US News and World Report has released its annual ranking of American college and university undergraduate programs. As usual, no big surprises. Of course, it’s always important to tell people to take these rankings with a grain of salt. The ranking criteria are set by US News, so we can be sure that things will be set to maximize sales and also to confirm what people already think so that the rankings look legitimate. The ranking quite clearly underrates public flagship universities compared to private schools and also doesn’t cover many of the most important aspects of academic life (course offerings, research opportunities, curriculum requirements, width and breadth of major offerings, etc).
Regardless, these kinds of rankings help feed a college admissions frenzy in which prospective students get into vitriolic arguments about whether or not, for example, Cornell is sufficiently prestigious compared to Brown. An exact ranking is rather pointless since at that point the rank can be easily manipulated by tweaking the methodology. Furthermore, this largely doesn’t matter anyway. I know plenty of people who went to schools that the rankings suggest are mediocre that were admitted and excelled at elite graduate programs. Some of those supposedly mediocre schools even host elite graduate programs in many subjects.
In the wake of the massive academic fraud scandal involving athletics, the University of North Carolina’s main campus at Chapel Hill has been put on probation for one year by its accreditor. While this punishment sounds pretty light, there probably isn’t much else that the accreditor can do short of outright revoking accreditation. Regardless, this is hugely embarrassing for a major university like UNC and seems entirely deserved. Still no word yet on what the NCAA is going to do. Some people in the comments are also pointing out that there could be further consequences if the Department of Education finds that federal funds were misused.
The LA Times reported a couple days ago that an entire class of USC MFA students has withdrawn from the university. While the whole class was only a handful of students, I find this to be a very interesting case. The students claim that after they matriculated, a great deal of things about the program changed and that they all decided that the changes were too great to continue and finish the program. Apparently, there were a number of changes to the curriculum and the faculty. Additionally, the students felt that TA opportunities that had been promised were not actually being offered.
Without knowing all the finer details of the story, it sounds like both sides may have some valid points. USC is correct when they say that curriculum changes and arrivals and departures of faculty members are things that happen everywhere. This is obviously true, and while it is perfectly valid for a student to withdraw if, for example, the faculty member that they were to work with leaves the institution, it also isn’t in any way newsworthy.
What the students are alleging is much more serious than that. They seem to be alleging that the entire program has been revamped so that the program that they joined effectively no longer exists. If true, this is much more troubling. If USC wants to remake the program, it ought to have an obligation to either wait until the current students graduate to make the changes or to help them transfer to equivalent programs. The fact that the new director of the program has no background in fine arts suggests that the students’ version of the events may in fact be the truth. Again, none of this would be a problem if USC openly stated what they were doing. They do have the right to decide what programs they want to offer. However, they need to make their plans clear to prospective students.
Once again assuming that the students’ claims are true, this also highlights some problems with how some sectors of higher education are changing. Focusing on things like “interdisciplinary” cooperation between different academic programs can easily end up damaging rather than enhancing the original programs in order to garner some press coverage about a new “innovative” academic program. I would guess that the joint USC/Conde Nast master’s program (though it’s institutionally separate from the MFA) will fall into the damaging category. It looks good to the press and generates a lot of buzz but probably doesn’t actually serve the students very well. Furthermore, I wasn’t really aware that Conde Nast and wired.com were respected enough to be partners for a reasonably prestigious university like USC, and I would fear that such a program would really be a long and expensive job interview for a single company that will only take the top one or two students. I think there are so many possible issues with direct corporate influence on an academic program that no university that’s really serious about its academics should even consider this kind of deal. There are reasons why universities typically have policies that donors’ money is welcome but their influence is not.
The Boston Globe has an interesting article on poor students in the Ivy League. In short, poorer students at elite schools are often better off than their peers in in less selective institutions (financial aid can solve a lot of issues people have trying to attend school), but still face a number of potential problems. Poor students can have trouble with their social lives due to lack of money for things like going on vacation with friends during breaks or even eating dinner outside the subsidized dining hall. Even middle income students are a minority on elite campuses and can face these kinds of problems. There are academic problems too, as students who didn’t go to the kinds of high schools that feed into elite colleges often start at a disadvantage due to both having a somewhat less rigorous education upon entering college and also due to not having connections or knowing how to work the system to their advantage. At the same time, graduation rates and outcomes in general seem to be much better at the elite schools. The majority of poor students (possibly 90+%) do end up graduating, which is a vastly larger percentage than the rate for poor students in general. I would note that while I (middle income but not poor) didn’t end up facing any serious problems going from a decidedly average public high school to an elite college, I do think that many of the things described in the article could have easily happened to me.
The New York Times published an op-ed by CU Boulder professor Paul Campos about funding in higher education. Campos claims that funding is not actually a problem because overall funding has gone up over the past few decades. This claim has been subject to a great deal of criticism.
I would say that much of the criticism seems quite well founded. In particular, Campos’ assertion is that military expenditures are 1.8 times higher than in 1960 while education expenditures are 10 times higher is wildly disingenuous. Overall spending is not the relevant metric to compare. Rather, per capita spending (per student for universities and per soldier for the military) would be a much better metric. The number of college students is far higher than it was in 1960 (when many colleges were still closed to women and ethnic minorities) while the military is much smaller in terms of actual manpower (though not firepower). Campos also doesn’t address the problem that sudden severe funding cuts can have a hugely negative effect on higher education when a gradual planned decrease could potentially be weathered much better. Cuts could mean that contingent faculty are not renewed and classes must be canceled, which could hurt students in any number of ways.
Professors can only handle so many students at once before the quality of education starts flagging, so education spending is going to scale roughly linearly with student number. The CHE post mentions that per-student appropriations have in fact fallen significantly over the past 30 years. Furthermore, massive increases on spending on things like administration (some increase was probably needed but much of it probably wasn’t), athletics, and expensive student facilities mean that even less money is able to go to actually support the academic mission of the universities (Campos talks about this, but I thought it was important to mention again here).
Elite private universities can use the excuse that tuition, fees, room and board are set as a ceiling for what students can pay. Wealthy students’ tuition money is used to offset losses from students who need financial aid. Public universities often offer much less generous aid packages, so their increases in tuition have a much more serious effect on their students. It seems difficult to argue that state money has no effect on tuition when some flagship state universities now have to make due with less than 10% of their funding coming from the state.
The Department of Education recently released a list of schools that it is monitoring for financial reasons. There are several hundred schools on the list, although many appear to be for-profit vocational schools rather than what most people would think of as universities. The for-profit sector comprises most of the list. This extra scrutiny apparently involves extra reporting requirements in order to receive federal student aid money.
There aren’t really any major names on the list, and few details are supplied about the exact reasons why each school is on the list, so being on the list doesn’t necessarily mean that the school is facing a financial crisis. The most notable name that I noticed on the list is the University of Puerto Rico system. The entire government in Puerto Rico has major financial problems (not just the university) and Puerto Rico is also much poorer than the mainland US, so this may just be reflecting a situation that exists independently of the university.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an op-ed piece by the director of a research institute at UNC on her ideas of how to fix the problems with college sports. Unfortunately, I don’t find it to be very convincing. The author argues for allowing varsity athletes to get a degree in sports/athletics. This seems to me to be one of the worst possible ways to fix things. Instead of working to reduce the amount of money in athletics and strengthen incentives/requirements to actually educate athletes in revenue-generating sports, this sounds like giving up on ever fixing anything. The suggestions for special classes for athletes are more or less what led to the recent problems at UNC in the first place. When athletics becomes the primary focus of part of an academic department (i.e. the school part of school), there are huge incentives to reduce the rigor of the classes (or even get rid of the class altogether except on paper) to keep athletes eligible, no matter how academically unprepared or uninvolved they are.
I strongly suspect that giving athletes more than token credit for things like weightlifting would lead to schools giving lip service to the idea of this as a class while treating this simply as another part of practice. Does anyone really expect students at a major Division I football team to learn physiology from team weightlifting? The whole idea sounds preposterous.
Equally troubling is the focus on things like licensing, leadership, experiential learning and others. These are basically all just buzzwords being used to justify handing credit to varsity athletes while asking for nothing in return other than performance on the field. Nothing in the article sounds as if these sports majors would offer the kind of rigorous, coherent curricula that are found in traditional academic fields.
The author’s comparisons of art to sports are not really apt. Arts students typically don’t get the kinds of perks that varsity athletes at major programs get and also don’t get the kinds of huge breaks in admissions that are especially common in football and basketball. Furthermore, the arts hold a very different position in our culture compared to sports. Arts are seen as an intellectual pursuit and as part of a millennia-old cultural tradition. Sports are seen more as mass entertainment or even martial training, but not as intellectual exercises. The revenue-generating sports of football and basketball have only existed in something like their current forms for 100 years. In other words, the arts are part of what we might call “high culture” while sports are part of low or vulgar (in the sense of “common”) culture. This distinction may be arbitrary, but it does exist. Even in the arts, for example, classical music is regarded by most as more academic or intellectual than Top 40 radio. In writing, there is the difference between literary fiction and pulp fiction. The high culture variants of the arts are seen as worthy of academic study while the mass-market versions are often not. There are certainly many things about things like sports or pop music that are worthy of study, but that doesn’t mean that we should hand degrees for playing football, passably singing a pop song written by someone else, or writing a trashy romance novel.