Higher Education at Risk

Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk: This PBS documentary debunks commonly held notions about the rite of passage known as the college experience, following 30 students and their teachers along the path of higher education, from admission to graduation, and exposes the disappointment, disorientation and deflation many students feel, in both public and private schools. This revealing study also addresses the quality and readiness of America’s future work force. The film provides a mix of perspectives from teachers, administrators and students. By following a variety of students (ranging from community colleges to expensive Northeastern colleges), we are introduced to the many problems plaguing our college/university systems, including lack of funding, lack of challenge in the classroom, the sometimes-questionable funding priorities of schools, the issues facing students who have to balance school and work, and much more. This two-hour analysis of contemporary American higher education articulates several critical issues in a coherent and trenchant manner. As a portrait of higher education, the picture this paints presents viewers with a disconcerting sense that something is deeply and structurally flawed in the American academy. Specific issues include: 1) the commercialization of higher education, especially in college sports; 2) the decline of teaching in favor of “research”; 3) the increasing cost of higher education for students; 4) the lack of structure within public higher education; 5) the reality of “uneducated” college graduates; and 6) the dog-eat-dog competition among colleges for ever-higher (perhaps spurious) rankings. These and other issues are given concrete expression in several case studies of widely varying students over a two year period. The sometimes abstract issues are brought closer to home when we see what, for example, higher costs mean for folks who are not born into privilege. Also very useful was commentary by experts, all dead-on in their analyses (my bias!). My only gripe is that the proposed solution boils down to this: more money from taxpayers. While more money might help address some issues (something tells me it would be used to build bigger/better sports arenas rather than help financially strapped students), it would do nothing to address several others that the film brings up, including the lack of engagement in the classroom (by many students and some teachers), the social problems on campus (binge drinking among them), and the lack of accountability within the system. How about student motivation? As far back as 1967 we learned that there were generally two kinds of graduates from the state-mandated high-schools: those who were motivated to learn and those who were motivated to hang out. Many arrive at college expecting to skate on through it like high school but eventually learn they can’t. Most of the people I go to school with are fresh out of high school and still think and act like they’re in high school. This film cover students in undergraduate programs (not graduate programs) and most of their undergraduate majors are anything but difficult — they coast through and brag about not putting any effort into their studies (these are not Pre-Med or Engineering students). The proportion of serious learners coming from public high schools seems to have diminished over the years. College tuition costs have been rising, and rising even faster are the higher wages that college graduates receive over those without a degree. A degree is becoming more important, not less, in our digital economy. And so while the cost of going to college is rising, the cost of NOT going to college is becoming more crucial. I was disappointed that a broader range of potential solutions (of which money could be a part) wasn’t discussed. But this is an important and necessary start to a discussion that needs to take place now, and I recommend it on those terms alone. This film manages to pack a massive amount of information into two hours in an informative and attention-keeping way. I didn’t get any sense of it being an unfair attack on public education. I saw what I’ve read in numerous books on this very topic. Research is valued more highly than teaching and hence teaching suffers since the system contains no incentives for university lecturers to go and get some teacher training — only financially lucrative research is rewarded. The exposé of big time college sports echoes what some respected people have written on the topic of how certain “students” are kept in the system for the primary purpose of showcasing the college on the national sports stage, and their academic requirements are watered down to the bare minimum. Some sports programs turn a profit, but most of them don’t, and yet the market forces driving the sporting arms race remain as entrenched as ever. Having gone to both a public and a private university, I can see the difference in the approaches to education as mirrored by this movie. However, community colleges were painted as a place of last resort, and while community colleges may not be Ivy League, they certainly work more toward educating students instead of recruiting faculty for research. This documentary deserves plaudits for taking a closer look at the failures of higher education in this country. This doc is breathtaking in its honesty, hopeful in certain respects yet unflinching in its critique. No political agenda — no “Right vs Left”. Overall, a good film about higher ed! I would certainly recommend watching it to get a better understanding of what challenges our higher education community faces. Very enlightening. This documentary gives a great indication of what college really is about. I strongly recommend this documentary to anyone planning to attend college, and HIGHLY recommended for all adults who are preparing to send their kids off to college. Excellent, must-see movie. Documentary 2005 NR 120 minutes.

(An outstanding companion piece is Tom Wolfe’s novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons” concerning sexual and status relationships at a fictional Dupont University. Wolfe researched the novel by talking to students at North Carolina, Florida, Penn, Duke, Stanford, and Michigan. Wolfe described that it depicts the American university today at a fictional college that is “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one.”)


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