What’s “high” in Higher Education

Higher Education is emerging to be one of the most prominent battlegrounds over competing ideologies.

The right versus left battles over controlling school agendas have reached dull stalemates, with all sides firmly in their respective corners, and no new voter base being created or excited. Higher education, at the same time, offers a much richer, and much varied landscape. There are two-year community colleges, and then there are four-year public and private institutions. If one is not careful, one can find enough reasons to be perplexed, at the very least, about the state of higher education itself, without peeking at the broader landscape. The degrees offered range from, as has been perplexingly claimed by some, something approaching the worthless in Art History and Philosophy, to, supposedly worthwhile degrees in everything else. Throw in a tenure system for faculty with no retirement age, state and national funding always under attack, a seeming subservience to big-budget sports, an administration that appears to suck up a disproportionate amount of budget without an apparent comparative return, and students more vocal about their expectations and evermore confused about the plethora of career and financial aid and loan choices and pressures, and seemingly inexplicable ranking systems of universities. Were it not for an active support environment for erudition, which pushes the boundaries of knowledge every day, higher education would mostly be muddling along. This active support is what ultimately ensures the continued progress of society.

Low-ranked four-year public universities play a particularly significantly important role

 Among the many institutions of higher-education, low-ranked four-year public universities play a particularly significantly important role in this progress. Many of them are vibrant and towering members of the community they serve. While these institutions can sometimes feel like four year versions of two-year community colleges (which is ironic since some community colleges have started experimenting with offering bachelor’s degrees), with a significantly greater focus on teaching than research, they provide unique opportunities for socio-economically challenged students to excel in life. They may not be research intensive, but the research conducted in them with student, and sometimes community, participation also adds to the body-knowledge. The cost-per-research product is perhaps not a metric that is measured, but if done, may perhaps not be much different between a research-intensive university and a low-ranked university.

 To ensure that these universities continue to thrive and fulfill their mission requires a different approach towards how they operate. A quick survey across the country will reveal that almost all, if not all, universities have similar administrative structures. Such structures are actually optimized for larger universities (or perhaps not). In smaller universities, there are fewer administrative responsibilities, but not fewer administrators, with salaries disproportionally high compared to their responsibilities. This leaves a significantly smaller budget for student and faculty support. When it comes to hiring an administrator, low-ranked universities oftentimes end up with tough, limited choices. It is important to realize that the pressure on universities to pay very high salaries to administrators is still very high. These salaries are generated by faculty through classroom teaching and limited grants. A better approach will be to cap academic administrative positions in public universities supported by states, to ones that are absolute must-haves. The number of positions can be a function of student and faculty numbers. Well-functioning faculty bodies and committees can provide the necessary inputs and recommendations to those limited number of administrators to govern. At the same time the tenure system should be strengthened, not weakened. These measures will enable faculty to play a more prominent and empowered role in the future growth of their respective institutions. The cost-savings will go towards improving the quality of instructions. The role of a small public four-year institution is community service, which forms the philosophical underpinning of its existence. This is best done if lots of invested faculty members, who live within the community and are part of it, provide lots of input and experiences and efforts to generate ideas for improving that service.  

This article first appeared on Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-high-higher-education-amit-verma/