Featured Stories

How to Save Higher Education

A polemic on simple solutions and tough choices

Jessica Wildfire
Sep 20, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Good Free Photos on Unsplash

The university president sends out a memo that says, “Sorry, suckas.” Not literally — you have to read between the lines. It mentions higher course loads and reduced travel money. Tuition has gone up 20 percent, with no explanation why. It’s a familiar story to professors.

My students think I’m ripping them off, that their tuition goes directly into my pocket as their overpaid teacher. The semester becomes a kind of game, where I drop little hints that I’m not rich. If only they could see my car.

Every other year, hiring freezes go into effect. Class sizes increase. The upper administration chants “do more with less.”

Meanwhile, the football coach sees a slight salary bump. He’ll get to retire, but the average college teacher will work until they drop dead in their 80s.

It doesn’t matter to the people in charge. A dean treats himself to a new luxury vehicle. A vice-chancellor goes on vacation during the first two weeks of the semester, leaving a dozen forms unsigned — forms he created to “make things more efficient.”

Not every university suffers from these problems, but enough of them do. Presidents and chancellors spew jargon at us, students, and taxpayers. They talk about vision and mission statements.

That’s their solution.

The upper administration chants “do more with less.” But at some point, less becomes zero.

They talk about new recruitment slogans. My university has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside consulting firms who do impact studies on various projects like new sports stadiums and department “realignments” or “process recalibrations.” It’s all nonsense.

But how do we really fix higher education? A university in trouble could make some simple decisions to right themselves. The problem is the best solutions sound too logical and too simple. They won’t make anyone’s resume look good, so they go unheeded.

A football coach makes as much or more than a college chancellor or president, and that’s simply not right. Most universities can barely afford their athletics programs, and they shouldn’t have to.

I’m sorry if you’re a sports fan. But not really. Your weekend entertainment is costing educators and taxpayers a helluva lot of money.

Let’s compromise. We’ll start a YouTube channel for intramural sports teams, and you can watch those games. Otherwise, there’s absolutely no sense in a university continuing to support a system that exploits student-athletes while generating millions in profits for other people.

Most athletic programs contribute almost nothing to student recruitment or retention. Many of them lose money, even if their revenue looks impressive on paper. They’re not cash cows. They’re drains. There’s a reason why students have to pay hefty athletic fees.

There’s absolutely no sense in a university continuing to support a system that exploits student-athletes while generating millions in profits for other people.

Only major flagship institutions can afford to support a high-profile basketball or football team. The rest of us will never compete, especially not small colleges and commuter schools. Some colleges don’t have the budget to fund any athletics programs. But they do — at everyone else’s expense.

True, some students depend on athletic scholarships. But there’s no reason you can’t give those same students different types of financial aid — ones that don’t require them to miss class for practice and travel.

Some universities have already gone this route. But not all of them. Tests like the SAT and ACT don’t tell us squat about a student’s college aptitude. They were designed to keep out minorities and poor people — in other words, the people who benefit the most from education and mobility.

If colleges truly wanted to help close the income gap, they would stop relying on tests that maintain the status quo.

Does that mean we should just let anyone in?

Actually, yes.

That’s exactly what I mean. Introductory and core courses were built precisely to help orient and acclimate students to college. Everyone deserves a chance at an education. The only way to see if someone can make it through college is to let them try. It’s a double win. The university recruits a student, and the student gets a shot at proving themselves.

You get what you pay for. Universities are willing to dole out huge salaries and bonuses to almost everyone except teachers. And they wonder why the quality of education suffers.

The average college teacher today stitches together five and six classes between three different institutions. We call these teachers “freeway fliers.” They don’t have offices. At best, they might have a workroom where they can slurp down a can of soup and guzzle some instant coffee while they grade papers.

I’ve spent a little time as an adjunct. It truly sucks. You’re tired all the time. You barely have the forced pep to make it through your day, much less to keep up with best practices or curricular innovations.

We pay the wrong people in this profession. An adjunct is working just as hard as any dean I’ve ever seen.

Adjuncts don’t have time to learn new skills. They rely on a crappy textbook and canned lesson plans. They respond tersely to student emails because they have a hundred people asking them the same questions.

Imagine what kind of mood you’d be in if you worked 60 hours a week and made barely $20,000 over the span of nine months. On top of that, imagine you also knew you’d need a summer job, like your students.

We pay the wrong people in this profession. An adjunct is working just as hard as any dean I’ve ever seen. Teachers are the reason most students decide to stay enrolled at a university. It’s not pizza parties. Or hot tubs in the dorms. Or faster WiFi. Most students make decisions based on the value they see.

So where do we find the money to pay teachers more? From administrators. Firing one vice-chancellor at my school could double the salary of 60 adjunct teachers. I’m wholly in support.

Every university wants to attract the stereotypical college freshmen. The 18-year-olds who plan to rush a fraternity or sorority and lose their virginity at a tailgate party. The ones who want fancy dormitories. The ones who party on weekends. The ones who show up to class hungover.

The ones who don’t really know why they’re in college.

These are the type of students who major in business administration or art history and can’t find a job in the new economy. They’re expensive to educate because they’re so demanding.

Forgive me, but what a bunch of entitled little fuckheads. I hate teaching traditional college students. They’re the ones who want me to give them a break because “it’s my birthday week.”

They’re also the ones who “chill out” during my Thursday afternoon classes, drinking vodka from Gatorade bottles. As if I can’t tell they’re drunk.

A student of mine recently wrote a startling essay about college life these days. According to her, the typical traditional college student starts their weekend on Thursday and parties until Sunday afternoon, when they try to cure their hangover with a textbook. These are the ones whose parents are paying for their education. And they’re the students that every college fantasizes about — loud, entitled, confrontational with teachers, and well-off.

The universities who invest in all of their students are the ones who weather financial crises.

Nontraditional students don’t pull that crap half as often. They have jobs. They’re raising families. They’ve served in the military. They’re older. They’ve spent time in the world, and they understand responsibility. Universities should be finding ways to serve these students better. But they aren’t. Or at least mine’s not. Mine turns parking lots into green spaces and puts up meters everywhere they possibly can. They’ve undermined commuter students at every turn and send the rest of them through labyrinthine financial aid processes.

By the time nontraditional students arrive in my class, they’re already pissed off and ready to give up. Nontraditional students are the ones most likely to graduate faster, though — if they have the right support. They already have jobs, and they’re looking for advancement. The universities who invest in all of their students are the ones who weather financial crises.

Administrators punish students and faculty for their own poor decisions. It’s a lot like politics in that sense. It creates a downward spiral of morale. People like me get fed up and start looking for an escape.

Students leave. They transfer or dropout altogether. The upper administrators dub these students “unprepared.” In truth, we were the ones unprepared to give them what they needed to succeed. Within a few years, this kind of university is left only with the teachers and students who have no other options.

Decisions are made by people who’ve never taught a day in their life… we have to show up angry in riot gear for the slightest chance to be heard.

Oddly, professors have almost zero input on the biggest decisions. We don’t vote on tuition raises. We don’t set admissions standards. We don’t decide on issues of salary or anything else of substance.

Sometimes, these decisions are made by people who’ve never taught a day in their life. People who see education as a for-profit venture. But we fill out surveys and attend faculty senate meetings. And we have to show up angry in riot gear for the slightest chance to be heard.

My dream university would be run by professors, not career administrators. When you teach, you actually see the faces of students who feel the effects of tuition increases coupled with reductions in course offerings.

I think every administrator at every college should have to teach at least one freshmen course a year. That might keep them honest.

Here’s the biggest thing. You don’t have to always innovate your way out of a problem. Sometimes, you can just inject some common sense. Sadly, a university might be the last place to find that now.

Written by

She’s the funny one. jessica.wildfire.writer@gmail.com

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store