Higher ed in America

I spend a lot of time trying to wrap my head around various aspects of the university system in America. I wonder why it’s so expensive compared to universities in other parts of the world, and why amassing huge debt to go to college has become mainstream. I wonder what it is that makes a college education so crucial for success in our society, and whether the one-size-fits-all mentality is misguided. I also wonder what it is about academia that motivates many more people to aspire to a coveted academic position, despite intense competition and dismal forecasts for the future.

There are a number of reasons that the current higher education system in America could use some revamping. One problem that Caitlin Flanagan points out the Atlantic (The Dark Power of Fraternities) is that people expect college to be fun, perhaps the greatest 4 years of their lives. Universities cater to students’ (and parents’) demands for fancy dining and athletic facilities, superb landscaping, and cushy dorms in order to attract more students. In turn, they use those students’ tuitions to enhance their colleges even more, which feeds into a vicious cycle. Although American universities began as places for people devoted to learning, they’re increasingly becoming places for those devoted to partying.

Image: http://elitedaily.com
Image: http://elitedaily.com

Many college-goers aren’t only serious about partying, though. I suspect that most people who go to a traditional college would say that they’re there so they can get a good-paying job after. Isn’t it ironic, then, that those who are most committed to academia and pursue their field most intensely are increasingly finding themselves under- and unemployed? It’s not news to me that landing a tenured faculty position is a feat. However, I recently read an article from Inside Higher Ed by Patrick Iber, (Probably) Refusing to Quit, that really struck me. Iber had a PhD and plenty of accolades in his field, but his academic job-hunting saga suggests that luck and timing might be as important as merit in attaining a faculty position. It’s a bummer that colleges can continue to revamp athletic fields that are fine and build luxury dorms to house more and more students (after all, these are the amenities that convince students to attend), but they don’t seem to be able to spend enough of their budget on hiring people who will contribute expertise and passion to the intellectual environment. These people, it seems, should be the core of the university. Have we lost sight of the purpose of college?


In the past week, I’ve traveled across the country, down the coast, and moved into a new apartment. Suffice to say, I’ve come up with A LOT of questions. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Puns: Are they universal? Some research suggests so. Typically when something is universal, there’s a reason, an advantage that it confers. If puns are universal, why? I spent one day in Sonoma county, and felt like a pun magnet: they were on billboards (Whole Foods urged customers to “eat the food less traveled” [I’m now thinking this is more of a play on words than a pun, but close] and another business boasted about cattle “born and grazed” in Marin County). The wine industry was also ripe with puns (“Another grape day at Cline“; “Wine a bit… you’ll feel better” [outside a restaurant], and the “Grape Escape,” an ad for a store). I also found a few blogs centered on puns- one that plays with movie titles, and another with rappers and cereals.

  • Is your beverage of choice (coffee vs. tea) correlated with your introversion/extroversion style? This Thought Catalog post struck me as comical because of its accuracy, and the differences articulated between the two kinds of drinkers sounds very familiar to those between introverts and extroverts.

    I'm a tea person, all the way.  Image: wikipedia
    I’m a tea person, all the way.
    Image: wikipedia
  • How do undecided freshman choose a major after only 1-2 years? This article suggests that their professors have a huge impact. Is that surprising? Not really, to me. Good teachers make a subject interesting, and an interesting subject makes a major appealing. Even though grad students have more direction at the outset of their programs than undecided freshman, how much of a role do faculty play in determining a grad student’s ultimate path- their dissertation and beyond? My guess: A LOT.

In the spirit of an abundance of questions, I’m off to wirelessly connect my computer to a new printer…

Can MOOCs improve higher ed?

General consensus seems to be that American higher education needs improvement. This article reports that on average, US college students spend only 12-14 hours studying per week, which is 50% less than they spent a few decades ago, and that 45% of undergrads exhibited no improvements on the standardized test used for their assessment, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, after two years of college. [Note: this test does not account for potential gains in subject-specific skills, but instead focuses on reading and writing skills]. Meanwhile, the cost of a traditional 4-year university continues to climb rapidly.

Enter MOOCs: Massive open online courses through which many leading universities are making courses available to the 1,000,000+ people who have  signed up to date.

MOOC creators are quick to sing its praises, Nicholas Carr points out in his article, “The Crisis in Higher Education.” For one, the courses make education more accessible, most notably to people who are geographically isolated and to others who want to study while holding careers. They also allow students to go at their own pace, and often include periodic checkpoints so students don’t fall behind. MOOCs adapt to students’ responses, repeating and elaborating on topics when necessary, and moving ahead when students are ready. The future will likely include programs that monitor how students interact with the teaching system and provide materials tailored to students’ individual learning styles.

However, MOOCs aren’t necessarily the educational saviors that their creators suggest. For one, they have very high dropout rates: Carr reports that of the more than 155,000 people who signed up for a MIT course on electronic circuits, only 23,000 even finished the first problem set, and only 7,000 (~5%) finished the course. The rate reflects the difficulty that MOOCs face in keeping their students engaged, a problem that could actually decrease the number of Americans completing college if the online courses were integrated into their curricula.

Another difficulty is the range of topics that MOOCs can adequately teach. Currently, most are math and computer science based (probably because they are created by computer science professors…), but how might they transfer liberal arts, more exploratory topics, into an online medium? How could they compensate for the value of social learning, learning that results from the unique combination of students and professors in a real-time physical classroom?

Undoubtedly, there are pros and cons to MOOCs, but which outweighs the other? Are they a solution to America’s troubled higher education system, or might they further derail it?