Friday, October 9, 2015

Higher Education in America - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Continues to Discover Fear and Loathing

This is my sixth year of chairing a Department of Psychology at a medium sized Private Midwestern University.  Bill Clinton famously, and probably not originally, maintained that you don't want to see laws or sausages made.  Well, add Universities administered to that list.  It is an ugly sight.  Presumably we work to serve the students - to help them - do what?  That is the crisis of modern education, especially at liberal arts institutions, where that shouldn't be an issue, but it has created a crisis.  Why?  Three things have conspired to create this crisis (and a fourth at research institutions - larger Private and Public Universities that are more dependent than we on grants to support the research that they are rightly known for).

The three legs of this crisis are:

  • The Great Recession which undercut our ability to continue to raise tuitions at rates that far outstripped inflation.
  • The Information Revolution which puts more data at our fingertips - or in our pockets - than any President has had in the situation room until, perhaps, the current one.
  • The Professionalization of the Administration of Colleges and Universities - and the continued reliance on successful business leaders to man our governing boards.

The fourth leg, for the research institutions, is the drying up of Federal Grant monies which, and here I'm guessing because this isn't my world, is a weird conflation of the recession and the rise of the tea party.  But I could be way wrong about that - it really isn't a world I occupy - all I know is that a lot of money has dried up.

When I started teaching, it was a rude awakening.  My education was funded by a combination of need based and merit related scholarships.  I thought of both of these as noble - the first because it meant that we lived in a society that supported those who couldn't support themselves and that they, in turn, were expected to give back to that society - and the second because we live in a meritocracy - where those who have been given gifts are supported - again to use those gifts to be able to be taught so that they can, in turn, teach and manage and build the society that has supported them.

When I entered the University as a faculty member rather than a student, these awards were referred to as discounts.  Wow.  Yes, that is exactly what they are.  But suddenly these gifts that I so highly valued and felt deep debt and gratitude for receiving, felt more like blue light specials (OK, for those of you that are too young - K-Mart used to turn on blue revolving lights while you were shopping in the store and the loudspeaker would intone: "Attention K-Mart Shoppers - on aisle seven there is a blue light special and if you purchase a grill while the blue light is on you will receive an additional twenty per cent off our already low prices.").  I felt like I was working for my grandfather or his father at their clothing store - something that burned down before I was born - and was a very honorable way to make a living - but it was not the hallowed halls of academia where those with a higher calling went to study and to teach.

So what we have been doing is raising the sticker price of an education - our marketing people tell us that having a higher sticker price makes our "product" look more desirable.  We also try to make it look more desirable by hiring qualified faculty, supporting them in learning how to become better teachers and publishing relevant articles, having smaller class sizes than the competition, but the business model is that we have a high sticker price and then offer "discounts" that make it affordable.  And our consumers believe that they are getting a deal - and they, like me, ascribe lofty reasons to this.  One friend, whose daughter was given a very nice scholarship to a Catholic University attributed the largesse to Christian Caritas.  The church wants to take care of its own.  I didn't want to burst his bubble, but wanted him to consider the business position.  He would have none of it, and I backed off.  After all, I am still recovering from having my own bubble burst.  That said, none of our first year undergraduate students paid full price for their tuition.  Every single one of them got a discount of some kind.

But isn't this just semantics?  Who cares what the sticker price versus selling price is - don't we want to know how much it will cost? Yes, I think we do.  But there is a problem when we are constantly discounting what we have to offer - we are literally devaluing it.  We don't discount room and board.  In fact, we build more dormitories and cafeterias with better food and we extend the amount of time that students are required to live on campus because we generate more revenue with less expense from room and board than from tuition.  We have suddenly moved away from being, centrally an institution that educates and have become, instead, an institution that houses and feeds and, as a sideline, and at a cost, teaches.

The Great Recession has contributed to our questioning the value of education by all but eliminating entry level jobs for which you need a college education.  Our graduates, who are now saddled with debt - in part to pay for the nice apartments and food they have eaten for four years - are working at Old Navy (I wish my grandfather's store was still in operation - we could have some well educated cashiers) or Starbucks.  And the debt is because, even at discounted rates, our tuitions are higher and loans are always a part of the discount package.  And it is not just that our graduates are cooling their heels at these jobs; when the economy turns around, they will be competing with newly minted graduates and may not get the best starting postitions that open up.  Some have estimated that those who graduated during the great recession have lost over a million dollars each in lifetime earnings.  Ouch.

Second, the Information Revolution has put smart phones in our pockets with all kinds of things in them, including videos of the finest lecturers in the world delivering lectures on every subject imaginable (See my essay on MOOCS and SMOCS).  Why go to school?  I wonder if there was a similar crisis after Gutenberg invented the printing press.  Now you could go to the library to get a book instead of having to be born into wealth or become a member of the clergy to get access to information.  Maybe there was a drop in novitiates at monasteries.  But I think not.  And I don't think there will be as much of a drop in students going into higher education as our administrators expect.

We don't go to college to access information.  We don't go to be lectured to.  It is a relief to the faculty that master lectures are available.  We can assign them to students to watch.  And then they can come to class and do what colleges were built for.  They can hang out.  I remember a much beloved faculty member at my college giving a lecture on "productive leisure."  And this, it was her thesis, is the privilege and responsibility of each students (and faculty member) - to be productive in what is a huge gift from parents, the state, and future bank accounts - time to hang out.  How does that time become productive?  The students engage in conversations.  Oh, sure, they also do projects, and learn to write among other skills - but mostly these are exercises that support the fundamental learning - learning how to think.  Learning how to solve problems.  It is not what happens on the screen or behind the lectern or on the page that is important.  What is important is what happens between the ears of the students.  And having more information available frees them and us up to concentrate on that in the classroom.

By the way, what happens in the classroom is a very small part of what happens at college.  Much - perhaps most - of the learning happens outside of the classroom.  Much of it is social.  How do I talk to someone I am romantically interested in?  How do I get together a group to accomplish something - play tag football or have a dance party?  How do I manage large swaths of "free" time so that my leisure really is productive?  This stuff - living in the dorm - and then figuring out how to rent an apartment and shop for food - making a transition at a measured pace and with support into the world of adult living - is critical to the development that takes place with our students.

The people who really seem to get this are the parents of our students who themselves have gone to college.  They realize that this is a package deal and they want their children to jump into this with both feet.  First generation students - those whose parents did not go to college - have a harder time at school for a whole host of reasons, but part of it is that they don't get that this is a place with a lot of space to explore the process of becoming an adult - and that this is a critical component of being at college.

OK, I said the third component is the professional administrative class.  These folks, at least at my institution, mouth some of the things I have said here.  But I don't think they really believe them.  They don't believe that our business model is sustainable and they want to use our brand to exploit new opportunities for revenue enhancement.  Yuck.  What we do is educate.  More precisely, what we do is afford students an environment in which they can learn.  And this has tremendous value - monetarily (graduates, even those who graduated during the great recession will be better off than those who did not go to college or graduate) but more importantly they will have a better - more complicated - but better quality of life.

Preparing kids to be able to go to college is the ticket out of poverty.  Going to college is the way to maintain not just the middle class lifestyle that their parents had at home - but the economy as a whole that is increasingly dependent on workers who think.  We need our electorate to be educated so that they can make thoughtful decisions.  Do I really need to make a case for the value of education?  It seems that I frequently do with our administration and I hear that to be the case elsewhere.

OK, so there isn't much psychoanalysis in this blog.  Actually, one of the instigators for me to write this was a brief tidbit about the University of Pennsylvania that is offering a minor in psychoanalysis.  This is rare and worth celebrating.  It is a multidisciplinary minor that will include faculty from anthropology, English, Psychiatry and other fields.  The Psychology department will not participate.  Psychology Departments do not support or sustain psychoanalytic thinking, by and large.  They offer, instead, what the listserve author of the announcement called "Rats and Stats" psychology.  Between being unwelcomed by the psychoanalysts who wouldn't let non-physicians practice analysis, and wanting to create a science of human behavior, psychologists have denied conscious and unconscious processes center stage in their description of human functioning.

It strikes me that rigid adherence to the scientific model may have turned the field of psychology away from fertile ground to answer the question that all intro to psychology students want to ask:  What makes people tick?  I think it would be an even bigger travesty if those who have left the classroom or were never in it as faculty - our professional administrators - and the board members - and the legislatures that determine public higher education - if they lost faith in the ability of human interaction - the hanging out that students do together and with faculty - to build the hearts and minds that will bring the next generation of well-lived lives.

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