By James E. Coté and Anton Allahar
Among the books reviewed at this year’s Open Book Session as part of the annual conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services were several that painted a rather grim picture of North American higher education. Academically Adrift – making waves in both the U.S. and Canada – has been described as a “damning indictment.” DIY U argues that the crisis in American higher ed will lead young people to use the ample resources of the web to fill in the gaps left by institutions that simply can’t deliver the experience students expect.
Lowering Higher Education provides the Canadian variation on this ubiquitous theme of declining quality. Authors Coté and Allahar, professors at the University of Western Ontario, gained some notoriety a few years back with their critique of the university system: Ivory Tower Blues. (See CACUSS Reads review.) Though they had a strong thesis based on both data and teaching experience with their original work, it stank of cynicism. In Lowering Higher Education, they have not only strengthened their arguments, but they come across as far more concerned than caustic, constructive than cranky.
Here’s the essential argument: historically, people with university degrees earn higher incomes. Other people noticed. They wanted in. And we let them in. The system grew to accommodate increasing numbers of young people, offering the promise of a lucrative career. And instead of delivering education – intellectual enlightenment with the lofty purpose of creating an educated citizenry – universities started delivering something more like training. Because that’s what corporations, parents, governments and even students want.
And then the vicious circle began. More students = declining quality = lack of engagement. Here’s where we get what Coté and Allahar call the “disengagement compact” – that tacit, mutual understanding between professor and student that neither really is really sure why they’re there, neither are adequately prepared for their roles and neither really wants to work as hard as they should to succeed. Nowhere is this more acute than in the liberal arts, where the return on investment for students is most elusive.
Student affairs pracitioners will be most interested in the fifth chapter – dedicated to the question of whether student disengagement is inevitable. Here the authors systematically examine every argument ever put forth to refute the fact that vast swaths of the undergraduate population are tuned out. The excuse “students have busy lives” (commonly used in our field) is thrown back in our faces. Handing out credentials to students from disadvantaged backgrounds without expecting a deep level of engagement in the process does them a disservice, they argue. Good point.
Coté and Allahar perform some very interesting analysis using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to determine whether disengagement is by necessity or by choice. While I think there are some basic flaws in their argument (engagement is solely defined as the amount of time spent studying and preparing for class – a limited view IMHO), they do a great job of debunking some very common myths about what is absorbing students’ time. And they come back to the central thesis: time isn’t the problem. Institutional culture is.
Their final two chapters are dedicated to solutions, the first providing an extremely well-balanced answer to the question of whether technology will save the day (answer: not to the degree that ed-tech evangelists purport) and the final to a laundry list of recommendations that seem overwhelming and, frankly, unfeasible in today’s political climate.
I am probably one of few nerds who read Lower Higher Education cover to cover. It is not nearly as entertaining as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But all serious student affairs practitioners need to concern themselves with the issues raised here. The tension between access and quality is like a rubber band stretched too far. It will break: either students will get wise and begin to walk away (check out the Uncollege movement in the U.S.) or governments will make a dramatic turnabout in policy.
— Deanne Fisher
on Twitter: @deannefisher