Students retrieve their bicycles after leaving a class, at the Main Quad at Stanford University in Stanford, California, May 9, 2014. Few if any of the big U.S. pension or college endowment funds appear ready to follow in Stanford University's footsteps and pull their money out of shares of coal miners or other fossil fuel producers. Officials from the pension systems for California's public employees and schoolteachers and New York public employees, the three largest U.S. retirement funds, told Reuters they prefer to work with their portfolio companies to improve their behavior rather than divest them. To match story FOSSILFUEL-DIVESTMENT/ REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION BUSINESS SOCIETY) - GM1EA5A0MOB01
Stanford University in California: US higher education is overdue a reckoning © Reuters

In my twenties, I immersed myself in mathematics — first as a liberal arts undergraduate and later as an Ivy League doctoral student. My path was enriching, if unglamorous; I mucked out stalls on a dairy farm to supplement my scholarship. I worked full time at the college to enrol tuition-free and delayed graduate school entry to work, save and strengthen my candidacy enough to garner a full graduate scholarship and fellowship. Graduating with a mathematics doctorate, on time and debt free, I had no regrets.

However, I did make one mistake. My younger self believed that a professorship would be the best path for sharing my mathematical knowledge.

The US is home to some of the world’s finest higher education institutions, with distinguished research, excellent teaching and impressive graduation rates.

However, US higher education is overdue for a reckoning. The average four- and six-year graduation rates for undergraduates starting in 2010 (latest available) were 40.6 per cent and 59.8 per cent respectively, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Average tuition increased 498 per cent between 1985 and 2011. US student loan debt has soared to $1.5tn, causing many borrowers to delay home ownership, marriage, children and retirement. Nearly 40 per cent of student borrowers may default on loans by 2023, according to Brookings.

Following graduate school, I spent nearly a decade teaching at an expensive, not-for-profit university whose four- and six-year graduation rates (46.5 per cent and 54.7 per cent, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) hovered around the national averages. The school had an “accessibility” mission, which included accepting most applicants. Many of my students acquired inordinate debt for the roughly one-in-two chance of earning a college degree. They enrolled in my calculus classes despite having fared poorly in high school precalculus.

Administrators believed “innovative” teaching methods might address the deficit. Faculty debated, designed, implemented, assessed and redesigned curriculum and institutional policies, in the hope of not failing those who enrolled. These efforts often proved insufficient for under-prepared students. There is good reason, after all, for mastering precalculus before calculus.

In this casino-like system, the house (the college) always wins the student loan dollars. Meanwhile, students whose prior academic records might reasonably have predicted failure are expected to pay, regardless of attainment. Many tenured faculty — beneficiaries of this system — hesitate to ask questions, given the tight academic job market, and the burden of their own student loans.

Still, America’s students should know that there are better options than expensive universities with graduation rates at or below the national averages. Some universities offer lower-cost pathways beyond the expensive residential courses in which tenured faculty teach. Amenities differ between traditional and non-traditional settings, it’s true, but an oversupply of PhD researchers ensures that subject specialists teach in both settings. Inexpensive community colleges may not offer luxury dorms, but they offer remedial instruction and credits worth half of a four-year degree.

Some universities offer more grant money than loans to low-income students or offer condensed three-year degrees. Even Starbucks offers free college tuition to full- and part-time baristas. Maybe serving latte in 2019 is equivalent to mucking out cow stalls in the 1990s?

I have always been driven by a desire to share my mathematical knowledge, not by a need to be called professor. I left my tenured position for writing. Now I’m grateful not to be setting up half of those I teach for failure and not having to see them mortgage their futures.

The writer is a science writing fellow at Johns Hopkins University

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