Monday, January 21, 2019

Steven Brint says American higher education Is doing great!: Pardon me Professor Brint, but what planet do you live on?

 Steven Brint, a professor at UC Riverside, wrote an essay for Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Is This Higher Education's Golden Age?" Brint didn't answer this question directly, but his article argues that American higher education is doing great.

Here's his evidence:

Lotsa money! Brint boasts that the demand for postsecondary education has remained steady in spite of rising tuition, which is true. Families are still willing to pay college tuition at nosebleed levels, at least at the elite colleges.  The most prestigious colleges continue packing in the suckers. A quarter million dollars for an Ivy League degree? Hey, no problem!

And, as Brint points out, the federal government is still higher education's sugar daddy. Brint notes that the feds shovel  $65 billion a year in Pell grants, work study, and tax benefits; and a lot of that money eventually winds up in college coffers.  Federal research money amounts to about $30 billion a year, Brint says; and the Department of Education pumps out  another $100 billion a year in student loans. And there's no sign the government will ever shut off the money spigot. So that's good news from Professor Brint's perspective.

More degrees! Brint also celebrates the rising number of college degrees. In 1970, American colleges produced 840,000 college graduates. In 2015, 1.9 million people received bachelor's degrees. Over that same time period, American higher education tripled its annual production of master's degrees and more than doubled the number of doctorates. In fact, in 2015, American universities dispensed more than three quarters of a million doctoral degrees.

That's certainly good news for the universities, their deans, and their professors. But graduate degrees have become insanely expensive, and it is now clear that a lot of people who got law degrees or MBA degrees from second-and third-tier universities were throwing their money away--not to mention the people who got master's degrees in the fine arts.

More professors! The United States is employing more college teachers than ever before, and Professor Brint thinks that's good news. In 2005, the nation employed 1.3 million postsecondary teachers. By 2015, the number had grown to 1.9 million--an increase of 300,000 professors and instructors in just ten years.

More research! And all those professors are doing more and more research. As Brint reports: "[T]he Web of Science indexed 12,000 journals, 160,000 conference proceedings in more than 250 disciplines, and reached a total count of 90 million records and more than a billion citations."

Professor Brint is the director of the Colleges & Universities 2000 Project at his home university and the author of a book about higher education. So we should presume, I suppose, that he knows what he's talking about.

But in fact, Brint's article is nonsense. Sure, higher education is doing great from the perspectives of the insiders: tenured professors and over-paid administrators. As Brint points out, the professors managed to eke out annual raises even during the recession of 2008 when millions of Americans lost their homes in foreclosure and millions more saw their retirement accounts deflate. Unlike most Americans, college professors enjoy lifetime employment, defined-benefit pensions, and gold-plated health insurance. Yes, for the professors, life is indeed beautiful.

But are we supposed to cheer because the Web of Science lists 12,000 journals and contains 90 million research documents? Have you read the titles of some of those articles and conference presentations?

I'm sorry, Professor Brint, but your insouciant boast about the value of research reminds me of that scene in the movie Out of Africa where Meryl Streep's character tries to convince a Kikuyu chief to allow the children in his village to be taught how to read.  The chief is skeptical. "The British know how to read," he pointed out, "and what good has it done them?"

The education research community has produced thousands of books, articles and scholarly presentations over the past 30 years on education topics. Are American kids better educated?

And the law schools turn out literally thousands of law-review articles every year. Do we have more justice?

I would like Professor Brint to think a moment about higher education's students--a constituency he said precious little about in his essay. Almost 45 million Americans owe on student loans. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, as of this month, total outstanding student-loan indebtedness has reached $1.56 trillion.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a speech last November in which she reported that only 1 out of four student debtors (24 percent) are making payments on both principal and interest on their loans.  In fact, she acknowledged, 43 percent of all outstanding student loans are "distressed."

Although academia is a pleasant place for Professor Brint,the federal student-loan program is a train wreck. Millions of people have their loans in deferment, which means they aren't making loan payments while interest accrues on their loan balances. Another 7.4 million are in income-based repayment programs and are making monthly payments so small that their loans are negatively amortizing.

And the disastrous student-loan program is pulling down the small, nonprofit liberal arts colleges, especially in New England the Mid-Atlantic states and the upper Midwest. Legal education has been corrupted by the flow of student-loan money, with bottom-tier law schools turning out lawyers who can't find jobs.

And then there is the for-profit college industry, rife with corruption, fraud, and cronyism. Professor Brint said nothing about that problem.

So is higher education in a Golden Age, Professor Brint? I don't think so.

I close by noting that Professor Brint is a sociology professor. I was once told that sociology is nothing more than the painful enumeration of the obvious. But after reading Brint's essay, I would modify that observation. In fact, sociology is the painful enumeration of the oblivious.

Professor Steven Brint
Universities are stronger than ever?

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