A Short History of Higher Education

For a long time, professors taught.  Then someone decided it was not teaching that mattered much, but publication--which mattered less:  what they wrote often had no relation to the classroom, and what they wrote nearly nobody read.  Then it came to pass that they didn’t even write much:  said Derek Bok, president at Harvard for 20 years:  “Only 50 percent of professors publish as much as one article a year.”

I heard President Bill Powers say that UT is “the best university in the country.”  U. S. News and World Report,  though, ranked UT at number 52, and the Washington Post reported that UT ranked in the 23rd percentile in a standardized College Learning Assessment test—a test that fairly compared apples to apples. An Open Meetings Act request by a Texas newspaper found that at UT the average salary for a tenured professor was some $110,000 plus fringe benefits, with an average teaching load of two classes per semester, with a total of 63 students for nine months.  Presumably the teaching load was reduced to permit time for research and publication.  But the same Open Meetings Act request discovered that only the top 20 percentile of professors were publishing.  

What is happening at UT as described above is happening at universities throughout country—because they are an understood cartel wanting to keep the status quo.  Of course, it’s a very comfortable life.

Derek Bok wanted to do something about such faculty control, but knew that he couldn’t, confessing, “While leaders [chancellors, presidents, deans] have considerable leverage and influence of their own, they are often reluctant to employ these assets for fear of arousing opposition from the faculty that could attract unfavorable publicity, worry potential donors, and even threaten their jobs.”  Regents, administrators, and legislators do not control public universities, faculties do.

But it also came to pass that administrators wanted to build empires and expand building domains.  Bok said of this:  “Universities are like riverboat gamblers and exiled royalty:  their desires are never satisfied.” Unfunded liabilities don’t worry them much; after all, they can always raise tuition and seek more funds from legislators.  So the presidents of  UT and TAMU actually made personal visits to newspaper editorial boards pleading poverty and arguing that they needed more money from the legislature—never mind all of the other institutions of higher ed in the state.  What they didn’t mention is that UT is by prodigious measure the richest public school in the nation, with an endowment of $18,264 billion, following only the private schools of Harvard and Yale.  TAMU is also a very wealthy school, being at a $7,639 billion endowment the fourth richest public school in a country of thousands of public schools.

Then it came to pass that it had become very expensive for kids to go to college.  The understood cartel was raising tuition and other prices sizably every year.  A family could buy a new home for what it now cost to send two kids to a university. The average student debt was $29,400; 71 percent of all students were in debt; 43 percent of college entrants did not graduate—most of those who did taking six years to graduate primarily because of high costs. Most traditional schools have graduate rates of only 20-30 percent.

Then came creative destruction:  What can’t go on forever, won’t.  Students by the thousands are absenting for (a) community colleges, (b) for-profit career schools, and (c) online courses.  They are changing pedagogy from seat-time to performance-based achievement, much of which can be done at home on a computer.  Academic advancement is based on actual achievement—at a vastly cheaper cost at home and faster

As poet Lord Tennyson observed, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”  The traditional four-year schools are pricing themselves out of the market. This past year in Texas 732,112 students attended community colleges, while 576,693 attended four-year schools.  For-profit schools are also going gangbuster.  The Perryman Group reports: “There are currently about 500 institutions providing training in high-demand professions to tens of thousands of persons each year in the Lone Star State. . . .About 70% of the most recent graduates were employed in a related field immediately.”

The wealthy schools—UT and TAMU—will always manage just fine because there will always be enough wealthy parents and students, alumni, private support, government grants, and the like to keep these schools up and running.  Not only do these two schools have extremely large endowments, but in 2012-13, for example, 88,800 donors gave money to UT.

The creative destruction of the automobile destroyed the horse-and-buggy industry.  While wealthy, elite schools will survive, many traditional schools will not or will have to change.  The new automobile in much of education will be community colleges, for-profit schools, and online institutions.  The social advantage to these changes is that they will serve low-income, nontraditional, and minority students—the fastest growing segments of the population.  For the first time in Texas history, more Hispanic students than white ones took the SAT last school year.  Texas Class of 2013 SAT takers represented 56 percent of high school graduates.  Of those, 62 percent identified themselves as minorities.

The trend of colleges serving only the rich will be reversed.


Ron Trowbridge, Trustee, Lone Star College System

Posted by: Ron Trowbridge

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