Reducing Student Debt: An Expert’s View

What can be done to make college more affordable? How can students avoid having to take out so many loans?

In answering these questions, colleges and universities may have to become more frugal by having senior faculty teach freshmen and sophomore courses and by limiting the funds spent on researching arcane subjects.

A less controversial answer was given by the Obama administration which put in place a system to limit the percentage of a college graduate’s income used to repay loans. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Saunders offer a different approach which would make the first years at a state college or university tuition-free.

These “fixes” are useful and will help; but they address the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. According to a top expert on post-secondary education, the focus should be on this core issue: what makes higher education so expensive, and why can’t college administrators control those costs?

The academic culture’s priority on research, and not on teaching, is the root of the problem, he told me in a recent conversation. A fundamental change in attitude must occur if post-secondary education is to be affordable.

Thomas Wolanin, with a PhD. from Harvard, taught political science at Oberlin College and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His second career, which overlapped with the first, was as the primary expert for twenty years for the U.S. House of Representatives in the area of student financial aid. Dr. Wolanin was during those years the most influential person shaping the federal student loan and grant programs that enable millions of people to attend a college, university, or job training institution. His knowledge of both the academic and the policy/political worlds gives him an unparalleled perspective.

In his view, most four-year institutions of post-secondary education cannot control costs because they want faculty with Doctor of Philosophy degrees (PhDs), and PhDs value research more than teaching. If PhDs are researching and publishing their work, then others must teach.

As Dr. Wolanin stated it: 
“My view is that the root of the academic culture’s priority on research is the fact that just about all academics at four-year schools have a PhD which is a research degree. PhDs generally have little or no training in teaching and often only limited on-the-job experience teaching. So academics want to do what they were trained to do and which got them their PhD, i.e. research, not teaching.”

The process used to determine advancement on the academic ladder illustrates this point. Assistant professors, if on the tenure track at an institution, are measured by various means to determine whether they should receive tenure; and publishing papers and articles in “peer-reviewed” journals based on research is a prime criterion in that determination. Upon becoming an associate professor with tenure, the next step is to become a full professor which is also heavily dependent on one’s publications.

The “publish or perish” culture among faculty is the natural outcome of the way that PhDs, the highest degrees, are awarded. Although most prevalent at prestigious institutions, this attitude permeates the college and university world. Community colleges and vocationally oriented institutions are less affected.

Once a professor has attained tenure, he or she practically has a job for life because it is very difficult for an institution to get rid of tenured staff. These professors often limit their teaching to graduate students in small seminars, and prefer not to teach undergraduate courses. The task of teaching most students is commonly left to graduate students and adjunct (temporary) professors.

Many parents of college students might be surprised to learn about the great emphasis placed on research and of the lesser regard given to who teaches their children, especially in the beginning years of post-secondary education. Senior professors are little to be seen, particularly by freshmen and sophomores.

This culture not only demeans teaching, it leads to greater expenditures because the better-paid senior professors are not teaching much. They are “doing research” and leaving teaching to others, who naturally need to be paid.

Tuitions therefore are higher, and students and parents take out loans. Thus, the root of student indebtedness is in the culture of higher education that places the emphasis on research/publishing and not on teaching. Other factors, such as state legislatures cutting back on their support of state institutions, compound the problem.

I described Dr. Wolanin’s extensive academic and policy background because his suggestion for a cultural change as a solution to student indebtedness will be controversial in the academic world. Based on his deep knowledge, he is urging us to concentrate on the main issues.

Are professors being rewarded for the right thing? Are graduate students putting their emphasis on research and not on learning how to teach well? Are undergraduate students receiving the education they paid for? Is this research/publishing culture increasing costs that are handed on to students and parents?

In other words, is the answer to too much student debt changing the culture of post-secondary education from “publish or perish” to “educate students well”?


This article written by Jack Jennings first appeared as a blog on the Huffington Post on August 22, 2016.



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August 28, 2016