Worried? I’m Terrified

Here’s a link to a new Op-Ed by Dan Sullivan from Inside Higher Ed, October 31, 2011.

Worried? I’m Terrified

Dan shares our fear that many who advocate reform of higher education have misdiagnosed the central problems we face. One of the issues he tackles in this article is an important question facing all research universities. Is the modern university properly balancing the interests of undergraduate education and graduate training? This a controversial issue on many levels. Like medical schools, graduate programs must offer their students some contact with undergraduates in order to train the next generation of educators properly. But are the interests of undergraduates sacrificed on the altar of graduate training? A thorny problem indeed.

This is the question as Dan phrases it:

In my view the real elephant in the room is not the high cost of pedagogies of engagement — because as I have shown, they are both effective and efficient if you think systemically — it is the cross-subsidy of research and graduate education with undergraduate tuition that is now so deeply embedded in much of our system of higher education. Resources from undergraduate tuition (and, in the public sector, state subsidies for undergraduate education in addition) that could make possible the adoption of more successful undergraduate teaching and learning environments are instead subsidizing graduate education and research at large numbers of American universities which, in the aggregate, have a large fraction of the nation’s undergraduate enrollment.

Graduate students are a stock of cheap labor. They have long been used by universities to staff undergraduate tools courses, freeing the tenure track faculty to focus more on research. This is not a new issue. But it is an issue with increasing salience as we move to evaluate both the quality of undergraduate programs and the cost.

Again, here’s how Dan phrases the problem:

Research and graduate education are both critically important. They need to be funded on their own merits. As someone whose teaching and leadership career has been almost completely in selective liberal arts colleges I do not have practical suggestions for how to pull this off, but I believe the first step is to name the problem, and that is what I have done here.

I don’t have a full answer either. Graduate training is expensive. The teaching that graduate students provide is often thought of as a partial offset of that expense. But is the twenty-three or twenty-four year old in front of a class really offering the kind of engaged learning that contemporary undergraduates need in order to master the flexible mindset required of a labor market that is rapidly automating repetitive physical and mental tasks?

I taught at that age. I think I was pretty good at it. But I’m far better in the classroom now, and I teach at an institution that values deep engagement with students. Graduate-oriented institutions need to evolve substantially if they want to change the trajectory of first and second year undergraduates. These are the students who need to be challenged to push themselves beyond recall leaning and into nuanced questioning and genuine problem solving. This is the first step toward raising the four-year graduation rate without cheap tricks like cutting the college program to three years.