September 16, 2003

The Most Serious Problems/Challenges in Higher Ed Are...?

No time to blog, except to pose a question (or perhaps, a series of related questions).

At the Chronicle's online Colloquy on "Diversity in Journals," someone posted the following:

Dear Chronicle,

The entire support staff at Yale has gone on strike.

47 of the 50 states are facing massive layoffs and program cuts
in higher education.

The 'No Child Left Behind Act' is causing the most massive
restructuring of K-12 education in history.

Can you please find a substantive colloquy issue to discuss?

He may have a point.

And since Invisible Adjunct is bored silly by her own posts on the academic job market committed to cutting-edge analysis and discussion of substantive issues based in large part on reader response, this leads me to the following questions:

What are the most substantive issues/problems/challenges in higher ed? Are they economic, political, social, cultural, or perhaps a combination of some or all of the above? State budget cuts? Campus culture wars? Rising tuition costs? Tenure and labor relations? If you had to pick one issue, what would it be? Of course, you needn't confine yourself to one issue: as always, the management at Invisible Adjunct welcomes broad synoptic overviews, as well as programmatic (if unrealizable) policy proposals, though not to the exclusion of amusing (if possibly atypical and unrepresentative) anecdotes.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 16, 2003 01:11 PM

The appearance of irrelevance beyond the educational mileiux is the most significant problem that i can see. in short, few seems to realize what the university does for states and nations in terms of benefits, economic and otherwise.

Posted by: jeremy hunsinger at September 16, 2003 02:01 PM

The appearance of irrelevance, or actual irrelevance?

Posted by: Joshua at September 16, 2003 02:13 PM

"few seems to realize what the university does for states and nations in terms of benefits, economic and otherwise..."

Why do you think this? The U.S. spends something like $200 billion on higher education annually. Many families spend themselves almost into the poorhouse in order to send their kids to the "right" colleges. Many students themselves go deeply into debt to pay for their higher educations.

Posted by: David Foster at September 16, 2003 02:30 PM

I would say a key issue is the relationship between colleges and the job market, in all its forms. Now that education has been equated solely with career acquisition, we now wonder why students only seem to care about grades and degrees. Then there's the real problem of educational inflation...too many college graduates and not enough jobs that really require a college degree. The job market cannot accommodate the number of graduates (the adjunct situation is a classic example) yet most high schools find it "beneath" them to suggest vocational options, such as carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, etc. Note that these occupations, while being "hands on" are also way more lucrative than many degreed fields, yet they are frowned upon by parents and schools who don't seem to view them as fields that require skill and thought. Another job related connection that is a critical issue is corporate influence/privatization of schools in general. This begins to color the kind of content we see as open for discussion, and the kind of information that gets silenced via the chilling effect ("I won't talk about evolution to begin with because it's more trouble than it's worth" and other such sentiments).

Posted by: Cat at September 16, 2003 02:59 PM

I think that there's an enormous confusion at every level about the purposes of education. During prosperous, expanding, happy times you can be as confused as you want about your goals, but there's a considerable economic crunch under way, and it's hard to respond since there's no real agreement about what we are trying to do. This is a weakness of pluralistic institutions I think -- benign acceptance of the multiple purposes of the university is hard to maintain when cuts are being made.

Posted by: zizka at September 16, 2003 04:06 PM

My son has a carpenter friend who makes excellent money (better than most of his college-grad friends). He bitterly feels he missed out by not going to college. I've encountered this feeling often (I've read that Bob Dylan feels that way). College admits you to a kind of elite, gives you cultural capital, and makes it possible to meet cute girls, have lots of fun, and put on airs. Certain venues (and promotions) are just not open to non-college people. It's an odd sort of dual system of status.

Posted by: zizka at September 16, 2003 04:14 PM

And I know some skilled laborers and craftspeople who went to college, don't need it for their jobs, but find it very useful in their lives.

Posted by: clew at September 16, 2003 04:37 PM

Perhaps if the discourse moved from the theme of crisis to the one of challenge:

spread the "spirit of learning" through and beyond the institutions.

People turning people on to intellectual activity.

Bemoan or build.

Some of us who have passed through institutions of higher learning now identify ourselves as para-academics. We, para-academics are cultivating fields of practice that distinguish between holding down a Job, developing a Career & earning a Living. See

Posted by: Francois Lachance at September 16, 2003 05:05 PM

One thing that I come up with is that very few people anywhere are very interested in humanities-type stuff. Students are into credentialization and sex, the average citizen is into investments, TV, and church, and even a lot of academics are only interested in things personal to them, such as their psyches, their hobbies, their sailboats and other pleasures (including investments and sex, of course.)

Posted by: zizka at September 16, 2003 06:43 PM

Do you seriously think that people are not interested in the humanities? Most of the adults I know (and yes, they're all employed) are avid readers of more than just the newspaper, and enjoy attending special lectures and performing arts events in their (albeit limited) spare time. Perhaps I know really unusual people. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, administrators...yep, pretty strange bunch.

Posted by: Jane at September 16, 2003 08:38 PM

I actually think (hope?) there's a hunger for the humanities. But I think much of it is stifled by the way these subjects are now too frequently taught. In history, for example, many people who might be excited about reading primary sources are required instead to peruse endless highly-theoretical analyses which seem intended to justify preselected conclusions.

Posted by: David Foster at September 16, 2003 08:44 PM

Jane, maybe your choices in friendship bias your sample.

Posted by: zizka at September 16, 2003 10:19 PM


Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 17, 2003 12:33 AM

The most serious problems/challenges in higher education is ..... that we pay too much attention to it?

Compared to K12, higher education is in rather good shape. Shouldnt we focus more on K12 education since it impacts more people than college? There are many problems in higher education, but there is much flexibility too. Dont like what you are studying, change your major! Dont like your school ,transfer/leave/quit. Tired to studying but still unsure? Take a semester(s) off and work. Like school a whole lot? Get a phd!
granted not all of us can do all of the above, but we can at least do some of them.

Its grade schools and high schools that have problems that have no easy solutions.

Posted by: Passing_through at September 17, 2003 12:49 AM

The one big problem is the commodification of education. Learning has become a product. K-12 test scores influence real estate prices, and politicians build careers on patchwork reforms.

The repeated dismantling and reconstruction of educational programs resembles what asking a construction worker to rebuild her home every five years might feel like: disruptive, tedious, and bewilderingly punitive.

Posted by: SuzieQ at September 17, 2003 09:28 AM

This is a comment not on IA's interesting question but on the Chronicle Colloquy's participant's comment that sparked it. Are we not allowed to spend a few minutes on issues of lesser concern because there are other issues of greater concern? The teaching I do is unlikely to forestall nuclear catastrophe on the Korean peninsula--guess I'll throw in the towel.

Posted by: Lucy at September 17, 2003 10:26 AM

Student debt, narrowing their choices after graduation, and the fear of it driving people away from higher education, or the best education they could get.

Posted by: amf at September 18, 2003 01:49 PM

The issue I'd flag is the demise and demoralization of the classical liberal arts. We'll always get the engineers we need.

Posted by: baa at September 18, 2003 02:56 PM

Thank you, Lucy.

IA -- how can you discuss your personal concerns when the earth is warming/humanity will be extinct/the SS has taken over the White House/the unemployment rate is 6%! The shame!

Posted by: JT at September 22, 2003 01:27 PM