Monday, March 2, 2015

It’s Time to Replace Our Universities with…

The Madison Convention Center

Would you send your kid to a university that looks like this?  To be clear, you are looking at a picture of the convention center in Madison, WI.

Before you answer, I ask you to consider a few macroeconomic and social factors. 

A colleague in the educational publishing field recently told me that “point-in-time” certification is “dead”.  That’s the word he used – dead!  Education and the certifications or degrees that go along with it will be a lifelong endeavor, he contends.  Here’s an easy example.

How valuable is your four-year degree in computer science if you earned it in 1975?  How about 1985?  Or 1995?


A technical degree whether in computer science, medicine or metallurgy requires constant updating to be relevant in the modern workplace.  So, what is the value of a four-year degree?

I have written about the near obsolescence of a four-year degree before.  In “Don’t Send Your Kid to College”, I advocated that parents and matriculating students demand they get an education that provides them with the skills that are essential to today’s job market. 

Of course, there is a broader perspective.  My four-year degree in Naval Engineering was quite relevant when I served as Chief Engineer of a US Navy ship.  Since then?  Not so much.

Is your education relevant to your work?

Does it need to be?

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker placed this issue front and center a few weeks ago when he proposed a $300 Million cut to the budget of the University of Wisconsin system.  Not satisfied to leave it at that, he also proposed (and later withdrew) a change to the 110 year-old mission statement, replacing a phrase about the “search for truth” with language requiring that the system meet the “state’s workforce needs”.  The governor is something of a lightening rod. So, I would ask you to set your political views aside for the moment and consider…

The college experience is more than a job-training program.  When I studied engineering, I was also required to take courses in political science, history and literature.  In those days, the ideal was expressed as producing a “well-rounded individual”. 

Following Gov. Walker’s pronouncements, Christine Evans, a history professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote passionately about the “Wisconsin Idea” in the New York Times.  As my students understand,” she wrote, “the humanities train critical thinkers and citizens. That may be inconvenient for politicians who see their constituents as merely a ‘work force,’ but it is definitely good for our democracy…”

In my private correspondence with Professor Evans, she expresses concern that “Faculty control of universities has also increasingly given way to [a] ‘CEO’ model for higher education that means VERY highly paid administrators make decisions without concern for universities' core missions or much of a sense of what we do or why.”  She goes on to bemoan “our legislature now demands vast reams of new paperwork so they can be sure we are ‘accountable.’” 

These criticisms ring true to me.  CEO’s drive revenue.  Their training is well suited to improve the bottom line but not necessarily the best educational outcomes.  And, I can’t see how the legislature adds any value by requiring more red tape. 

In a larger context, however, I wonder how we as a society can sustain the system. Universities raise large endowments to build gyms, libraries and dormitories, the better to attract new students. And so the cost of a college education has increased by nearly 500% since 1985. And, we all know what student loan debt is doing to young graduates. 

Meanwhile, kids who go away to college can attend courses online from their dorm rooms, all of the books in those expensive libraries are available online and 70% of classes are taught by adjunct professors, most of whom earn less than $50K per year. In other words, we are paying to maintain overhead -- facilities and faculty -- designed for a bygone era.  Why not use a smaller platform like a convention center where students attend classes online and take turns being on campus for one or two weeks per semester?

There’s more to the college experience than classes, libraries and professors, of course.  Many in my generation wax poetic when talking about their college years – the lasting relationships, the broadening of their perspectives, the chance to break away from Mom and Dad.

So, I’ll ask my opening question again, only slightly differently.  Do we, as a society, need to maintain a system that is now so expensive that fewer middle class families can afford it?  Or, can we gain the same advantage by replacing the high overhead infrastructure of our universities with a new model?



  1. The ongoing debate between those who see college as a glorified job training institution and those who see it as a means of broadening and extending perspective and "learning how to learn" has been going on for decades. Most of us who had the pleasure of going away to college value the variety of learning experiences that accompanied our class time. Some of us learned marketable skills while there. Some of us learned what it is like to push ourselves intellectually and explore beyond what we'd assumed were our boundaries. For some, it was just one boozy party after another and they just fell into the job market because money and time for college ran out.

    1. Good comments, Elna. Sometimes I think of it as an expensive baby sitting service. It's a place to park the kids so they have a few years to grow up before we throw them to the wolves.

      There is validity to the perspective that sees the experience as "broadening and extending perspective". The question is when does it get too expensive. When middle class families can no longer send the kids to college without taking on extraordinary debt, it's gone too far.

  2. David Booth
    Pastor at Merrimack Valley Orthodox Presbyterian Church

    John: Part of the sharp rise in the cost of college has been the result of the huge increase in administrators per student as well as a variety of special services. That said, another aspect of the rise has been that States have simply stopped funding education. In the late 50s and early 60s many States made a significant commitment to funding quality education at State schools. This meant that in the 70s through early 80s students in States like California, New York, and Texas could attend high quality undergraduate degrees that could be funded through guaranteed student loans and part-time work apart from racking up massive amounts of debt. That commitment to higher education changed in the early 80s and most states have continuously cut the percentage of their budgets spent on higher education with the result that the cost that students need to pay has gone through the roof. This trend accelerated over the past 10 years as you can see from the following article.

    1. Well said, David. Professor Evans, whom I mentioned in my post, made those same points.

  3. Ray Wach
    Logistics Sales at Silk Way Cargo

    It's difficult to talk about the value of a college education -- as you say, it's more than the classrooms and other educational events. Historically, the best colleges gave their graduates a degree of maturity and competence that justified spending four more years in school, compared to their high school peers who have been working and gaining experience. Today this is more difficult.

  4. Pete Long
    MS, PMP Principal Consultant at OMNES Consulting

    I was paired up with some professors from the physics department at Vandy about a year ago. One of the 4-some was a visiting professor from Columbia. During our conversation, he mentioned he lived in Manhattan (not exactly a low cost zip code). I asked him how the commute was --- he replied that he only taught 2 courses a semester, so he would drive there, spend the night, teach his two classes, then drive home.

    One reason the cost of a college degree is so unreachable is the number of professors getting paid $200k or more and not teaching full time. The reason a lot of faculty get that salary is they are recruited for their research. If a faculty has research dollars, they can opt out of teaching, no research dollars (if they have tenure and are hard dollar faculty), they normally have to teach two classes per semester.

    I taught Calculus at USNA in the early 90s. The best TEACHERS for the core courses were the military faculty -- we taught 3 sections per semester (12 classes a week) -- and really cared about the students. The civilian faculty got first choice at courses to teach, and would take the upper class courses. Occasionally, the department chair would mandate a tenured professor teach a core course to plebes or youngsters, but I often had those kids in my EI sessions as some of the faculty could not teach to non math majors! Don't get me wrong, there are some really smart faculty at Navy, but that does not often translate into the ability to teach!

    Navy has the same size student body as Vanderbilt -- about 4000 undergrads. I have sat thru some undergraduate classes and the class size is over 100 -- imagine basic plebe courses taught in Chauvenet 212 all the time! I think if universities did not insist on full professors (normally teach graduate students) and hired more MS instructors, you would save money, reduce cost to the student, reduce class size, and give the students a better learning experience.

  5. Karen Moffitt
    Practice Manager at Siepser Laser Eyecare

    College as it is now needs to be replaced with a 2 or 3 year program that teaches everyone relevant business skills. Basic finance and accounting to begin with. Does it need to be four years? Nope. But all the for-profit institutions sure hope we continue to endorse this model. Specialty fields of course will always require specific training and I am not knocking that whatsoever. But the majority of people I know do not work in the field that they went to school for. So instead, prepare kids today with the skills they will need tomorrow which includes basic business skills and relationship management and self discipline. If you're up for scads of debt you can sign on for the long haul but the remaining bunch who want to find a job and make a decent living when they get out, without gobs of debt should only hope we someday soon redesign the model. Only then will these institutions stop taking advantage of everyone's hopes and dreams and keep more realistic goals in sight. When they change the system they might even make it more attainable for some. And when more can enjoy "the college experience" then maybe fewer will be lost in the shuffle. IMHO

  6. Sid Gudes
    Founder and V.P. at New Mexico Water Billing

    Perhaps it's because we're in a small state that doesn't have the standards of New York or California, but here in New Mexico, if you rely on "point-in-time" certification, the state won't renew your license. This is the case in a large variety of disciplines (doctor, pharmacist, engineer, lawyer, CPA, real estate appraiser), where continuing education is required for license renewal. This is not new; "point-in-time" certification has been dead here for decades. Perhaps California is just catching up to us? :-)

    "How valuable is your four-year degree in computer science if you earned it in 1975?". I earned mine in 1978. Its current value is: infinite. Of course, I may have been lucky. My curriculum consisted of teaching me about "how to develop software", as opposed to some curricula, which teach for example "how to program in Java" (or back then, "how to program in COBOL"). Although the tools and techniques have changed significantly since 1978, the basic principles of "how to develop software" are exactly the same. If one knows how to develop software, one can develop in any tool or technique (although of course there are personal preferences).

    IMHO, this breaks down to the difference between process and practice. Process-oriented training teaches how to do something in a rote way, the "what". Practice-oriented teaching teaches the underlying principles, the "why". A practice-oriented education provides a baseline for lifetime learning and expansion. Process-oriented education needs to be redone every time the process changes.

    Admittedly I haven't been to college in decades, but back then each student was able to design a curriculum to "stretch" their mind, or to take the courses just to pass and graduate. Isn't up to each student to decide what they want out of college? Or in the last few decades have colleges changed so much that they now offer only process-oriented educations?

  7. Emese Varga Bihari
    Accountant at CTCNC

    I may be biased, but I agree with Karen Moffitt's statement " Basic finance and accounting to begin with". In my experience, regardless of profession/industry, if you want to move up to management/supervisory roles, fiscal knowledge & understanding is necessary. All of the successful people I have seen in those higher level roles, are who one who have some basic budget & finance skills. How else are you going to run a department or company? Mind you, some people have an instinct for it & some have just picked it up along the way. A degree is not necessary, just a baseline understanding.

    My two cents as a fiscal professional for over 30 years. Yes, I started early.

  8. Jason G. Ramage, MS, MBA, PMP, RBP
    Deputy Program Manager at BAI Inc - Meeting Client Challenges with Vision and Innovation

    There is no "one-size fits all" answer that is going to apply to everyone. Some people are simply more suited to a trade or technical school that gives them the training they need in fewer than four years. Other programs, such as architecture, could in no way be crammed into less than four and at least at some schools, it requires five. For those going on to professional or business school, maybe not everything learned in four years is necessary, but it does give you a sense of how students will handle the course load. If you can't hack a load of 12-15 hours a semester for four years, how are you supposed to make it in grad school or medical school?

    And too, must college only be about training for employable skills? I see nothing wrong with adding in some broad liberal arts education alongside your microbiology or accounting classes.

  9. A current example of a wrong-headed aggression against this country’s dominant cultural heritage is the controversy over the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Diversity and Inclusion post [] that stated: “Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.” According to a Dec. 4th, 2015 story in THE TENNESSEAN, Tennessee’s Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell [R-Riceville] reacted by writing: “This is offensive to the vast majority of Tennesseans who help fund this university through their tax dollars,” Bell said in the email. “We have lost confidence in Chancellor Cheek’s ability to lead the state’s flagship university.” Tennessee Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey [R-Blountville] responded on Facebook, saying “these ‘suggestions’ [by UT-Knoxville] call into question what purpose university offices of diversity serve.” According to the TENNESSEAN article, State Rep. Sheila Butt, [R-Columbia] said voters should urge lawmakers to cut UT's diversity funding during the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. Lt. Gov. Ramsey pledged to put UT under “increased scrutiny” during the session.