Fixing colleges is hard, but here are ideas on how to start

By IKE BRANNON | Nov. 22, 2016

Our public university system seems to satisfy no one: Professors are upset about their lack of raises and the declining number of tenured jobs, parents complain about high tuition and students think they are entering a job market for which they are unprepared as well as burdened with debt.

There’s no question that we can — and should — improve the college experience, but there’s no consensus on how to do that. A study that Philip Coyle and I recently authored for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, “Back to the Drawing Board: How to Recreate the Outstate University and Finally Give Students Their Money’s Worth,” asks a basic question that we feel gets to the heart of the problem facing the public university system: How can we ensure that states (in this instance, Wisconsin) get more value for the billions of taxpayer dollars they spend on post-secondary education?

One basic problem we identify is that student retention rates for colleges outside of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the state’s flagship campus, are miserable. For instance, at UW-Oshkosh, where I once taught, nearly one-third of all incoming students drop out by the end of their freshman year. Only half of all students graduate in six years, and only 15 percent finish in four years.

Oshkosh is not an anomaly. Other regional universities have significantly lower numbers, and even at UW-Madison, which requires high admission scores and a record of academic success, a sizable fraction of students leave campus after their freshman year.

Part of the problem is that public universities admit a large proportion of students who do not have the ability to do college-level work, at least not right away. Students who begin in a remedial track at a university rarely transition to the mainstream, and at many UW campuses, that is a significant portion of incoming students. For those students, a community college is almost always a better choice, but that’s something few people will tell them. But a bigger problem is that universities often fail to engage students when they arrive.

While I was a professor at Oshkosh, the cars in the commuter parking lot at lunchtime were full of people dining inside their vehicles, despite the lot abutting the Fox River with a raft of picnic tables overlooking the scenic lake, as well as being next to the newly remodeled student union. A sociology professor who took me through the lot suggested that if I wanted to see who wouldn’t return for a sophomore year, I’d find them in that lot.

Of course, how to engage students is the $64,000 question. We suggest that one place to start is asking professors to take on the role of advising underclassmen on classes and college. This is not the route that they seem to be taking: Oshkosh, for instance, has announced its intent to hire a team of student advisors, whose job will consist solely of helping students navigate college. It may be better than the status quo, but it’s costlier and less practical than having professors do the advising.

I suspect that the school chose such a path because at the moment professors in the UW System have little appetite to do such a thing: A change in the pension contribution effectively gave them a sizable pay cut a few years ago, amidst years of frozen salaries. They are likely in no mood to take on additional duties to help their schools.

Despite that general dissatisfaction, we need to rethink how we use the faculty at the non-Ph.D.-granting schools in Wisconsin to improve the lot of the state’s students. Our “Back to the Drawing Board” report conducts a virtual thought exercise to ask what a newly constructed college, free of any bureaucratic constraints from the current system, might look like. We suggest that we would maintain some form of tenure, but it would be a protection only from being fired for intellectual reasons and would no longer serve to make professorships veritable sinecures.

We also would ask professors to teach more: a nine-hour teaching load per semester at a regional campus where the majority of professors are far from fully engaged in research does not make sense. In the early 2000s, some tenured professors went so far as to take second jobs — doable if a professor is performing a modicum of research and teaching just nine hours a week.

The insistence on Ph.Ds for most academic posts is also unnecessary. Colleges should look to get more people with professional experience to teach, and most introductory classes don’t require Ph.D.s. In the media, adjunct professors have become synonymous with exploitation. But letting a few people determined to make a career off of what are part-time jobs preclude recruiting more part-time instructors would be a mistake.

We would like to encourage schools to spend less money on superfluous entertainment such as the lazy rivers that have become the latest accoutrement on campuses these days. More resources should be devoted toward instruction and less on administration.

We also would create a school that does more to ensure students finish in four years. The difference between four-year graduation rates of private and public colleges is stark: Some of it has to do with the types of students at each school, but much more of it has to do with the fact that students who cannot afford to take more than four years to finish tend to finish in four years or less.

The school also could improve four-year graduation rates by encouraging students to take summer classes and study abroad for a summer, which would help to broaden their horizons as well as pick up credits.

We would narrow the scope of class offerings some — kids can learn media criticism elsewhere — but insist on larger upper-level classes to make sure students can get into the classes they need.  And we would give some sort of financial nudge to students who finish on time.

The student debt problem is real, but there is no reason for students at public universities to find themselves enmeshed in excessive debt. Tuition remains reasonable for students in most states, albeit higher than in the past, financial aid is copious and college graduates still can expect to earn much more than those without degrees, people who make up the majority of citizens in every state in the country and whose tax dollars help pay for the college education of students at public universities.

The best way for our states to help with this is to make sure that capable high school students start college after high school, get sufficient support while in college, are taught by faculty who combine a raft of academic knowledge and professional experience and are nudged to finish on time.

Making college free may sound nice, but it solves precisely one problem while exacerbating many more. It’s time we rethought how public universities operate altogether.

Ike Brannon is president of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He and Philip Coyle co-authored the WPRI report, “Back to the Drawing Board: How to Recreate the Outstate University and Finally Give Students Their Money’s Worth.”

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