in higher ed, see Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Eduction by David F. Noble (2003).
    In one of my books that suggest pedagogy for teaching online says that one supervisor can monitor 10 to 15 “assistants” who actually run the courses—no professors need be involved! Noble shows that this idea comes from the early 20th-century boom in correspondence courses, which also had astronomical dropout rates.

    • Indeed, that’s one of the downsides. Dropouts are common. There’s no substitute in the end for personal contact. But it’s still the wave of the future, whether we like it or not!

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