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Book Review - Lesson Plan
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Book Review - Lesson Plan (Bowen and McPherson)

Academic Senator Jerald G. Schutte (Northridge)

Lesson Plan
by William Bowen and Michael McPherson

In their book, Lesson Plan, William Bowen and Michael McPherson present an arguably dismal view of the state of Higher Education in the United States today, combined with their recommended solutions.  These views derive from their positions as President of the Andrew Carnegie and Spenser Foundation, respectively, and are further framed by their previous positions as President of Princeton University and Macalester College, respectively.  They have collaborated on previous works, the most notable of which is called Crossing the Finish Line which is an analysis of degree completion in American universities.  In this current work the authors put forth a further, if not more provocative, discussion of the problems and prospects facing higher education today.


Part I

The book is divided into three parts, which ostensibly function as their three fundamental arguments.  The first is based on the premise that higher education in the U.S. needs attention, for it is important that as many people as possible not just enroll in college, but complete a BA or beyond.  They support this argument in quoting all manner of statistics that suggest a college educated person is healthier, more engaged, a better parent, generate better employment rates and earn higher incomes than those who do not graduate college; ergo, a college degree is a must in modern society.


This premise allows for presentation of statistical support demonstrating and defining the problem.  To wit, they report that while the U.S. leads the other forty-three countries monitored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in percent of college degrees among the 25-64 age group (45% vs. 36%), it is losing ground.  The data supporting that conclusion, according to their argument, is the trend in the 25 to 34-year-old age cohort.  From 2000 to 2014, the gain for all countries rose from 26% to 41% (a 15% gain), while for the U.S. the increase went from 38% to 46%, (a gain of only 8%).  Even this modest increase must be looked at suspiciously, they speculate, as this uptick may be accounted for simply by increasing female college enrollment and the effect of the 2008 recession.  Therefore, the implicit conclusion is the U.S., while potentially making modest strides in educating its constituency, is losing ground relative to other nations. From this framing of the problem, the balance of this book evolves into in two further discussions, the first (Part II of this work) presents the issues that may account for (or at least are correlated with) this decline and the second (Part III) presents their recommendations to mitigate these issues.


Part II

In particular, the logical argument presented in the second section revolves around four key points.  What is needed to foster education attainment, according to their argument, is to:  1) increase completion rates (and by extension shorter time to completion); 2) close the achievement gap; 3) achieve affordability; and 4) strengthen leadership capacities.


Ignoring the circularity of the first point, the authors argue that the problem with the decline in U.S. educational achievement is that a greater number of people, who enroll in college, fail to complete their degree and those who do take longer.  They argue this, in part, by stating attendance at community college may actually inhibit completion rates.  For support, they quote statistics demonstrating those students who transfer from community college to a 4-year college are less likely to complete the Bachelor’s degree than those who go directly to a 4-year institution.


They then make the more reasoned argument that the increasing rate of attrition and time to degree also may be explained by a failure to close the achievement gap in underrepresented and lower Student Employment Services (SES), populations.  This is particularly true, they argue, as it relates to college affordability.  A full 60% of students from high SES families, finish college, while only 14% of those from low SES families do.  Interestingly, using these same data, they conclude it cannot be explained by preparation.  Lower SES students, scoring high on achievement tests, are still significantly less likely to complete college than higher SES students scoring high on the same achievement tests (41% vs 74%).  In short, social class trumps ability in degree completion.  Moreover, the data appear to show the disturbing trend that the gap between upper and lower SES quartiles, relative to completion rates, is widening.  The implication is clear.  As more first generation, lower SES, students apply to and enroll in college, the completion rate (aka student success rate) is suffering both in percentage, and time to, completion.


They further present compelling evidence supporting the fact that while cost varies significantly across private and public institutions, in all cases, that cost is increasing. And it continues to do so while family income remains relatively stagnant. Interestingly, however, what is not typically quoted, but presented here, is the data demonstrating that while costs of private institutions exceed inflation, public institutions have done so at a much higher rate (2.6% vs. 4%).  This is particularly onerous in an environment where state support of public institutions continues to decline.


Moreover, this decline in state support not only results in increased tuition, but portends a dramatic rise in financial aid, wherein the lowest quartile of SES (at least in public 4-year colleges) attend those institutions essentially tuition free, while the highest quartile SES average approximately 75% payments.  As well, what is not financial aid, is often student debt, which generates a significant default rate (currently 14% of all borrowing).  This may be in part, they argue, because the rate of borrowing per student has increased 39% in the past ten years, particularly in private four year institutions.  As a result, the cost of college is undeniably increasing and the rate of increase between private and public institutions is widening, all while state support is declining, tuition, financial aid and student debt is increasing, and family income remains unchanged.


As if those assertions were not draconian enough, the last related cause complicating educational attainment, they argue, is leadership.  Admittedly not originally a part of the first draft of this book, in reflecting on the role of Presidents qua administrators, they conclude that many University Presidents have gravitated toward more conservative positions on issues, especially in light of constrained revenues and political and racial tension.


As a result of easing the potential role strain of college presidents, they argue faculty shared governance has not been, but should be extended, beyond assessment of colleague qualifications, to topics as far ranging as allocation of financial resources.  Interestingly, the authors use this premise to come to the rather disconnected conclusion that absent this broader involvement of faculty, Presidents will not experiment or “take full advantage technological advances such as flipped and hybrid classes courses that combine online content delivery with face-to-face meetings, and adaptive learning platforms that offer real promise of improving educational outcomes while controlling costs” (this point clearly does not follow from their premise, but is a foreshadowing of what is argued in Part III).


Part III

In this section, titled “An Agenda for Change”, the authors seek to cure the ills of higher education by advocating several policies and procedures to mitigate them.  Although not directly correlated to the problems cited, these recommendations nevertheless highlight three central themes: 

1) government’s role in funding and financing higher education through both state and federal intervention;

2) increasing efficiency, in focusing on program offerings, degree progress, sports, teaching roles, and technology; and

3) enabling stronger leadership through innovative thinking and decision making.

While recognizing the diminished role of state government, the authors’ first recommendation argues that the federal government may be the likely focal point for financing higher education, yet it should be as a partner, not a substitute, for state support.  Their suggestions range from matching grants, direct performance based funding of institutions, data-driven decisions and experimental assessments of innovations.  Moreover, at the individual level, they argue students should be funded differentially, through student loan programs emphasizing “merit aid”, but with the institution sharing in the default potential.  Notwithstanding the emphasis on governmental support for higher education, the authors argue that whether “taxing the rich” or through other revenue sources, such allocations need to be thought of as public investments, rather than costs, with efficient allocation of such funds.


Therefore, their second recommendation is increasing efficiency.  It begins with an almost defensive recitation that administrative bloat is not the cause of inefficiency, as it simply does not exist.  They quote statistics suggesting that while administrative positions have increased 60% in the years 1993-2009, enrollment has increased 42%.  These administrative positions, therefore, are growing at best 1% per year based on per Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) calculations.   Instead, what increased efficiencies that are suggested start with more marginal suggestions: decreasing the number PhD programs in all but the most research oriented institutions (PhD growth has outpaced tenured faculty hiring nearly 10 to 1 since the 1980’s); managing student progress toward degree (clearly to cut time to completion); and revisiting the allocation of funds to athletics (only 10-15% of division I schools are net positive revenue generator for their schools).


Comparatively, two others are more encompassing suggestions. These involve redefining the teaching role and advocating the use of technology.  First, they argue higher education would improve efficiency by establishing a “teaching corps”.  As support for this position, they present data demonstrating “tenure density” has continued to decline, nationally, during the past forty years (from 1969-2009) decreasing from 75% to 33%.  Based on the premise that this trend is irreversible, they argue for the redesign of faculty function and advocate a group of “contingent” non-tenured track (NTT) instructors whose only role is to teach high enrollment courses.  They argue this trend is both inevitable and should be endorsed by the various professional organizations such as the American Council on Education (ACE), Association of Public Land-Grant Universities (APLU), National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and Association of American Universities (AAU).


Moreover, they also argue the use of technology holds the most promise in addressing the issues in higher education.  To their credit, they suggest there is a great deal of noise in instructional technology research, including confusion over format, type of courses and student populations.  Nonetheless, they conclude that inevitably online instruction will continue for certificate programs and professional master’s degrees and that hybrid models will prevail in other venues (with the majority of time online and minimal time face-to-face as in adaptive learning).


Their third recommendation, while appearing to be an afterthought, argues improving leadership will benefit educational attainment if only by facilitating flexibility and experimentation (especially in the use of technology), being inclusive in a collaborative environment, and being transparent while incorporating frequent reviews and evaluations, all in the context of keeping external threats, such as outside attorneys, from intrusion into the university system.



As provocative and thought provoking as this book is, it is distressing to see their liberal use of unsubstantiated assumptions, in setting their arguments, and the selective use of questionable statistics and data supporting them.  The result is a feeling that something is wrong with higher education, (although the arguments are often contradictory), that there is data to support that conclusion (although by no means presented consistently), but that their recommendations do not follow directly from the problems cited (which they do not).


For example, the premise of Part I (indeed for the entire book) is that the goal of a society is to provide for as many of its citizens as possible to attain a bachelor’s degree or higher.  This is a noble statement, but begs the question of who performs the labor needed to fill semi and unskilled positions?  Is this to be provided through immigration, as it has historically, with all of the political ramifications that implies, or do the authors have another answer?  If so, none is offered.  Moreover, several generally accepted stereotypes are presented as evidence for educational attainment, yet they supply nothing to confirm them.  First, it is suggested in their argument that obtaining a degree is related to better health.  Yet in some countries, such as Japan, the suicide rate is higher among college students than non-college students.  As well, it is argued that college leads to higher employment rates, yet data show, excepting the lowest SES level, that the unemployment rate among college students, fresh from their degree, is not significantly different than the non-degreed population.  Finally, it is argued that the costs of a college degree are more than compensated by the higher income achieved.  Aside from the data that demonstrate this conclusion is highly discipline specific, it relates only to direct costs.  If one takes into account opportunity costs, the funds foregone (invested at the rate of inflation) would more than equivocate the increased earnings a college degree provides.


Nevertheless, assuming their premise, that maximal higher education is important for a society, it does not follow, as they argue in Part II, completing a college degree faster is more productive.  Students who take above average number of units, are more likely to fail a class and, therefore, have to repeat classes more than those who do not.  Hence, attempting to accelerate completion may, in fact, slow it.


Moreover, asserting that attending community college, coming from a low SES background or working while pursuing a degree, necessarily slows down or stops graduation rates, is a non-sequitur.  First, no amount of government spending will change a person’s race or SES background.  Secondly, unless these authors would advocate doing away with community college and having government fund all 4-year higher education costs (at $285 billion per year based on 19 million college students at $15,000 per year average tuition/fees), their conclusions do not follow.  As long as there is a stratification system in society, lower SES students will seek to adapt.  Typically, that adaptation takes place by taking fewer units and working while doing so.  Therefore, if the goal is to foster only full-time matriculation at 4-year colleges, it must necessarily preclude those having to adapt to attend and complete college.  Without the government providing free tuition, higher education would simply have to discriminate against under represented and lower SES folks.  That, of course, is the antithesis of their argument in section one.


As well, their conclusion about declining completion rates begs the issue.  Clearly more attrition occurs from trying to balance work, school, transportation, lodging, food and family, then simply not knowing the best route to completing coursework.  Borrowing money for tuition is the minor play for students, relative to the costs of eating, sleeping and commuting, when that has to be subsidized by minimum wage work.  The data will likely support the finding that while inflation adjusted tuition may have increased only moderately over the past 10-20 years, inflation adjusted minimum wage has gone down.  As a result of these diverging trends, a significant subset of students slow down (or stop altogether) their matriculation. Hence, downplaying these facts means student success will continue to slow.


Further, in part III, the point made about “administrative bloat” is statistically specious.  Of course the increase in administrators has not significantly changed when measured in ratio to the total number of students enrolled.  A ratio of 1:500, administrators to students, changing to 2:500 students is negligible as a percentage (even though the number has doubled).  However, when cited in ratio to faculty (i.e. a cost to cost ratio, not a cost to revenue ratio), the evidence is clear.  While both should be indexed to student enrollment, administrative hires have increased at four times the rate of faculty hires.  Therefore, given a constant budget, more administration means less faculty, which translates into fewer classes or higher Student/faculty ratio (SFR).  Either way, the more administration relative to faculty the more student success will continue to decline.


As well, their point about needing single purpose (NTT) faculty (i.e. faculty doing only teaching), vs. tenured faculty doing teaching and research (resulting in a tenure density decrease), begs the question.  Release time for research is zero-sum with respect to teaching; that is, one buys out the other.  However, faculty committee work and mentoring of students, outside of class, are not zero-sum, but additive, with respect to teaching.  Replacing tenured track faculty with non-tenured track adjunct teachers drastically affects the completion of the goals of a university and, because of it, student success will continue to slow.


Finally, their references to technology as a potential panacea in higher education says more about the writer’s position as President of ITHAKA than the realistic potential of online instruction.  Colleges and universities still suffer from the illusion that online instruction is more cost efficient, more scalable and equal in efficiency to classroom instruction, yet none of those findings have been demonstrated, with any consistency, in the literature. Disruptive innovation (as some suggest online instruction portends), is an interplay of not merely the technology, but of external pressures to adopt it.  Higher education does not need to see the tail (external pressure from government to use technology) wagging the dog (addressing the need to develop better pedagogy), as their argument suggests.



All this said, you will not be able to read this book, as a professor or member of the CSU community, without generating critical and retrospective dialogue among colleagues.  Therefore, if constructive dialogue, decision-making and action are the milestones of educational change, then this book, despite its often specious arguments and spurious statistics, has accomplished its purpose.