The Real Cost of Higher Education

So your progeny just started college. Hallelujah! If you are very lucky, your kid studied her butt off and got a scholarship. Of course if you are gritting your teeth rather than beaming, then you might be footing quite a bill for your issue’s higher learning. Though “how much is this gonna cost me?” is an important question to ask, “what am I paying for?” is an equally important question many parents of college students fail to pose.

Will your college-bound youngster be receiving individual attention and guidance to help her find her way through a maze of career choices or will she be thrown in with the rest of the freshmen and expected to find her own way to the baccalaureate cheese?

But you’ve done enough parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings to last you a lifetime, haven’t you? Isn’t it all over after high school? Actually, you’re not done yet. You’ve been nudging, and overseeing, and guiding, and helping, and encouraging the fruit of your loins all through her kindergarten and school years. There is no reason abandon her now, when she needs your help in making her first important decisions as an adult. Offering to help her choose her first courses is not being an overbearing and controlling parent, it’s being an interested and helpful one.

OK, so now you’re involved in your child’s education once again. You know what courses she’ll be taking; you may even have encouraged her to enroll in a really challenging or unusual course. But do you know who’ll be teaching the courses you helped your freshman pick? Will a tenured, aging professor like you see in old movies greet her in that lecture hall on the first day? Will it be a graduate student, just out of college himself, getting his required years of classroom teaching? Or an overworked and exploited veteran “part-timer” barely making it to class on time because he had to teach a course at another school clear across town?

Don’t be too sure of your answer. If your kid is attending school in NYC especially a CUNY school chances are that she won’t see one of those out-of-the-movies professors, tenured or otherwise, until she is done with all her introductory courses. Graduate workers and adjunct faculty comprise an alarmingly increasing number of university teachers. The City University of New York employs over nine thousand contingent instructors on their twenty campuses. That means that at least 50% of all CUNY faculty have no job security, no full time pay and benefits, no paid vacations or accrued sick leave, no say in school policies, and oftentimes no office or private desk at the schools where they teach.

If you think the picture might look more promising in other states think again! The latest data from the US Department of Education shows that the erosion of full-time faculty in tenured and tenure-track positions is a country-wide problem. Only about one third of the country’s college and university faculty are tenured or on their way to becoming tenured. The rest are contingent and part-time instructors, including graduate workers.

“Why should I care about this?” you may ask. Well, firstly, you should be concerned about what your tuition money actually buys you. After all, you would like your freshly minted college student to have access to the best professors at least some of the time. This is not to say that non-tenured and part-time instructors provide poor education, but it is at least possible that some of them, especially in the case of graduate students, may have little or no classroom experience, no in-depth knowledge on the subject they teach, or poorly developed communication skills.

Of course one of the main concerns is academic freedom. Tenured faculty participate in the shaping of the curriculum, academic major requirements, and various academic policies. As the providers of education and specialists in their respective fields they are best suited to make such decisions (on a democratic basis, of course). But since there are so few professors in such secure assignments and so many instructors in very shaky jobs school administration is in a position to take away faculty’s decision-making power in curricular matters. Furthermore, many school administrations are more frequently controlling how a non-tenured professor conducts his course, what materials he uses, and what course class discussions take. Non-compliant adjuncts are disciplined by not being invited to teach again the following semester. Of course, the reason most often given is lack of funds to renew the position. This is bureau-speak for “we need a team player, sorry!”

Another major concern is that about two thirds of American higher education workforce is grossly under compensated for their services. Their wages are disproportionately low, many have no access to retirement programs or health benefits of any sort. These instructors are being exploited. Many are forced to have multiple teaching positions in order to make ends meet, which in most cases means that their workload is at least as heavy as that of full-time faculty. With no leave time and funds for professional development, no access to grants, little choice as to what courses they teach, and no job security it’s no wonder that the quality of education these instructors can provide suffers. There is no time to pay individual attention to a struggling student or come up with special projects for especially gifted students; there is no incentive to challenge students to do more than what’s required to pass when the main challenge of the instructor is how to put food on his table.

We as parents, as students, as consumers of higher education, and as citizens snoozed as our institutions of higher learning became the Wal-Mart of higher education. It is time for all of us to wake up and take responsibility.

So the next time you bite your lip and write out another check to your kid’s school’s bursar, stop and ask yourself, “what am I paying for?”