Notes on Higher Education

Should Universities be Ranked? If So, How?

The Washington Monthly is now another university-ranking organization; but it focuses on how much good an institution does for the country – e.g., the social mobility that schools provide students, the research output of faculty members and students, and the degree to which students engage in public service. The top five by this ranking system are (1) University of California at San Diego, which was also first last year; (2) University of California at Riverside; (3) University of California at Berkeley; (4) Texas A&M University; and (5) University of California at Los Angeles. Placing a Maryland campus high on this list might be a worthwhile goal – and achievement. Right now, College Park’s “Flagship Campus” is ranked 58th – right behind Yale and above Virginia.

The US News rankings are also out, and it’s no surprise that top universities and colleges include Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the cost of going to a so-called top ten institution for a year counting tuition and fees ranges from $41,820 to $51,008 – most over $45k. The highest-ranking Maryland System institution is UMCP at the not-too-high rank of 62 with in-state tuition and fees at $9,427 and out-of-state at $29,720. Alas, who knows what these rankings mean to the college-bound youngster.


The Dissertation Decade

There is an effort at some universities to cut the time needed to complete a dissertation – and maybe to convert some ABDs to Ph.D.s. NSF reports that the average time of completion is 7.7 years; the number is a bit lower in the physical sciences and engineering, and higher (about a decade) in education and the humanities. Perhaps more financial support would help; perhaps a set of articles or chapters could be an alternative requirement? Of course, we could consider whether a graduate student should pursue a doctorate given the job market.


Politics Shapes Personnel

Florida State University’s next president will be a political insider without professional higher education experience In a 11-2 vote, the Trustees rejected widespread faculty and student opposition to hire John Thrasher, a Republican state senator and former speaker of the House who is also chairman of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s re-election campaign. Thrasher’s supporters hope he can be a rainmaker for the university, which wants to rise in national prominence. Thrasher’s critics fear his background and inexperience in higher education will hamper the rise. (Source: Inside Higher Education, 24 September 2014)


Trigger Warnings

Lawyer Allen Lichtenstein writes: “It is impossible to discuss and analyze the topic of racism in the history of movies and other mass media entertainment without addressing the word Nigger. Nor can one adequately discuss the tortured history of broadcast indecency standards without delving into the George Carlin dirty words monologue. It does not advance the educational purpose by discussing the Mapplethorpe controversy without showing the pictures. … ‘trigger warnings’ will fuel students’ sense of entitlement to be sheltered from the ‘uncomfortable’ — and it becomes a race to the bottom.” (From an email of 20 May 2014)


College Bookstores

Barnes & Noble, Reuters reports, is turning to colleges as its off-campus units lose business. “The U.S. bookseller, which opened in 1965 as a university bookstore in New York, wants a much bigger presence on college campuses, where each student last year spent an average of $1,200 on textbooks and supplies, according to the College Board. Barnes & Noble, now the second largest operator of college bookstores with 696 shops, plans to have about 1,000 locations within five years. … It intends to do that by getting more schools to outsource their bookstore operations with the lure of nicer, higher-grossing stores and by poaching accounts from larger rival Follett Corp. So the question arises: how can we reduce the $1,200? More online reading? Fewer reading assignments that seemingly are designed to show how erudite the faculty member is, but are not a key part of a course?


Student Distractions

Even the smartest college students suffer academically when they use the internet in class for non-academic purposes, new research finds. The study speaks to typical lecture-hall culture in which professors compete for students’ attention with laptops and smartphones. “Students of all intellectual abilities should be responsible for not letting themselves be distracted by use of the internet,” says Susan Ravizza. Associate professor of psychology Ravizza, at Michigan State University, and colleagues studied non-academic internet use in an introductory psychology class with 500 students. Their working theory was that heavy internet users with lower intellectual abilities—determined by ACT scores—would perform worse on exams. Past research suggests smarter people are better at multitasking and filtering out distractions.

What should the faculty member do when he thinks that some students are looking at their laptops for entertainment, not course involvement? At the least, perhaps the derelict students should be in the back row so that other students are not distracted.



“A University of Maryland study of undergraduates found that after a physics lecture by a well-regarded professor, almost no students could provide a specific answer to the question, “What was the lecture you just heard about?” A Kansas State University study found that after watching a video of a highly rated physics lecture, most students still incorrectly answered questions on the material. [A teacher] found that when he quizzed students about a fact he had presented 15 minutes earlier in a lecture, only 10% showed any sign of remembering it.” (Discover, December 2011) Alternatives to the lecture are clearly on the agenda. Or perhaps end of class quizzes.



Are you old enough to remember the beginning of the personal computer era? Yes or no, do check out (Thanks to Jim Baxter for discovering this site.)



Using state administrative data for three cohorts of college enrollees from 1997 to 2008 and incorporating propensity score matching techniques, we examine the effects of attending a Minority-Serving Institution (MSI)—that is, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI)—on college-completion outcomes in Texas. Descriptively, we find the gender gap among Black students to be quite stark, with more Black males than females enrolling in HBCUs, although this gap has decreased over time. The income gap is greatest among Hispanic students, with economically disadvantaged students enrolling more frequently at HSIs and those more economically advantaged enrolling in traditional institutions, or non-HSIs. To address this selection bias, we conducted a propensity score analysis in our assessment of college completion. The results indicate that, after matching similar students who attend and do not attend an MSI and conditioning on institutional capacity factors, we no longer see a difference between the bachelor’s degree completion rates of Hispanic and Black students who do enroll in an MSI and those who do not for most of the cohorts examined. Where a significant negative effect on college completion does exist for Black students attending an HBCU, the rate is considerably lower in our matched sample. In sum, our results provide strong evidence that the effect of attending an MSI does not have a consistent negative or positive effect on college-graduation outcomes after matching similar students and controlling for institutional capacity, despite these schools serving a larger share of high-need and underprepared students.



Who Does the Housework?

Cornell researchers found that relationships “have changed significantly in more recent years. Couples who shared domestic labor had sex at least as often, and were at least as satisfied with the frequency and quality of their sex, as couples where the woman did the bulk of the housework. In fact, these egalitarian partners were ranked slightly higher in all these categories, reporting more frequent sex and greater satisfaction with the frequency and quality of that sex than conventional couples, although these differences did not reach the level of statistical significance. This suggests that it is good news for couples, not bad, that men have more than doubled the amount of housework they do since the 1960s.” A report was presented at the recent ASA meeting.



Minority Graduation Rates

University System of Maryland schools have had mixed success in improving the graduation rates of minority and low-income students, according to an annual progress report recently released. Some colleges, including the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have been able to boost minority and low-income achievement. But at other schools, the gaps between those students and middle-class whites have increased in recent years. Should graduation rates be the key indicator? Perhaps having a student spend a year or two in higher education should be an indicator, especially for young people who come from educationally disadvantaged worlds.


Those Meetingssssssssssssss

The Huffington Post’s “The Third Metric” presents us with six ways to make meetings significantly less miserable. Here they are in brief: keep them short, only schedule a meeting when you absolutely have to, make it a dialogue not a monologue, leave your devices at your desk, don’t be afraid of conflict, and try standing up. Deans and chairs especially are urged to check the source article out.



Holding Students Responsible

Gary Pavela, who teachers in the UMCP Honors Program, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education (19 September 2014): “Administrators are under intense pressure to hold students accountable for sexual misconduct. If that pressure results in eviscerated due process and ideological fact-finding—­basically, deciding cases before hearing them—aggrieved plaintiffs will turn to state and federal courts for relief. Early indications from several decisions this year suggest judges may be receptive to some of their arguments. … A determined effort to punish sexual misconduct is necessary but must be balanced by an equally passionate commitment to disciplined, impartial fact-finding.”




“The men and women who run admissions and enrollment offices face growing scrutiny. Like football coaches, those in charge of bringing in students occupy hot seats watched by restless crowds. Presidents and trustees ask them tough questions: How do we get more applications? Where can we find more wealthy students? [How about overseas?] Why isn’t our campus more diverse? What could we do to improve our ranking?”

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 September 2014

Maybe it would help to advertise that the campus faculty members love to inflate grades? Or we dislike taking attendance? Or we believe in unsupervised co-ed dorm rooms? What a rat race! And we can change the admissions process to follow the lead of Goucher College which now only requires a two-minute video of the applicant answering the question “How do you see yourself at Goucher?” Forget the SAT or ACT or other forms of pre-college punishment. And only rehearse the video recording twenty times.


More Change

The Baltimore Sun reports (23 September 2014): “When school started at Loyola University Maryland last fall, the administration sent a welcome flier to the mailbox of every student living on campus. By the end of the year, a third of those fliers were still unread. No one ever checked the boxes. With the increasing reliance on email and social media slowing the flow of letters to a trickle — and many students ignoring what little comes through — officials at Loyola have scrapped the school’s entire student mail system, ripping out 4,000 mailboxes.” Gads, pretty soon they will reduce the per cent of courses taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty! Oh, they have???!!!


Southern Maryland

Chancellor Kirwan recently stated that a new unmanned aerial vehicle test site and plans for a research center in St. Mary’s herald a new era in the region for the state’s public colleges. “We plan to substantially grow our presence in the region,” he said during a keynote address at the annual Southern Maryland Navy Alliance dinner in St. Mary’s City. The university is “already making this vision a reality.”

The university has agreed gradually to assume leadership of the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, currently run by an independent board and located across from the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport. Kirwan anticipates that a third building housing academic studies, business incubation and research could be open on the existing campus as soon as the spring of 2018.

Source: SoMdNews, 28 September 2014.


Students in Class

You might notice a difference with some students. Why? Read on: As of October 1, the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense. Maryland’s decriminalization law – passed by a bipartisan coalition of legislators and signed by Governor O’Malley in April – replaces criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $100 for a first offense, similar to a traffic ticket. Will the behavior of some faculty members also change? For the better?


The Market for Ph.D.s

A New Republic Headline: “Is an Exodus of Ph.D.s Causing a Brain Drain in the U.S.?” And from the article:According to a 2013 report by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, the percentage of tenure track positions has decreased from 78% of all university teaching jobs in 1969 to about 33% today. While some observers cheer the rise of “passport professors” who take their credentials across international boundaries, others wonder if the U.S. is witnessing an academic brain drain. Okay, we don’t “need” them, but perhaps we should? For more critical thinking in the social sciences and the humanities? For more skills and knowledge from a STEM education? Does the out-migration lead to greater competition in the global economy?


Want to Buy American?

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Laugh or Cry

A paragraph from a commentary on Brian Leiter (Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 October 2014): “Over the past year, for example, the Manhattan native has told one fellow philosopher that she is ‘a disgrace’ who works for ‘a shit department,’ has threatened to sue another he dismissed on Twitter as a ‘sanctimonious arse,’ and has suggested on one of his three blogs that still another professor should leave the profession ‘and perhaps find a field where nonsense is permitted.’” We wonder if the reader has at some time been tempted to make similar comments.

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