“Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk” is a two hour PBS documentary that outlines pressing concerns about Higher Education in the United States. The host talks to various students, faculty members and administrators at four (4) different higher education institutions to get an understanding of what happens to students between admission and graduation.
The documentary outlines that some of the many challenges facing colleges and universities today which range from, the expectation to always retain students for the financial benefit, students dropping out because they are not being challenged, to a cultural mindset of not taking the time to read. With more than 14 Million students at 4200 colleges and Universities, questions are being asked about the quality of teaching and learning, retention and graduation rates and the skills of the students who earn their degrees.
The issues raised are all critical ones and definitely would not be a surprise to anyone involved in higher education. Students enroll in a higher education institution for many reasons, from being the first family member to attend college and the associated pressure to succeed, to college is a place to express new-found freedom. As with anything in life, you get out what you put in, so the onus of the decline of higher education is multifaceted. As stated in the documentary, the culture as displayed in the media, encourages that you don’t have to read to earn significant money and improve your quality of life. More emphasis is often placed on the star athletes and athletic programs which can garner more income than on a well-rounded and inspired student. As the documentary states a professor would have to do additional work, that is research, if they wish to have a pay raise. They are also being told that they need to be innovative and challenge the students. All this, they are asked to do, with a majority student population who would rather scrape by, pillage off other achieving students than read in an effort to be more educated. Since the majority of the students, approach college as a fun time of newfound freedom, they are more often willing to do just the minimum, while they professors are expected to give high or passing grades in an effort to fulfill other administrative financial demands. This cycle introduces a” minimal work for high rewards” mindset. These highlighted problems cannot be ignored as it is later transferred into the work environment and society as a whole
The documentary shows the extreme happening in several categories, a more comprehensive view was needed to capture what really takes place in our higher education systems. The recurring argument seems to be a contradiction between the role of schools to provide quality education and the practice that focus on quantitative means to measure success. It is very easy to report numbers enrolled, retained, and graduated as an interpretation of intended outcomes. This practice requires little effort, and no reflection, although it is rewarded as institutions compete for public funds, grants and revenues.
When discussing financial aid, the documentary speculates that higher education institutions give too much merit based aid. This argument reduces the quality of the students’ academic achievement that they have earned. It also gives a negative illustration of low-income students, assuming that they do not have the academic fortitude or wherewith to gain merit scholarships.
Ms. Lisa Couturier, a higher education consultant, outlines that the higher education systems need to be changed, stating that they are not satisfied with the level of skills that graduates are showing. The first hand discussion with, students, teachers, and administrators gives us an insight into the problems and challenges facing Higher Education. Higher Education is about preparing for the future in an effort to be a functional element in society. However, the US universities in today’s culture is based on a business model to garner more income for the university and not on an educational arena of higher learning.
George Kuh, the director of a national survey for college students, estimates that 20% of students just drift through their college years. A large number of students are enrolled, stay enrolled and graduate from colleges without putting in any effort into their studies. They just “sleepwalk” through college. I have personally experienced this “sleep walking” phenomenon in the workplace. Often times these sleepwalker students who barely made the grade to graduate, become employees who don’t strive to do well in work projects or assignments; they prefer to have someone else do the work for them. They just scrape by within the work environment, want everything to happen very quickly, lack the discipline to see a project to the end. The interesting thing here, is not that these employees (former sleep walker student) don’t have the mental capability, as they do, is that their “mental education muscle” was not trained during the college years.
Teachers face different problems that can compromise the quality of the teaching and learning experiences. One problem reported is that rewards aren’t given out based on teaching. Brian Strow, an economics professor, outlines that there is a lot of pressure from the college administration for him to be engaged in more research. If he wants a raise that is what he has to do.
In a particular segment of the documentary, the commentator’s portrayal of college professors, as not caring about their students and focusing only on tenure and research is not totally true. It seems as if only the most extreme examples were depicted in this documentary, because if the interviewer truly spent two years on these campuses he must of witnessed other examples of faculty who expressed an interest in their students and were still able to complete quality research.
The documentary also highlights the impact of financial forces on higher education. As Government support for public universities are disappearing, this creates a financial stress which students have to manage. Students, teachers and administrators have to deal with this loss of funding the best way they can. This decrease in public and government’s financial commitment goes against the social contract which was entered into some sixty years ago to ensure access to colleges for all despite family income.
Most of the examples in the documentary show students as not being academically committed, seeing college as a social outlet. However, there are students who view college seriously and study many hours for their classes. This example shows how only the extreme cases were displayed in the documentary without giving an accurate view of college.
The portrayal of athletics was skewed, narrow and incomplete. The documentary did not even bother to give the academic progress of the athletes. If an accurate view of college life is to be obtain, more time would have to be devoted to showing average college students instead of trying to find extreme negative examples of college life.
Are the examples in the documentary true? Yes, like with everything in life there are two sides to every issue. I admit that there is an issue with students learning, financial aid, and the balance between teaching and research. However, I think that many colleges have demonstrated successfully how to provide the proper environment while encouraging their students to learn.
It is imperative if global success is needed in the future to examine this situation now; waiting to see what will happen is not an option. What the US society needs from higher education needs to be reassessed. Review of the existing model which universities are emulating is needed. Is it a business model with the goal of finance gain or is it to produce students who can function effectively in the world as a whole, and compete on a global perspective? The onus is therefore on the stakeholders in education to conduct further assessment of this growing and very serious problem, with the aim of ameliorating the issues plaguing the education system. This will have to be dealt with on a phased basis as this did not happen overnight; therefore, there is no ‘quick fix’. Strategic and careful planning must be undertaken prior to the introduction of this reformation programme to ensure its success.