Time to examine higher education

This year’s college graduates did not meet with a plethora of recruiters seeking employees. A more likely scenario might have been scrambling to find any kind of position, some, quite far removed from their chosen field of endeavor.

This situation is both sad and depressing, especially considering the high cost of education. Historically, a college education was primarily geared to the elite who did not have to worry about the security of their financial future. This has changed with the democratization of education, and more students are now attending college with an eye toward employment. It would seem that higher education has become a business of churning out narrowly focused graduates, not informing them of employment prospects beyond the specific degree.

A particular discipline or profession that might have seemed promising and flush with opportunity can be suddenly bolted shut. Prime examples include the aerospace industry, computer software engineers, finance, and yes, my field of education. Just a few short years ago, as the first wave of baby boomers was beginning to retire, it seemed teaching positions were opening up, but now, with federal, state and local governments cutting back, education, too, has faced the hatchet.

Classroom teachers, college teaching assistants, and adjunct professors are being laid off, or not hired back, causing workloads to increase for those still holding on to their positions. This sad state of affairs makes for overcrowded classrooms, less individual student time, and lowered student-faculty morale. Additionally, “tangential” subjects such as the arts and foreign languages are no longer offered or mandated.

Young graduates with teaching degrees have been unable to find employment and, in a fruitless search for work, often lose motivation. Other older laid-off workers with backgrounds outside of education who thought they would find satisfying works, as educators will now have to look elsewhere.

Many large universities have cut back or eliminated teaching assistants (TA). These positions were most often held by graduate students who were given a small stipend to support a professor. This arrangement worked quite well by giving doctoral candidates experience, and when the teaching assistant was ready, provided an opportunity to teach actual sessions. The professor needed and was eager to have the support of a TA, especially in those large classes with 100 to many hundreds of students.

Teaching assistants might also run small seminars to reinforce subject matter and address students’ questions. Where class sizes make student-faculty interchange difficult, if not impossible, this personalized approach is impossible without TAs. A professor currently teaching an introduction to sociology class to 500 freshmen without the support from teaching assistants he had relied upon in the past reports that he does not know how he will be able to assess student needs. Cutting back on teaching assistants has also made the cost of college out of reach for these needy students who more often than not require a stipend to pay for tuition.

As states and school districts cut back on spending within the public school systems, teaching assistants and paraprofessionals also are being laid off. Neighborhood residents, many of whom used the job as a jumpstart to further education, often filled these positions. Poorly paid as they were, these classroom assistants fulfilled an important role. They supported the teacher and often served as a bridge between cultures and the diverse languages in the modern classroom. The loss of such valuable personnel is incalculable.

New York City, which is sorely in need of expert teaching, has instituted a hiring freeze. An Aug. 28, 2009 New York Times article, “Amid Hiring freeze, Principals Leave Jobs Empty,” reports a grim statistic: two weeks before school was to begin approximately 1,800 jobs remained unfilled. Principals were asked to fill classrooms with teachers who were laid off as the ineffective taught in failing schools. Many principals refused this request and students have been met with more overcrowding and poorly tended classrooms.

My 1981 graduation with a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University, also was in a time period when it was difficult, if not impossible, for educators to find employment. Along the path of receiving this hard-earned degree, job opportunities were not discussed. Months before defending my dissertation, I combed the want ads in the New York Times for professor positions. I sent out many resumes and soon spiraled into a state of depression when only two colleges replied with minimal interest. Graduating with the highest honors, and as a single parent, what I walked out to was time on food stamps and pounding the pavement.

Friends suggested a career change, and I began to interview outside of my discipline, finally finding a position with a prestigious executive recruitment firm. The skills required in this field were similar to the research expertise I had so carefully honed during my years at Columbia. However, recruiting research did not fire my spirit and I missed the personal interaction that teaching brings. After several months, I began to work for the Alternative to Violence Program, a nonprofit that develops and puts on conflict resolution workshops in prisons. This was a poorly paid position and I needed to supplement my income to survive.

A former colleague at Columbia told me colleges were hiring people with doctorates for positions called adjuncts. This was something I had never encountered or even heard of in my many years of graduate school. What I soon discovered was that an abundance of newly crowned PhDs had flooded the market and could be hired cost effectively on a class-by-class and semester-by-semester basis. There was no job security, and no need to pay benefits or pensions to an adjunct professor.

Over the next decades, hiring adjuncts became the norm at many colleges and universities. How did this benefit the student? The answer is difficult to ascertain since it depended on the time commitment of the adjunct, his/her knowledge of the subject matter, and his/her ability to teach. How it affected the adjunct and the educational system is another story. Many thousands of these PhD’d instructors never had the opportunity to guide students to a doctorate, or undertake serious research. They never took on the capacity of advisor for which they were trained. As it is impossible to know what valuable contributions these itinerate free-lance professors could have made, the loss is incalculable.

As frustration mounted over a lack of benefits, adjuncts began to unionize and steps were taken to remediate some long-standing issues. One of the requests the unions made was for the hiring of more full-time staff. For many years this went unheralded, but now at some colleges the situation has changed. Young staffs are now being hired, often without the security of tenure, a pension or the health plans offered in the past.

The field of education is a microcosm for many professions, and reflects the difficulty of finding job stability. One will not become disillusioned the earlier one accepts this and adapts with the flexibility needed to survive. Perhaps the dismal state of our education system could have been changed had enthusiastic graduates found work in their chosen profession. Perhaps those students who completed their doctorates with me those many years ago would now have been completing careers having accomplished significant research and/or inspiring generations of students.

It is time to examine both the goals and perception of higher education in this country. In the present situation everyone one loses. With poor overcrowded conditions in many classrooms, the students lose out. Novice teachers lose out for not being able to find work that they are trained for and love. And society loses out, in producing a questionably educated population. Perhaps one suggestion would be to include more courses on how to successfully manage mid-career changes, self marketing, and skill-development to cope with career disappoint while being faced with years of paying back student loans.