Food For Thought

College: Are You Getting Your Money's Worth? 

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

It’s that time of year again, when high school and college students will be heading back to school. Parents devote much in saving for their children’s college education. Many college students will spend time working to help pay for tuition and other expenses. Both parent and student want the best possible education. Will they get their money’s worth? I’ve spent over two decades working as a professor, and my answer leans towards the negative.

Choosing a college is dependent upon a number of factors. Foremost is the student’s ability to meet the college’s academic requirements. Also relevant is a matrix of other elements ranging from geographic location to program of studies. Parents want their child to enter a college with the best reputation, within the family’s financial means. We read about university rankings and historical reputation. We hear that a certain university has a Nobel Prize winner, past governor, senator, or other leaders on the faculty. These factors may influence many students in their college-selection process.

After meeting the necessary enrollment requirements and being selected, what will the student really get? I can assure you that the freshman undergraduate will never have the famous professor as a teacher. Even most doctoral students won’t have an opportunity to be taught by the big-time professors. In many cases, your hard-earned money will go toward purchasing time in overloaded classes with beginning professors or adjuncts. Seldom will freshmen see full professors or other higher-ranked faculty. Most of these faculty “stars” will center the majority of their efforts on research, writings, and doctoral dissertations. In my view, teaching is secondary to the whole college experience.

Observe the university advertisements aired on television during the upcoming fall football season. They’ll emphasize the same three elements — university teaching, research, and service. In my opinion, teaching should be the most important element, but in most cases it is secondary to the other two elements. Certainly research and writing take prominence over teaching. When I first entered the college ranks I was charged with developing a new teacher-preparation program in technical education. It didn’t take me long to realize that long-term survival (tenure) depended more upon my ability to write, conduct research and obtain financial grants than it did on teaching excellence. Teaching is important but “publish or perish” is still what university life is all about. Obtaining funded grants is also high on the list. I was told by one administrator that he didn’t care if I taught any classes as long as I brought in grant money. I think it’s time for parents and students to seek more balance between the three elements. If anything, more weight in the tenure process should be placed on teaching excellence.

Does anyone believe that students learn best in an auditorium with over 100 students listening to a professor speak at a microphone?  Teaching, in my opinion, is all about human interaction. The smaller classes provide the possibility for more human interaction. Distance learning and computers have their place in education, but not as a substitute for the classroom environment. The best education comes when both student and teacher are challenged on a one-to-one basis. Universities will provide fewer of these small interactive classes as financial pressures continue to mount. I think freshmen should have the smallest classes. This could help with student-retention rates. The public school environment has a similar need, to place the more needy students with the best teachers.  Usually what happens is the opposite — we find the best teachers wanting to teach the gifted and talented students. The rewards system at both educational levels needs to be changed. More emphasis should be placed on teaching those who have the greatest need. The measuring system determines where educators will place their efforts. It doesn’t make much difference if the standard of measure is passing SOL tests or attaining tenure. You gravitate toward that which gets you the most reward.

Every university wants to be ranked number one, but let’s be practical — most students couldn’t meet the requirements of the Harvards, Yales, Dukes, or other universities at the top of the totem pole. The majority of students will go to other colleges and many will still excel in the real world.  I’ve used this idea in several talks on education — If every student had 1600 SATs and got all A’s, then who would take out the garbage? You got it, some person with a stellar academic résumé, because garbage removal is an absolute necessity. Without garbage removal, the rats would be the ultimate winners.

I’ve seen many professors with numerous published works who couldn’t teach. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are excellent teachers but don’t enjoy writing or doing research. Articles in general publications such as Cooperative Living receive little recognition. Write an article for some obscure publication in a specific educational field based on any research and you’ll receive all kinds of accolades. Most of these articles are read by the same small group of people and in my opinion do little to promote educational change. I prefer talking with you and reading your responses to my thoughts. I’ve certainly learned as much, if not more, from this exercise as I did conducting formal research and writing to colleagues in my chosen profession. Balance is the key.

It’s time for those responsible for university teaching to put more emphasis on and rewards for the teaching element of university life. Higher education councils in the last decade have tried to place more emphasis on teaching, but I don’t think their efforts have paid dividends. Excellence in teaching is what I wanted for my children at all levels of their educational experience. The university professor should be a role model for teaching excellence. Research and writing should be a part of good teaching, but in too many cases they end up being the tail wagging the dog.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to: DrBmailbag@aol.com, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.

 

 

 

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