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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The end of college

After 126 years, Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, will close down this month, it was announced Wednesday.  Five hundred students, about 40 faculty, and dozens of staff members abruptly found out that they won't have classes or jobs after this month.  In a move that says much about the priorities that govern higher education, Midland Lutheran in Fremont, Neb., offered Dana's 18 head coaches 90-day contracts.  It has also said it may hire some of the faculty, and it has made special provisions, including free room and board, for students who transfer from Dana.  A number of other institutions in Nebraska and Iowa have made special provisions for students to transfer.

Dana has been in bad financial shape for years.  It had considered merging with Midland, but it made an arrangement with a group of investors to take over the college and turn it into a for-profit college.  When the deal was announced in March, the new owners promised all sorts of upgrades and changes.  The problem came when the accrediting agency for Dana, the Higher Learning Commission, said it would not continue its accreditation under the terms of the transfer of ownership.  While it did not specify its reasons, the Commission indicated that the plans appeared to weaken the liberal arts standards in favor of a vocational emphasis, which would be a departure from the college's announced mission.

Over the years, I have seen a number of small colleges close their doors.  The economics of higher education has changed drastically and changed the factors which once made it possible for small institutions to be viable.  One factor is that campuses located in small towns have gone out of popularity.  While such institutions provide an environment that is beneficial to certain types of students, they find that they have to urbanize to attract sufficient numbers of students.  Small, quiet campuses where students can focus on their studies without diversions and distractions do not offer the lifestyle that students want and expect.  Still, what many people need to develop is how to think intensely, reflectively, and productively, and small, ordered academic communities focus on the acquisition and development of that skill.

I taught for eight years at the undergraduate college where I obtained my bachelor's degree,  When I was a student, quiet hours were  imposed on the dormitories so that noise and distraction was kept at a minimum when students were presumed to be studying.When I taught at the same institution, those rules which were geared toward doing scholarship were no longer in effect.  A walk through the dormitories during the evenings would present an environment of blaring stereos and raucous socializing.  Students who needed a quiet environment to get their work done went to the library to do their reading and writing.  But the distracting environment on the rest of the campus showed up in the student work.  It was the product of students who did not bring their full attention to study tasks.  The shift from campus life primarily geared for study had given way to a priority for student socializing and entertainment, and that change was the subject of commentary in academic circles throughout the land.

Many meetings of professors' organizations were taken up by the subject of what to do to improve students' study and thinking habits.  The more serious students found life on-campus was not conducive to the work of college.  They found apartments off campus geared their work sessions to avoid the life style that was growing on campus.

At Northern State, I had a number of occasions when I was asked to intervene for students to have their contracts to live in dorms rescinded so that they  could move off campus.  In some dorms, the students were actually harassed by dormitory mates when they tried to study and work.  The thinking was that their work habits were setting too high a standard for the student body.

Many colleges found it necessary to increase enrollments to keep up with mounting costs.  For some, that meant admitting students who did not fit the colleges' own admission standards.  At NSU, the stated standard for admission included an ACT composite score of 18 or better.  However, it admitted students with composites as low as 13.  (At the previous college I taught, the average ACT composite was 26).  While colleges have offered "bonehead English" courses traditionally to help students deficient in their writing to be brought up to college standards, the developmental courses I was assigned at NSU had students whose writing abilities were at the grade school level and who needed years, rather than a course, to bring their work up to par.  On the basis of their academic histories in high school, many of them should simply not have been admitted into college.  But the college needed the tuition money and that meant trying to work around some tepid bodies. Those students needed the kind of specialized work in catching-up that some community colleges offer.  Some worked prodigiously to make up for lost time; others complained constantly about the  unreasonable demands college made on them.

The admission of under-prepared and unmotivated students raised a concern among college faculty who think that the "higher" in "higher education" is no longer a part of the mission of  many post-secondary institutions.    Some colleges are unabashed diploma mills and the diplomas they award do not signify academic achievement or cognitive abilities. 

As admission standards were dropped and replaced with the philosophy that students are consumers and consumers are always right,  colleges set on a trend that further diminished the level of academic work and achievement expected.  Part of that trend was the introduction of student evaluations of instruction, which many faculty and administrators insist accelerated the deterioration of higher education.  Stanley Fish in The New York Times has a two-part series of essays on the deleterious effect student evaluations have had on higher education.

While I think professors need to be evaluated for their teaching performance and students need to have their legitimate concerns registered and acknowledged,  the student evaluation process contributes nothing to those ends.  As a faculty officer who negotiated the working agreements, we had the name of the process changed from student evaluations to opinion surveys of instruction and we put in measures to require that provided stipulations for how the surveys could be used in assessing faculty performance.  But they were still misused by some administrators and were a nuisance that created a barrier between faculty and students that interfered with the delivery of top rate instruction.

The problem was that some colleges began to reshape their curriculum and modes of instruction according to student standards.  At one point a study of the academic standards stated that of the 2,500 accredited four-year institutions in the U.S., about 500 of them could be eliminated and thereby raise the academic of level of higher education considerably.  The charge was that many colleges are engaged in self-perpetuation, not in higher education.

In thinking about the problem, I am reminded of the demise of Huron College.  As a private church-related college, it had a strong history, but did not have the support and resources to continue under that form of operation.  It was purchased by a for-profit group which tried to bolster its enrollments  by
offering classes that had "market appeal."  One of the classes was dog-grooming, for example.  Soon, serious students were gone and were replaced by students who thought college was merely a process of putting in time and buying a diploma.  Soon, the accreditation agencies began to question if the degrees offered were actually college degrees.  And Huron College soon was not viable as a higher learning institution.  Now the campus sits empty.

I strongly suspect that the pattern followed by Huron College is what the Higher Learning Commission saw as the inevitable fate of Dana College.  Without accreditation, the college could not obtain the loans and grants that would enable it to continue.  And its diplomas would be regarded as worthless.

The big factors in all this are academic purpose and standards.  While science and technology are getting most attention, the fact is that those specialties do not occur in a vacuum.  They are utilized best in the context of broad-based, tested knowledge.  With increased attention to the quality of higher learning, there will most likely be many small colleges following Dana College into oblivion.  But this could also mean the upgrading and expansion of community colleges.  American institutions have begun to lose their luster for foreign students.  Colleges in China and India, for example, are rivaling American institutions in the quality and rigor of their curriculum.  The anti-intellectual trend in America has taken its toll on higher education.  College as we now know it is coming to an end.


caheidelberger said...

Interesting connections, David. I have seen those lower standards even in some of the graduate work of fellow students here at DSU. Ugh.

I find it interesting that anti-intellectualism seems to drive down the quality of university education, but we simultaneously drive more and more students to go get a university education.

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