The Problems With US Education Quality

As many of you know, I’ve been reading great books recently about some of the problems with higher education in the US. You probably saw previous blogs about the problems regarding admissions and rising costs that we face. But what if you have the money and are willing to play the admissions games? Will the end result of your top US college choice be worth it? According to my reading, the answer is no. Let’s set aside the return of investment, as it relates to employability (we touched on that here). Let’s talk about the quality of the learning experience that undergraduates receive on campus.

Mind-numbing lectures.

Each year I must complete a number of continuing education units to keep my social work license active. There is nothing more exhausting and mind numbing than sitting through lectures – even when the content is somewhat interesting or relevant. Thus, I wasn’t surprised by the study by Joi Ito. Ito is a an entrepreneur and Director of the MIT Media Lab. He monitored the brain activity of a student for a week and found that the brain is in its most dormant state during lectures, more so than while asleep! I don’t think this is a shock to most of us. Few would argue that passive learning is more effective than active learning. Yet lectures are still used. Many students just choose not to go, while others attend and mindlessly copy down what the professor is saying.  Most Likley to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era notes Richard Arun’s findings that the majority of college students learn little or nothing on the important dimensions of critical thinking and analysis and complex reasoning.

Teaching is not the priority.

When small seminar classes do occur at many American universities, they are often led by graduate students instead of the professors. As a matter of a fact, in The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For former Wall Street Journal editorial staff member, Naomi Schaefer Riley, writes of a study done by the Journal of Higher Education that concludes that the more time a college professor spends teaching, the less he or she gets paid. This finding applied to both big research universities and small liberal arts colleges.  Tenure is based, in large part, on the volume of research. Thus, as Wagner and Dintersmith said in Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, “The net result is that college faculty are not selected, motivated, or incentivized to be inspiring educators”. They go on to quote Richard Keeling and Richard Hersch’s book, We’re Losing our Minds:Rethinking American Higher Education, which notes that “Other priorities-higher rankings, growing enrollment, winning teams, bigger and better facilities, more revenue from sideline businesses, more research grants-have replaced learning as the primary touchstone for decision making”.

Better solutions exist in Europe.

College in Europe is a solution to many of these problems. The majority of schools I have visited do not use lectures as their primary mode of teaching, though, of course, this is not the case for all 11,200 programs we list. Even courses that do involve lectures usually have regular, small seminars-led by the actual professor, not a teaching assistant! Students in many countries (particularly in Northern Europe where there is a flat hierarchy) are encouraged to bring their own points of views to discussion even when, actually especially when, those viewpoints differ from the professors. Not only is this a form of more active and deep learning, but it also helps develop critical thinking skills. Students at Universities of Applied Sciences are taught how to apply the knowledge they are learning to the real world which also deepens the learning experience.

In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz proposes that a liberal arts education is the solution to these problems, but notes that many of the liberal arts schools in the US are succumbing to the pressures to conform to models used by the Ivies instead of what he sees as a “true liberal arts education”. While I think that liberal arts program are wonderful, I believe a teaching style that promotes 21st century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity can be done with any content, be it the humanities or business.

Liberal arts is the foundation.

Despite the reduced emphasis on the humanities, many European programs have the qualities that Deresiewicz calls out as strengths of the ideal liberal arts education. Professors in Europe devote a large portion of their time to teaching. Students get to know the professors outside of class, through Friday bars in Denmark, the academic and social activities through the department based study associations across Europe, or the advisory capacity they serve in many schools. Students work together in groups as peers, not rivals, and have input into important matters in the school and department level through organizations like student unions.

The fact is, there are many excellent schools in the US. Some have managed to look at applicants as something beyond their checklist of achievements, some have reasonable tuition rates, some have professors that actively teach and incredibly engaged students. Deresiewicz points to Kenyon and Wesleyan as schools that “retained their allegiance to real educational values”. The problem is that these schools have selectivity rates ranging from 19-36% and annual tuition costs tower over $60,000 per year. I have yet to find a school that addresses all three of my issues as they pertain to admissions process, cost, and the undergraduate experience. Until then (and probably after then as well), my kids will more-than-likely be applying exclusively to schools in Europe.

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