Are American Colleges and Universities Losing Focus?


The 2014 annual report of the American Association of University Professors that deals with the economic status of college professors, is tellingly titled “Losing Focus.” It begins with this worrisome statement:

Even as colleges and universities have become the focus of increased attention from the general public and policy makers alike, these institutions themselves seem to have lost their focus on a mission of preparing an informed citizenry for participation in democracy and expanding knowledge for the benefit of all.

Without a doubt, higher education still provides a transformative experience for the millions of individuals who take part in its many activities. Behind the scenes, however, American higher education is changing in ways that detract from its potential to enhance the common good.

That is a strong statement, and the report supports it with facts about a number of dramatic changes in American colleges and universities that have taken place in recent decades.

For instance, while the numbers of students in higher education grew dramatically between 1976 and 2011, the numbers of tenure-track faculty to teach those students only rose 23%. In contrast, the numbers of part-time faculty, who often must teach at multiple colleges to make a living, rose 286%. Full-time “contingent” faculty, who are also usually not involved in the full range of important faculty functions, rose 259%.  Added to these dramatic changes in the professoriate and what they mean for student learning conditions today is the dramatic increase in administrative positions.  Those numbers rose 141% during the same time period.

These and other facts discussed in this report speak to a long-term trend toward decreased spending on instruction and other core functions of our universities.

The priorities these trends reflect aren’t good for current students or for the quality of education they receive.  Refocusing higher education spending on the core mission of our colleges and institutions is critical if we are serious about the future of American higher education.

For the full report, see John W. Curtis and Saranna Thornton, “Losing Focus,” Academe, March-April 2014.