Five Things Wrong With Universities Today

Here are five problem areas that come to mind when I think of higher ed in America. Any others? Or better yet, solutions?

1. Emphasis on Knowledge Over Experiences — The system is still set up to reflect the old days when knowledge was concentrated in libraries and classrooms. Now, knowledge isn’t scarce; it’s abundant, and mostly free. Experiences which contexualize and bring to life your knowledge are more difficult to obtain.

2. Undergraduate Education in Research Universities — A friend of a friend recently transferred from Amherst College to Stanford to be closer to home. He says he is appalled at the quality of his new teachers: they are grad students. Large universities offer significant benefits, but focused undergraduate teaching usually isn’t one of them.

3. Creativity and Individuality — Two ideas here. First, as Seth Roberts of UC Berkeley recently noted, there is little personalization in the classroom. All 200 (or 800) students in the room have to learn exactly the same thing:

Forcing all of them to learn the exactly same stuff is like forcing all of them to wear exactly the same clothes. It can be done, especially if rewards and punishments (i.e., grades) are used, but it’s unwise. Just as feeding children a poor diet stunts physical growth, forcing college students to imitate their professors, instead of letting them (or even better, helping them) grow in all directions, stunts intellectual growth.

Second, our school system can squelch creativity and individual expression in the name of bureaucracy and structure.

4. TenureJust plain stupid incentive structure for professors.

5. Economic Diversity — This is a bigger problem than racial diversity. Simply put, elite universities and colleges are more than ever out of reach for lower-income families. At Claremont, for example, only 12% of the student body is eligible for Pell Grants (household income less than $40k), the most widely used indicator for low-income student body.

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