Monday, February 21, 2011

Fix what you know is already broke

In Sunday’s paper, and by paper I mean the Washington Post’s iPhone app :-D, Daniel deVise had an interesting article on Eight ways to get higher education in shape (linky). The 8 methods are:
1. Measure how much students learn at every college
2. End Merit Aid
3. Standardize the three year bachelor degree
4. Revive Core Curriculum
5. Bring Back Homework
6. Tie Public fund to finishing college
7. Cap athletic subsidies
8. Stop re-teaching high school in community college

I think from the descriptions, most of you should be able to figure out the basis for the arguments, so I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’m going to rip a few holes in the arguments because these might fly for non-technical degrees but these will do little to help in the engineering/science areas. At the end, I’ll name a few that should be considered for engineering (and STM) programs.

Measure how much students learn at every college: While in principle, I’m not against measuring how much students learn at college, qualifying how much engineers have learned is not an easy thing. Plus, you have that endless battle of theorists versus experimentalists for engineering supremacy. Personally, I’ll take the person who knows how to use a wrench rather than the person who can FEA the wrench the best. But how would you test that on a piece of paper?

End Merit Aid: This is one that I’m on the fence about. I wasn’t good enough to receive merit aid in HS but I did have a friend go to Yale because of Merit Aid. He was also an athlete, thus, he couldn’t get reduced tuition price. Yet his parents were generic, middle class. My wife’s (henceforth, DrWife) cousin goes to Princeton on Merit Aid and her parents are also generic, middle class. While both could have gone to state schools without a problem, Merit Aid allowed them to go to Ivy schools. I know it’s supposed to be for poor and maybe they should cap it saying families with over X income per year cannot receive Merit Aid, but I don’t think that should apply to the middle class. Obviously, I’m biased but I don’t think it’s that simple as ending, just capping based on income level.

Standardize the three year bachelor degree: What? Are you kidding me? An engineering degree in 3 years? What is this? Europe? Actually, that last part wasn’t a joke. Most European institutions have their engineering bachelor’s degree in 3 year programs. I’ve seen what happens in those and I’m not impressed. Besides, even here (FYI, I live in Europe right now…) no one finishes in 3, or even 4 years. My UG (in the US) had 127 credit hours and thinking back, it probably should have had about 3-5 more classes in it. Maybe you should beef up your paltry Communications or Poly Sci degrees from 30 credit hours to a respectable 60 or 70??? I mean com’on. 30 credit hours in engineering is an easy year and it’s their whole degree program. That’s terrible. Maybe for non-STEM degrees but in STEM degrees, 3 years is a joke. It’s so laughable, I’m not even going to waste time flaming it more.

Revive Core Curriculum: While you’re reviving core curriculum, why not add a little engineering/problem solving to it?

I’ll admit that the core classes I had to take for my general degree requirements were a joke. I remember taking a freshman US history class to satisfy my general degree requirements during my senior year. The big term paper was 2 pages, single sided, double spaced. And those history students, who will spend the rest of their careers reading and writing complained about it.

Also, it’s a little hard to pack in more “core curriculum” into programs with 120+ credit hours. If they did so, those classes should be added and taught for senior level. By that point, you’ve been in college for a few years and you’ve probably learned a lot (even if they can’t measure it, see #1). If you had core classes during your senior year and taught at that level, they would be much better than having a few seniors in freshman courses.

But, if I have to read ancient literature (and we know my feelings on Shakespeare), then some Lit major should learn a Mohr’s Circle and have to build a balsa wood bridge.

Bring Back Homework: Ummm, last time I checked, you don’t graduate with an engineering degree without doing homework. Homework never left engineering curriculum. ‘Nuff said.

Tie Public fund to finishing college: This can never be. You’ll always have students who drop out for money, transfers, can’t take it, jobs, other “life” things. Also, the first two years of engineering is full of weed-out classes. And those students are weeded out on purpose. But, if they implemented this, you wouldn’t be able to weed out students who can’t hack it because you need the money.

It’s the same issue at the MS and PhD level. Some students pass simply because the state gives X amount per graduated PhD student. And sometimes that X amount is really needed. Implementing this means you’ve just relaxed your education standards.

Cap athletic subsidies: I think athletics versus academics is an entirely different beast. I’ll leave this alone for now.

Stop re-teaching high school in community college: Engineering isn’t really a community college thing. Not applicable here.

How could they really fix higher ed, focusing on things they know are already broken?
Fix the current research funding system: Maybe if professors didn’t spend 80% of their time writing proposals, students would get taught, graduate students would learn more, and professors could actually get in the lab once in a while.

Stop hiring un-qualified TA’s to teach classes: I once took an EE class that was taught by a Math grad student. That’s pretty messed up, but it obviously made perfect sense to the university. TA’s are assistants, not lecturers. If you make them lecture, pay them like a lecturer and hold them accountable. Remember, some people paying many thousands of dollars for an education expect to be taught by qualified people.

Get rid of PowerPoint! I’ll save that for tomorrow.


  1. I agree with most of your points, especially about the homework. I don't really think I could have done more.

    But, don't be so quick to dismiss engineering in community colleges. I took a class in drafting at a CC while in high school. I think CCs can be a good bridge for students who aren't ready for the full university commitment yet, even in engineering. Maybe it's true what the author of the WashPost article said, that the CCs shouldn't be teaching high school classes.

  2. That's true. But what about a communications or poly sci degree that's only 30-40 credit hours? Should those then only be taught at community college because the degree itself doesn't get you close enough to 120 hours for graduating.