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Are PhDs Too Cheap?

GG suspects some of you might have gotten a PhD and thought back to days of eating ramen for the four to eight years and felt like, too cheap? Hah! But as many public universities are being pushed more and more to get their income mainly from tuition, light might be cast on the doctoral programs as sources of savings.

Here’s the simple deal: classes taken in order to get a PhD are typically small and virtually always taught by faculty and not instructors or TAs, yet the preparation for the instructor is unlikely to be less than for a lower division class (indeed, as these advanced classes are closer to the cutting edge in a field, preparation can be harder). So having faculty teaching classes with, say 5 or 10 students versus 50 or 200 is a financial loser. On top of that, a graduate student conducting research will be counseled by an advisor who will also be tenure-track faculty. It doesn’t take a lot of math to see that this is a losing proposition.

So why are there so many places to get a PhD? And why might this come crashing down in the near future?

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Post-COVID College

There have been a number of essays on what is changing permanently in academia. Many advocates of things like MOOCs and remote learning are claiming that their day has come and traditional college life is a thing of the past. Many parents and students would argue the opposite: that Zoom classrooms are a disaster, and that the money they are paying for “the college experience” is not giving sufficient payback. While these are actually two different facets of college (the first delivery of an education, the second a more complex collection of education with peer interactions, social development and personal redefinition), they overlap enough to suggest that we really don’t know what the future holds. So GG, being grumpy enough to be willing to weigh in, offers these bon mots.

First off, it is immensely transparent that the in-person university will continue to be the standard for traditional (post-high school) students. The demand is strong and the social isolation of Remote U deeply unpleasant. Universities will be wanting their faculty there in the classroom to make that experience as compelling as possible. While there might be a few upper division courses taught with some of this technology (e.g., roping in important colleagues for a special lecture) and some aspects of classroom work may well change (homework returned on paper might well end with greater familiarity with tools permitting the submission of electronic versions of work), crowded lecture halls with a human at the front of the room are nearly certain to remain.

It might be a different story at other levels of the college.

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COVID killed which learning?

Last spring the word was that because of the coronavirus, remote teaching would finally be the killer app that would make good on the promise of MOOCs and other efforts to liberate colleges from the hidebound methods of teaching that date back to the Middle Ages. College presidents looking at budgets heavy on old professors’ salaries were rubbing their hands with some glee; this could finally make colleges more financially secure. Then students weighed in with “ick.” Over the summer the institutional response was, well of course the old farts couldn’t teach online that well, you had to do it right with preparation and tools and workshops. Universities spent money on IT resources and the various teaching improvement groups held workshops and faculty played with Zoom breakout rooms and such not. So here in the fall, we were to see the conquering of education by remote teaching after the slap-dash failure in the spring.

What did we get? Um, lawsuits demanding refunds for lower than expected teaching quality. Schools cutting programs because students were not flocking to get an education through a somewhat small TV screen. So where are we going?

Right now, of course, there will be more of the same for the spring. But let’s skip past that. What will things look like in the fall of 2021?

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Pointing Fingers

Recently CNN counted over 25,000 COVID-19 cases associated with colleges and universities, and six schools (at least) have over 1000 cases among their students. For perspective, the Sturgis Rally (unofficial slogan: “Rally to Preserve the Coronavirus”) has only managed to sicken hundreds despite nearly a half million attending (and only 26 of over 600 tested in Sturgis have proven positive). So colleges and universities are proving to be some of the most fertile breeding grounds for this pandemic. It seems fair to ask, just who is to blame for this?

Certainly listening to college administrators, the students are the problem. A CU email to students is typical (and if anything, somewhat understated): “To those of you who are choosing to disregard health and safety guidelines, this is a formal notice. This reckless behavior is putting the campus experience and everyone’s health at risk.” Some schools are taking no prisoners: the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana is suspending students immediately if they have a party or broken isolation. So it’s the students’ fault, right?

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Why Open Colleges?

There’s been an exceptional amount of attention paid to college and university opening the past couple of weeks. Curiously, most of the discussion has focused on the how and when and much less on the why. Although this has come up a bit before, let’s reexamine this as college chaos descends on the nation.

Let’s start with some arguments supporting reopening colleges that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Oftentimes people think of college as an extension of K-12 education, but there are some huge differences. While K-12 also acts as a form of child care, college students are not in need of supervision if left home alone (well, OK, there might be some poor judgement calls, but they should be capable of being home during the day without adult supervision). So one motivation present for K-12 is not present for college students.

How about the quality of education? In terms of what professors can deliver to a class, for many courses there is little quantitative difference. Some colleagues have noted that in some classes, students are actually far more likely to be active participants than if the class was in a classroom. Everybody sees the same stuff; distractions from a student the row ahead playing Doom on a laptop or a student behind telling jokes is absent in virtual space. And in some ways it is easier to break a class into smaller discussion groups in Zoom than in a physical classroom with chairs bolted to the floor. While in K-12 there is little doubt that physical presence in the classroom is a big help, this is far less clear in a college environment: college students are more capable of navigating the tools used in online education and are generally more motivated to make the effort to master material. Now, there certainly are classes that require physical presence (you probably don’t want to mail students a chem lab and have them work with materials that require a hood at home), but those are a small fraction of the courses students would have to take. Is there a hit in overall education? Well, right now with faculty struggling to master these toys, probably some, but it is unlikely to be as great as K-12, and it is probably focused in a small subset of course offerings.

Now there are of course reasons why you wouldn’t reopen colleges; the biggest is obviously personal safety. Even allowing for the lower mortality rate among young adults, that rate is not zero and so letting COVID-19 run free through a college will produce a few deaths. Given how the loss of any college student is often a great trauma for the community, even a couple of deaths would be bad news. Toss in the possibility of infecting faculty and staff or people in the broader community, and it is clear that from a health safety standpoint, reopening colleges is not a good move.

So why reopen at all? There are two kind of interdependent reasons: social growth and financial stability. By “social growth” GG is referring to the kinds of interactions students have outside the classroom, both related to education (e.g., study groups, bull sessions) and socialization (e.g., parties, dating). It has been quite clear that students are not satisfied to just be communicating with peers over the internet. And as far as campus leaders are concerned, it is far less likely that students will be loyal alums to Big State U if BSU is little more than a URL in their browser. Of course, this very aspect of college (one many alums recall fondly) is the one most likely to lead to the spread of coronavirus.

This brings us to financial stability. There are two pieces to this puzzle. The obvious one is tuition money. Virtually all private and increasing numbers of public universities rely on tuition money to pay the bills. Many students and their families have objected to paying full freight for, as they sometimes put it, just another online university. This is of course unfair to the faculty and staff of these schools, who are still working as hard to teach at a high level, but it is understandable. After all, some of that tuition is going to upgrade classrooms and build some buildings and such not; certain to raise hackles are attempts to capture student fees for things like football tickets for games that aren’t happening and access to recreation centers and other amenities that are inaccessible–and yes, some schools have tried to collect such fees. So particularly for schools like CU with a large out-of-state contingent, losing tuition is a potential disaster that might have to be met with elimination of some programs.

The second half is less obvious, but a surprisingly high portion of the overall budget of residential universities is often in housing students. We are, in a sense, a school attached to a resort. Here at CU, all first year students are required to live in campus dorms. It turns out that we have to maintain those dorms even when empty, and pay the bonds used to build or refurbish those dorms. If the students are all home, it is really hard to get parents to pay for these facilities (though again, many schools tried that at one point). So pushing students home is often more financially damaging than just the move to virtual education.

Now campuses have spent a lot of time and money trying to make the academic part of college safe. Classrooms allow social distancing, air handling is changed, schedules altered to permit less crowding in halls, outdoor tents for eating and studying are in place, etc. Far less effort has gone into figuring out how to allow the social side of campus life to proceed more safely. This is the nut that needs to be cracked for this to really work. The armed forces’ academies have decided that testing 15% of faculty, staff and students each week is enough to catch any spike before it happens. Most colleges cannot match that level of testing (let alone the necessary speed of results), so other tacts should be explored. Encouraging students to limit social gatherings to smaller numbers and outside? Providing some kinds of meeting spaces that would be relatively healthy? A lot of the effort in this direction is like the old “Just say no” campaign from the 1980s–don’t do this, don’t do that or bad things will happen. It didn’t go well back then, it won’t go well this time either.

So at the end of the line, we see administrators watching red ink pour out like a scene from The Shining while faculty and surrounding communities see the risk of real blood being shed if campuses are reopened. While some have compared teaching at K-12 as similar frontline service to grocery workers and nurses and doctors, the case isn’t nearly as strong for university faculty and staff to similarly put themselves at risk. Given that the federal government isn’t interested in even covering the massive revenue declines that are crippling state and local governments, the odds of any support to higher ed are very long. And so campus administrators throw the dice and hope they can somehow sneak through enough of a term to collect enough money to get to the other side.

It would be an easier sacrifice to accept were they too in the classrooms with students who were at that big mixer the previous weekend…

What WILL Change

There’s been a run of “here are the things that coronavirus will change forever” essays, many of which frankly don’t convince GG. For instance, there have been a string of “remote education will now be important” pieces that frankly are flying in the face of widespread disgust at sitting in front of a computer for hours watching what arguably might be some of the most boring material to appear on a screen ever created. If anything, what higher education has thrown out there as distance learning for their regular students has increased the hunger for regular learning.

Does that mean nothing changes? Well, no. There are several things in academia that look very robust and likely to last. One of the striking changes GG has seen has involved thesis presentations. While defenses were usually announced and open to the public, rooms would only hold so many and in any event you had to be able to physically get to campus, park, get in the building and then be in the room. But defenses over the past month have attracted far larger audiences from all across the globe. While in the past there have been occasional remote members of the examining committee (often on the phone), this kind of widespread access to a defense is fairly new and kind of exciting. GG suspects that we will see a Zoom option accompanying physical defenses once we return to “normal”.

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Higher Ed or Wi-Fi Ed?

Obviously the abandonment of the physical classroom has led many to propose that tele-education is here to stay. But in what form? What is it really? While the New York Times had a nice piece exploring this (confirming that students and faculty are pretty unhappy with what did in fact emerge to replace in-person teaching), one paragraph kind of stands out as potentially highlighting the misunderstandings and mistaken motives that might push this along:

Universities should consider this semester an experiment to see which classes were most effectively delivered online, he [Dr. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business] said — big introductory courses better taught through video-recorded lectures by faculty stars and with online textbooks, for example, which could be shared among institutions to lower the cost.

OK, class, reread that paragraph. What appears to be the primary motivation? Is it high quality education? Is it a cheaper education? What criteria might be applied? You might consider the affiliation of the expert quoted.

Aside from motivation, do we know if superstar lectures actually produce better learning results? Consider a more prosaic change in teaching style, so-called flipped classrooms where, in a sense, lectures are viewed as homework and actual student work is done in the classroom. Studies have shown these result in a greater mastery of material than traditional classrooms–but they also show that students feel they learned more from the traditional lecture. Could it be that superstar lectures are seeing the same effect on steroids?

Earlier in the story, a VP of online education points out that ‘real’ “online education lets students move at their own pace and includes such features as continual assessments so they can jump ahead as soon as they’ve mastered a skill.” This is certainly NOT what was going on on college IT networks the past month and a half. Indeed, it isn’t really a good fit for the traditional term of lectures/homeworks/labs punctuated by exams. So to the degree that faculty have been shoved (many with a lot of screaming) into the “online education” pool, arguably they landed on the steps to the shallow end, not really the deep end at all. So what might we have learned?

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Will All Learning be Distant?

One of the late night hosts joked a week or two ago that students from Harvard would now be receiving degrees from “just another online university.” There are articles out there claiming that the novel coronavirus will finally push all us dinosaurs from the physical classroom and bring on the age of online education. Oddly enough, GG has some opinions on this.

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The White Male Barrier

Some time ago GG lamented the absence of gender diversity and racial diversity in earth science. So now comes the New York Times with a piece on “Earth Science has a Whiteness Problem.” So OK, welcome to the conversation. They were clearly motivated by a Nature Geoscicence commentary by Dr. Kuheli Dutt, which in turn was inspired to some degree from an awful email adventure at Lamont-Doherty in June of 2019. And yet, for all this discussion, GG finds himself at something of a loss….

First, the evidence for systematic racism in science seems pretty simple: the fraction of students of color at each level of scientific education declines, and has for a long time. It isn’t worth arguing the details, it is there and it means we as a community are failing some of those striving to join us.

So what to do?  Dutt’s argument in Nature Geoscience is that white scientists need to understand the role of ethnicity in the identity of people of color: “People of colour tend to view race as an important part of their identity, whereas White people tend to view it as incidental.” Presumably this means that in identifying oneself, a white person would not include “white” or “Caucasian” while an African-American would tend to include “black”. This seems entirely plausible.

The next sentence is where GG feels the essence of Dutt’s argument is based: “Moreover, references to race and racism often make people of colour feel seen and heard, whereas White people tend to view such references as unnecessary or even inappropriate.” Since GG agrees that white scientists are not eager to be pointing out race, the second half of the sentence is true.  So the question GG has is, when are references to race appropriate? Are people of color feeling seen and heard when Trump points out “his” African-American in the stands at a rally? In GG’s experience, the risk of uttering something that proves insulting or that isolates a colleague will make white faculty hold their tongue: we don’t want to insult our colleagues. Perhaps we confuse recognizing race with being racist. Dutt misses a chance here to elaborate on what kinds of references to race are appropriate. We have, for instance, had faculty meetings on participating in programs to encourage and recruit students and faculty of color, and GG thinks that has been to everybody’s advantage. Is that what she meant?

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Educational Tension

GG has taught a lot of classes over the years and generally does somewhat below the departmental average as measured by a questionnaire filled out by students in the last weeks of the term, here termed an FCQ (Faculty Course Questionnaire).  Does this mean GG was the worse instructor?

It turns out that something relevant has shown up in studies of different forms of teaching.  So-called active learning has been found in multiple studies to result in greater comprehension of material than a standard passive lecture. But active learning isn’t as widespread as maybe it should be, and part of the reason is that professors say their students don’t like it.  This has been confirmed by a study that both shows that students think they learn more from a lecture, and that they actually learned more from an active learning class. While there are many facets to this, part of it is that a well constructed lecture is apt to sound so simple that students think they have mastered some concept even though actually trying to implement that concept might reveal less mastery.

The point being that asking a class how much they think they learned is probably an exercise in self-deception.  We already knew that such evaluations were tied to the mean grades in a class and have long suspected that personality plays an important role in student happiness with a course. None of that reflects the actual success in teaching.  The problem is that finding a tool suitable for measuring learning is hard.  Physics in some ways has it easier: the concepts are quite clear and the material is pretty well circumscribed.  There are a lot of physics learning inventories that are pretty well vetted out there. In earth science the available tools are fewer and far less comprehensive.

So do lower FCQ scores mean GG is a less effective teacher?  We don’t know.  Quite possibly the answer is yes, but in not knowing we run the risk of keeping less effective instructors in classrooms and moving more effective ones out.