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American higher education has some big problems. We still have a world-class network of colleges and universities. Students from less developed and from highly developed nations come to the U.S. to get BAs and advanced degrees. Our teaching practices are copied, our researchers have made English a universal scientific language, and our graduates can compete across the globe.
The hundreds of small colleges scattered across the U.S. represent a unique American contribution to undergraduate education, which is being copied in Europe. Not only has American higher education led the world in the integration of women and minorities into faculties and administration, but American scholars have developed the broadest critique of economic inequality, abuse of political authority, and social discrimination.
Yet in recent decades, three major problems have developed in American universities which threaten the whole system: exorbitant funding of athletics, replacement of full-time faculty with temporary part-time staff, and the growth of for-profit institutions.
Sports as entertainment is beginning to overwhelm the educational enterprise at large universities. Admission is driven by athletic recruiting, professors are paid a fraction of what coaches receive, and ethical transgressions in the name of winning no longer even make headlines. Big-time sports have become a central mission of what used to be fine academic institutions. Can you imagine a sexual scandal in some philosophy department bringing down an entire administration, as Penn State’s scandal in the athletic department did?
If we follow the money, we can see the outsized role of sports at major universities. Among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision institutions, average yearly spending per athlete in 2010 was $92,000, while spending per student was less than $14,000. That gap has been growing rapidly. In the 240 universities in the FBS and the Football Championship Subdivision, that is most of the large universities across the country, spending per athlete between 2005 and 2010 increased about 50%, while spending per student grew only 23%.
Where does all this money come from? Although television rights and ticket sales bring in millions to a few of the best-known universities, most athletic programs are funded by the institutions themselves, that is, by students, by government grants, and by endowment. Fewer than one in four of the 97 public universities in the FBS make money on their athletic programs. Across the FBS, student fees and institutions contribute an average of 18% of the athletic budget; in the less prestigious FCS, the contribution is 70%, and in those Division I schools with no football, the contribution is 78%.
Most of the professors at American colleges and universities do not really belong to the faculties or to the institutions. They are “contingent employees” or “adjuncts”, usually part-time, with few benefits and little allegiance to the institution. Very often, they are hired at the last minute, so they cannot adequately prepare. They do not receive the same institutional support for their teaching that the traditional full-time tenure-track professor enjoys: office space to meet with students, secretarial help, advanced technology, sometimes even a telephone. They often are unacquainted with other members of their department and thus with departmental practices and expectations. At 4-year institutions across the country, two-thirds of the teaching staff are impermanent, a proportion which is increasing every year.
Adjuncts are woefully underpaid. A new report about adjunct pay in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows an average of less than $1000 per credit-hour. The average salary for untenured assistant professors in 2012 was $66,500. For an adjunct to earn that much they would have to teach 22 three-credit courses in a year.
Many adjuncts are excellent teachers. But the sub-standard conditions under which adjuncts teach in most universities means that students pay the salaries of the tenured professors, but are often taught by part-time gypsies, flying from one job to another, trying to put together a living.
The third problem comes from the boom in for-profit universities, which enroll about one-tenth of students in higher ed. The graduation rate at for-profits is about 30%, less than half of the rate of traditional non-profit institutions. Enormous quantities of federal student loans are going to students at institutions owned by Wall Street companies who will never graduate or pay them back. The loan default rate of their students is twice that of public universities and three times that of private institutions.
Each of these weaknesses in American higher education is connected to money. Universities spend far too much money on athletes and sports. They try to save money by hiring part-time faculty to teach students. Students try to save money by enrolling in for-profit institutions which make money for big corporations by promising more than they can deliver and getting government to pay for it.
There is no cheap way to educate the next generation of scientists, teachers, and business leaders. Education is not a money-maker, and athletics is not education. We are watching the greatest educational system in history slowly fall apart.