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Review: 'Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education'

Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education By Charles J. Sykes; St. Martin’s Press, 278 pages ($26.99)

Back in 1988, Sykes wrote a book about college education that blasted excessive spending, nonexistent student advising programs, lecture classes of “droning, mind-numbing dullness,” and the abandonment of undergraduate teaching.

Sykes is back for another look – 28 years later – and his conclusions are even far more dismal.

“Colleges have bloated their administrations, universities have built Taj Mahals and professors have become even more allergic to the actual teaching of undergraduates,” he says. “Grades have inflated, degrees have been watered down, professors have churned out millions of unread and unreadable articles and the liberal arts have been bludgeoned by indifference and ideology.”

Students are paying the price, said Sykes, a conservative talk show host in Milwaukee.

The cost of a college degree has soared by 1,125 percent since 1978, or four times the rate of inflation. At least 49 colleges and universities charge more than $60,000 a year for tuition and room and board. And 7.1 million borrowers, with $103 billion in debt, are in default on their student loans.

The mantra of “college for all,” Sykes said, has been a horrible disservice for many students. The lure of a college degree has attracted students who aren’t prepared for the work, have interests and skills that aren’t met by colleges and often drop out or end up with “costly but worthless degrees.”

A majority of recent graduates with degrees in liberal arts, communications and several other fields are working in jobs that do not require bachelor’s degrees, Sykes said.

Even students who should be in college are being shortchanged, as more than 40 percent of the nation’s instructional staff is made up of part-timers. Tenured professors, meanwhile, seek to avoid undergraduate teaching assignments. “Rewards and prestige flow to those who emphasize research,” Sykes said. “In fact, too much attention to classroom teaching can be the professional kiss of death.”

Grade inflation, he said, helps keep those dynamics at bay. “In a sense, colleges have been using the higher grades as a sort of marketing tool to keep their consumer base mollified and reasonably content with the rising price tag,” he said.

New and dramatic approaches are needed, Sykes said.

Three-year degrees should be crafted for fields that don’t require four years of study. Those, he said, include software design, accounting, hospital administration, high school teaching, journalism and optometry.

Recognizing that college is not for everyone, educators “should encourage robust development of technical education and high quality certificates of achievement” that reflect marketable skills.

The bachelor’s degree remains the predominant educational standard, “but there is no reason that it should be the exclusive gatekeeper,” Sykes said.

He sees tremendous potential in well-designed MOOCs– or “massive open online courses” – that have been established by Harvard, MIT and other top universities. If properly structured, online courses that incorporate active student involvement can provide better educational opportunities than on-campus lecture courses at a fraction of the price, Sykes said.

Arizona State University, for example, is allowing students to take an entire year of freshman classes online and have the credits applied to their undergraduate degrees. The cost for the year is $5,160, compared to $39,600 for students who spend their freshman year on campus, Sykes said.

But MOOCs remain novelties, and will offer significant alternatives for students only if they become more widespread and – unlike most of them now in place – are accepted on the same credit-bearing basis as traditional classroom courses, Sykes said.

He also urges that loans be aligned with a student’s projected ability to pay them off, and that tenure for professors be ended or modified.

Peter Simon was formerly a longtime News education reporter.

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