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.

10 comments on “Five Things Wrong With Universities Today
  • Let me take a stab at responding to a couple of your observations, especially the first two, because they are related in a way that you might not acknowledge.

    (Full disclosure, I attended a small liberal arts college as an undergradaute, a major research university as a graduate student, and now work at a major research university. I care deeply about these issues and they are complex and worth thinking
    about, so I am delighted to join this conversation).

    In your second point you note that “large universities offer significant benefits, but focused undergraduate teaching usually isn’t one of them.” In some ways that is true. The mission of a research university, first and foremost, is the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge. Although teaching is a part of that, it is often the
    case that undergraduate teaching by leading researchers is not a priority–at least in intimate settings that allow students to interact with those scholars on a regular basis. It is not uncommon, however, for those scholars to teach in large lectures where they get a chance to share their ideas with a large group of students–sometimes
    hundreds–educating, challenging, and inspiring in some wonderful ways.

    At the same time, in many places the graduate students, who are training to be scholars themselves, are responsible for the bulk of the more intimate teaching–discussions about ideas in small groups; more one-on-one interaction with papers, experiments, problem sets; and the evaluation of student work.

    As one of those graduate student instructors in my own past, I can tell you that although quality varies, as it does in the professoriate at large, for the most part students are getting instructors who care a great deal about the learning that their students are doing, are focusing tremendous time and effort in preparing their classes, discussion sections, and responding to student work, and are in some fields more up to date on current scholarship, ideas, and advances than some of their more senior faculty members.

    In the same way that medical residents are physicians in training, so too are graduate students scholars and teachers in training, and they can often be not only good teachers and instructors, but often excellent and inspiring. But, like teaching and teachers everywhere, there are good ones and not so good ones. But to say that
    undergraduate teaching isn’t important at a research university, or that because graduate students or post docs are doing much of it it is inherently bad or inferior to full professors, suggests a model that I am not sure is accurate.

    Additionally, many of the selective research universities, mine included, have made great efforts to make the university smaller and more accessible to undergraduates by providing ways for students to connect to leading senior faculty members. At the university where I work, for example, where we have more graduate students than
    undergraduates, 75% of undergraduate courses have 15 or fewer students. In addition, freshman and sophomores have access in every quarter to special seminars with scholars at the leading edges of their fields in all the disciplines which meet once or twice a week around a table, often at the professor’s home. We also have funded programs to get undergraduates involved in research.

    Your first observation, the “emphasis on knowledge over experience” suggests that “experiences which contextualize and bring to life your knowledge are more difficult to obtain” today. This may be true. But not every student is an auto-didact, and when people come together to share ideas, challenge one another, impart different perspectives and understandings, things happen that don’t happen when you’re simply
    finding it out on your own. So I agree that contextualizing experiences are important. Here’s where I think points 1 and 2 are related: The research university has, for the most part, opportunities for students to experience and contextualize that knowledge in ways that even some of the best liberal arts colleges can never hope to offer. Accessing those opportunities are not always easy, and take perseverance and effort on the part of the student, and certainly faculty members are involved in research in smaller places, but that is also not the primary mission of those institutions. But to be in an atmosphere where there are the leading experts in the nation or the world on topics as diverse as genetic research, artificial intelligence, electrial engineering, studies in race and ethnicity, democracy and the rule of law, or new energy technologies, is to be in the very place where knowledge can be contextualized and applied, through trial and error, to some of the world’s biggest problems. These opportunities are abundant in a research university and often scarce on the campuses of smaller colleges.

    But as someone who truly learned how to learn in a small college, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, and I share some of your misgivings about the undergraduate experience at research universities myself, and maintain some skepticism. But I also recognize that for some students in some disciplines, the chance to experience learning may be far greater in those institutions, and I also
    recognize that sometimes the teaching being done by graduate students can be as or more inspiring than that done by senior faculty in smaller places.

    Tenure is a complicated problem. Although the number of tenure-track positions is falling dramatically at colleges and universities as retiring tenured faculty are replaced with contract faculty, you can’t really have a two-tiered system where some faculty have “jobs for life” and others are on renewable contracts, especially when the latter are responsible for evaluation and promotion decisions. In addition, if tenure were to be abolished, there is the more complicated issue of academic freedom in the realm of the discovery and propagation of ideas. Safeguards would need to be put into place to insure those concerns could be addressed.

  • Ben,

    Interesting points. My viewpoint from inside academia, however, offers some potential complications:

    (1) Not all knowledge is (practically) accessible. This is most obvious in the sciences. Advanced math, for example, is much more efficiently learned in a structured class environment, through forced-problem sets, and frequent classmate and TA interaction, than by taking a textbook to bed, Good Will Hunting style. The same can hold for the humanities. I’m taking a graduate seminar in philosophy this term, and have discovered that certain work (e.g., Heidegger, among others) would be beyond my ability to internalize without the multi-hour discussions with the professor, and fellow classmates, who have read it in the original language, and have been studying the canon that precedes him. The university, in this instance, again provides an efficient structure to gain knowledge otherwise very difficulty to obtain.

    (2) This is a problem only if one first assumes the position that teaching undergraduates should be the primary goal of a university. I happen to agree — to some extent. But many place the university in a role of advancing knowledge in society. The emphasis on the undergrad is arguably a recent (and heavily economically-motivated) addition.

    (3) Agreed.

    (4) A tough issue. Some professors do take advantage of tenure. Many others, however, use it as a necessary pre-condition to make inventive leaps which would otherwise be impossible under a continued market pressure of publish-or-perish (as domianates the young professor path toward tenure). I’ve worked with professors who have taken a full year or two to solve a single problem. Impossible without tenure. Other professors have taken advantage of this freedom to turn to issue such as pedagodgy in the undergraduate classroom. Etc.

    (5) Agreed! Take Harvard. With 15 Billion in the bank, a lack of true economic diversity is almost criminal.

  • Economic diversity is the biggest problem on your list. Like elite, cost prohibitive private universities, now public flagship schools are getting out of reach for minorities as well. The Education Trust did a study called “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities,” that discusses this and which I discuss in detail on my blog. This is a critical issue that all universities, public and private need to address quickly.

    Juan Rodriguez

  • Two comments:

    1) No economic diversity. No kidding. I have never met *any* other engineering graduates or executives who were a tool and die maker before they got “educated”. In my generation (under 50, USA) there seems to be very limited mobility from working class to upper middle class, much less executive. The loss to our economy is huge — not only is potential talent left out, but there are two generations of management that have never had to work for a living.

    2) As a Claremont College alumnus (Harvey Mudd), I can say that they took a risk on a 27 year old transfer student with two kids. They did, and still do, try to get more diversity of background — problem is that public school education in working class areas is now so shitty that smart kids from blue-collar backgrounds are handicapped before they even get a chance at the race.

  • Education…like Health…is a very politically charged arena. Everyone has an opinion and change is very difficult. IFTF recently looked at the future of eductation with the support of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. You can see the results here –

  • A previous comment stated: “I think the #1 problem with higher ed, and in fact, all ed, is grades.”

    My question: why?

    This is a topic that, in light of my recent writing, I have focused on quite a bit recently. One thing I noticed is this wierd position grades have come to occupy in the mind of many — a position effectively seperated from learning. I encounter numerous people, like, perhaps, the above-cited commenter, who have successfully divorced grades away from mastering material and have made it, instead, into an isolated signifier, tied only to callous grade-grubbing and short-sighted brute force willingness to grind out an unreasonable number of hours of work.

    For most well-taught classes, however, this is far from the truth. To get an “A” on an essay exam requires that you have mastered the material well enough to work with and extend it intelligently during the test. Similarly, an “A” paper requires a nuanced understanding of the topic being discussed. However this mastery is acquired — be it through intelligent planning, and spreading the work out over time, or late night grind sessions — it remains, none-the-less mastery.

    There is nothing callous about this. It is not “grubbing.” And it is far from the betrayal of the academic spirit that many make it out to be. It is, instead, the very affirmation of what we hope to achieve intellectually in higher education — the nuanced mastery of complex information. A mastery from which comes many ancillary benefits, such as an improved ability to master new knowledge later in life, etc., etc.

    In the end, I wonder why it is today so controversial to say what was once taken for granted: grades serve a noble and valuable service — they provide an accurate assessment of how well the student has conceptualized and internalized the material presented in class.

    Is this always the case? No. Are some people annoying in the amount of frantic value they place on grades? Yes. Are there some professors who might provide some boost in score to those who brown-nose? Probably.

    But these do not seem to change the foundational truth that grades, on a the whole, do their job. Therefore, at the very least, perhaps more foresight is required before issuing blanket repudiations of their necessity.

  • In regards to your first criticism, you may be interested in a UK proposal to give academic credit to students for time spent volunteering. In response to the proposal, the Russell Group of universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge and LSE, says they are “committed to considering any further steps which will enable students and staff to contribute their time and energy to helping in the community.”

    See more at

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