Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk

ORIGINAL BROADCAST: Thursday, June 23, 2005, 9–11 p.m.



PRODUCERS: Carrie Glasser, John Heus, Shae Isaacs, David Wald


EDITORS: Jay Keuper, Maeve O’Boyle, David Wald

ASSISTANT EDITORS: Alejandro de Onis, Matt Vigil



Major funding for Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk has been provided by the Lumina Foundation for Education. Other funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Park Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.

Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk is a production of Learning Matters, Inc.

So I’ve had trouble knowing how to approach this one, not because it’s a documentary but because it’s really like a two hour news story. It does a good job of approaching some of the problems with higher education in the US, but I don’t know if it really tells us anything we don’t already know.

I think I’ll just hit on the main takeaway points and then my own personal reaction. Some of the following will include stuff that I have blatantly copied and pasted from the show’s website.

The show makes the point that a lot of freshmen aren’t prepared for college academically. Kids who can get by with As and Bs in high school suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by their course load, especially in large schools where it’s easy to get lost:

As Keith Caywood, a student at a public research university with more than 37,000 students, put it, “I got swallowed up. I didn’t know where any of my classes were. It was such a large campus.” He says he had classes of 200 people and, “no one knew if I was there or not.” Caywood dropped out after his freshman year, as did 22% of the other freshman students that year.

The film talks about how in the early days of the GI Bill, we as a country started to see that there would be a benefit to the USA to have a well educated populace. That higher education shouldn’t be only available to the privileged, but for everyone. In the 60s and 70s, more government programs such as Pell Grants were started to bring higher education closer to the poor.

Sixty years ago our country entered into what amounted to a social contract to ensure access to college for all despite family income. States supported public colleges and the federal government helped with money for the poor. Today, the funds and the support for the social contract are diminishing.

As Pat Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, explains, “The federal Pell Grant program is the nation’s largest program that focuses on the lowest income students who actually get to go to college. In the early 80’s, that program had about 3 or 4 billion dollars in it, and it covered over 95 percent of the average tuition at a 4-year public college or university.” Today it’s about 57%.

Since the 80s, there seems to have been a shift from government programs to private loans or Sallie Mae, and from an education being a public good to a way to earn more money.

In spite of some efforts to level the playing field, in education as with just about everything else it seems to come down to the “haves and have-nots.” “Haves” to me would include not only the wealthy but also gifted students who are able to get scholarships. “Have-nots” would be the rest of us, who either fall through the cracks or earn a massive debt along with our diploma(s).

“Haves” would also include students who learn how to game the system. To me the starkest contrast in the film is between two students that they followed. Robin Bhalla was a student at University of Arizona, well I hesitate to use the word “student,” his major appears to have been drinking and partying. He admits on camera at one point that he isn’t ready for a test that he has in the morning, so he’s probably going to cheat off of somebody he’s sitting next to. In spite of all this, he manages to get good grades and the film reports that he graduated and went on to work in the pharmaceutical industry. SOB will probably be President someday.

Then there’s Ceylon Hollis, a student at Western Kentucky University. Because her family has financial problems she had to try to keep up a full course load and work full time at a factory. I don’t want to give too much away here, but how long can a body keep that up?

Thomas Fleming, PhD; Paulette Kurzer, PhD

The show also explores the struggles that some professors have. Two University of Arizona professors make for an interesting contrast: Paulette Kurzer is a political science professor who can barely keep her students awake in her large poli-sci classes, let alone engaged. Her students don’t read, don’t ask questions, and don’t come to her office hours. She seems to have made peace with a different kind of social contract that she (and other profs) make with their students: “You don’t place demands on me,” she says in an interview, “and I don’t place demands on you.”

On the other hand, Tom Fleming, Assistant Astronomer and Senior Lecturer, manages to keep his students engaged in his large classes through the use of high tech equipment in his classroom, and making the effort himself to take teacher training classes.

Where Fleming states that he cares more about his students learning than about getting tenure, Kurzer complains about her salary of only $65,000 a year (in 2005). She doesn’t go the extra mile to reach her students because she doesn’t feel valued. “Why should I?” she says.

The difference between these two profs hasn’t gone unnoticed by their students. On RateMyProfessors.com, Paulette Kurzer got a rating of 3.0 Overall Quality (out of 5) while Tom Fleming received a 4.3. My professors in past statistics and research classes would want me to remind you that these were small sample numbers (n=40 for Kurzer, n=54 for Fleming) and not statistically significant, but I think they are telling.

Since my own experience with college was pretty disastrous, I could relate to a lot of things the film brought up. Between my initial attempt at college at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, which ended when I dropped out in 1978, and getting my Masters at UCLA in 2003 there was quite a journey. I’ll tell more about that in another post someday, but Tania and I figured out that it between all the classes I took throughout those years that it took 24 years and seven schools to get my Bachelors Degree.

I found myself in a lot of the stories in this program. I’ve had both the enthusiastic, caring profs and I’ve had ones that were just phoning it in. I wasn’t prepared for college, neither of my parents had graduated from college, so they couldn’t really tell me what to expect, and I was one of those students that fell between the cracks. My undiagnosed ADHD may have also been a factor.

Now, here I am clear across the country with a Masters Degree, in debt up to my ears to Aunt Sally, and still looking for work. In fact, since I’m not really ready at this point to go back into social work (having failed at three social work jobs) my degree may actually be working against me. I wonder if people look at my resume and think that I might be too smart to work for them. If they only knew.

I dunno. A wise man (who happened to be my father) used to say that God doesn’t allow any experience to be wasted. As many struggles as I have with my faith, I still hold on to that saying of Dad’s. I hope that it’s true.

The Misplaced Boy MST3K Scale:

The program does a good job of singling out some of the problems, but I didn’t really hear that many possible answers. I’m giving it a…


And not even a serious, scholarly PBS program about education can escape the supreme silliness that is our Random Quote Whore Quote:

Declining By Degrees is a doggiest, astronautical, miracidium of a movie! John Merrow is unpropellent!!!


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