This is a copy of the comments I submitted on the Administration’s new College Ratings Rules.
As a former math professor, I have seen universities treat students as naïve “consumers”, letting “consumer wants” trump “student needs”. I have seen universities use DOE grants to increase their revenues and prestige, while satisfying the grant proposal by merely stamping certifications (like PhD) on people. I have seen faux-PhD’s become “professors”. This system robs future high school teachers of a good education; and, thus, robs their students of a good education.
My comments are based on over two decades of such experiences; my focus will be on how colleges will behave in the new environment.
To explain how many colleges run now, I will cite examples of their behavior in the present environment.
First, here are examples from a US News top ranked university. I follow these with examples from a regional state university. Note that the regional examples are mainly the result of behaviors by some highly ranked colleges. (All examples are on my non-commercial blog www.inside-higher-ed.com , most documented.)
- The math department received a “national need” grant to produce American doctorates. One student, who received her Ph.D. from the professor with the grant, asked me questions – one about a common calculus problem – that made it clear that she did not even understand math at the M.S. level. I doubt that she was unique. Her case will help in understanding what I have seen at the regional college.
- The university boasts about a professor bringing “a new teaching method” to “advanced” physics which encouraged students to stay in STEM. They “clamor[ed] to get into his classes”. What he really did was make the course outstandingly easy, giving almost 90% A’s. with little work required.
- When I taught a critical math course for engineers:
I utilized MIT’s free online course materials, and administrators tried to stop me, even asking me to make the class the normal “cookbook” course, and telling me to teach students only the steps to work problems like those that will be on the test. (The Math Chair told me to do this so that he wouldn’t have “problems”.)
An Engineering Assoc. Dean (and Dean of Student Academic Integrity) was concerned about students doing poorly on an exam. I wrote him that almost all of the ones who had done poorly had cheated on the homework. He wrote back: don’t “discourage” them, “retention” is important.
Though the Math Chair kept refusing to show me the “complaints” he was “dealing with”, I finally managed to get a copy of them. (He thought I would understand his plight and “release” him from my contract.)
Here is what I saw.
An Engineering student tutor “complained” that he “…cannot do…most [MIT} problems …and [he] received an A [in the standard “cookbook” version of the course]…”
An outraged father wrote the Deans that his “understanding” was that the average on a test was 47, and that I didn’t even curve! (It was actually 67 – several points lower than the other three tests. (I don’t curve. I give improving students unspecified “consideration”. That works pedagogically.) The Deans responded to the parent by asking for his son to report on whether I had “improved”. The student’s “report” made it clear that he did not even recognize that homework problems were on the test – some word for word.
The Chair of the Math Department told me that Math had just “wrested” a course from Engineering, and they weren’t going to let Engineering “wrest” this course from Math. Clearly, there was a competition to see who could meet the “wants” of a few students to the detriment of all students. The course was worth a lot to the winner’s budget. (A Dean had told a previous Chair that he wanted “no complaints”, even if that meant a reduction in standards. That is apparently how the winner is determined.)
That’s the “elite” school.
I believe much of what I saw at a regional state school (where I taught for a few years) started with a laudable effort in the 60’s and 70’s to make higher education more accessible. But it mainly made “degrees” more accessible, not education.
I saw the following, and more, almost all from people with PhD’s from the 60’s and 70’s.
- A professor who taught an intro course admitted that, after five years, she could always tell when the homework was wrong, but still couldn’t always tell what was wrong.
- A professor who taught statistics mistook the most important theorem in statistics as something else, which is a triviality.
- Another professor couldn’t understand summation notation or function notation.
These cases are reminiscent of the new PhD whose “degree” was supported in part by national need grant
How will the new ratings system work in this setting – especially with respect to: “strong student outcomes”, “informed students and families”, and “effective use of federal money”?
I am in favor of the new ratings system. I especially like the way transfers will be handled. But, in the light of what I just described, I worry that colleges will still find ways to market, as they do now, a false reality. Here are a few of the ways that I think they may do that.
They could get a higher rating without improving education by:
- Accepting their own students into their own graduate school.
- Hiring their own grads.
- “Dumbing down” their engineering in order to “work with” other schools – as some now do with in their 3-2 engineering program.
Here is one metric that I would add.
- Use the new Teacher Preparedness data to determine (from high school teacher data) what colleges are teaching content well. Without content, high school teachers cannot teach well.
I am also worried about courses in history, government, etc… These courses are critical for good citizenship. It is hard for many students to see their necessity. In this case most “want” something different from what they “need”. The only way I can see of keeping colleges from watering down these courses is for the government to find a way to require them at the appropriate level.