Higher Education Needs to Put Students First

Posted by Alan Glassman on May 26, 2020 at 9:18 AM

After joining the CFCT virtual book club and reading Paul Tough’s book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, I felt compelled to write about my observations of state universities.

In the book, Tough integrates an impressive body of academic research, interviews with experts on higher education, and the personal stories of individuals from lower socioeconomic circumstances trying to navigate the higher educational system. From family skepticism and pressure to contribute economically, to erroneous high school counseling advice, to biased admissions criteria and processes, to surviving in a brand new environment, these youngsters must cope with innumerable disadvantages. Although the book’s stories of those who succeed in meeting these challenges are inspiring, overall the book leaves you angry and sad.

Why is the road to success so difficult for low income, mostly African-American and Hispanic, students?

In my experience as a long time faculty member and now professor emeritus at a large California State University, the changing role expectations for faculty at the nation’s best public teaching universities, provides a potentially important piece of the answer to this perplexing problem.

To place the problem in context, remember that approximately 75% of college students are enrolled in a public higher education institution and that most states’ systems have a three tier structure, consisting of:

  1. Community colleges provide both vocational/technical training certificates for those seeking to enter the work force or up to two years of lower division academic courses for those needing an Associate’s degree for a job or wishing to transfer into a four-year university.
  2. State 4-year comprehensive universities offer specialized job knowledge through well-defined majors and teacher training programs at the Bachelor and Master’s levels to develop the workforce of tomorrow; and
  3. State 4-year comprehensive research universities dedicated to breakthrough thinking for societal advancement, providing top-rated students an elite educational experience. Unfortunately, as Tough points out, their student bodies tend to be as elite as their reputation suggests with only about 8% of their students coming from low income, minority families.

As a result, the middle tier of four-year comprehensive public universities, once commonly known as teacher colleges, has become the preferred path to economic betterment and a middle class life for those not part of America’s elite. Unfortunately, this part of our higher education system has been evolving away from their fundamental, student-focused mission to one more interested in emulating research universities, diminishing their ability to serve as a critical support system for students most in need of that type of mentoring and counseling.

From the early 1960s through the mid-19080s. regardless of location and faculty composition, most of the faculties in these middle tier institutions were committed to teaching and working with students. They taught an average of 6-8 classes per year and spent an inordinate number of hours – beyond normal office times – helping students. At my university, it was not unusual to observe students packed into faculty offices or crowded in the hallways for extra help and advice. These faculty members had received their doctorates from mid-elites and second tier institutions and had chosen teaching over the “publish or perish” world of the elites.

But around 1985, the student population expanded dramatically and its composition began to reflect the efforts of outreach programs designed to encourage disadvantaged students to enroll in four-year universities as well as changes in the demographics of the communities the university drew from. At my university, for instance, student enrollment increased from approximately 18,000 to nearly 40,000 from about 1990 to 2010. Its student body, once over 90% Caucasian, is now the 10th largest Hispanic university in the country. These changes might have been absorbed and the students attending these colleges might have benefited from them if enough resources had accompanied the expansion.

Unfortunately ,during this same time the makeup of the faculty also began to change and lose focus on its central role of teaching. Increasingly, new PH.D. graduates from top and near top tier institutions sought jobs at teaching universities, seeking a better life-work balance and desire to escape the pressures of research universities. Over the years, as these faculty attained tenure and promotion, they imposed their research values onto the personnel decision-making process. Today, it is not unusual to read about HR processes that give more weight to publications and grants than to teaching. Good teaching was still considered necessary; but it no longer was the sole focus of the institutions. For example, the Dean of one of the largest colleges on my former campus, who had previously been a Department Chair at an almost elite university, told the faculty that they needed to publish in more of the recognized “A-level” journals to get ahead.

This shift was reinforced at many of the state teaching universities. Faculty competed for both system-wide and campus research grants that let them “buyout,” or avoid, their required teaching classes. These universities reinforced their new research focus by leveraging faculty success to seek higher accreditations and higher national rankings--some even began to lobby to be given the authority to offer Ph.D. programs.

Discussions to rectify these dreadful outcomes have revolved around providing additional support resources such as tutoring, guided peer group study sessions, and changes in curriculum requirements. Nearly everything is on the table except rethinking the role expectations of faculty. But that’s the right place to start to fix the problem if we truly want to put the success of our students first.


Alan Glassman is professor emeritus at the California State Universities and former President of the Western Academy of Management.

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