Colleges of Education–Higher Education’s Cash Cows–are Suffering from Malnutrition

Colleges of Education have been higher education’s cash cows for more than half a century, but the cash cows have gotten sick.

Fifty years ago, the education schools were packed with undergraduates–mostly young women–working on their bachelor’s degrees in elementary education. Many of them wanted to spend their careers teaching children, and others chose to major in education because they knew it was easy.

Graduate programs in education also attracted a lot of students. In most states, an educator had to have a master’s degree in educational administration to become certified as a school principal. That requirement kept the educational administration programs well supplied with working-adult students.

In the old days, school districts often gave teachers automatic raises if they obtained a master’s degree. Many school districts would actually pay a teacher’s tuition to get a graduate degree in curriculum studies or educational administration. Most teachers said, “Why not?” Free tuition and a pay raise were all the incentives they needed to enroll at a nearby public university.

Universities loved their education colleges because they usually carried large enrollments, and the universities didn’t have to pay the education professors very much. Also, public universities often received extra revenues for their graduate programs, so all those enrolled in M.Ed. and Ed.D. programs generated extra income.

But in recent years, the cash cows have gotten sick. Enrollments in education colleges are drastically down at universities all over the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, undergraduate degrees have plummeted over the past 50 years–from 176,000 in 1970-1971 to only about 83,000 in 2017-2018. Graduate-program enrollments have also dropped sharply.

What in the hell happened? First of all, young people aren’t going into the field of education. During the same 50-year period, when education degrees dropped by half, degrees in business more than tripled. In 2017-2018, more than four times as many people obtained business degrees than degrees in education.

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Secondly, non-university certification programs proliferated at the expense of the education colleges. Instead of sitting through a battery of boring college courses before getting a teaching certificate, people with college degrees found out they could immediately get a teaching job and work on their teaching credentials while drawing a salary. These programs were often operated by regional service centers and–in some states–even by the school districts themselves.

No wonder then that the University of South Florida demoted its college of education to a school within a larger college that included non-education programs. Louisiana State University, where I first began teaching, took that step more than ten years ago.

Why have young people become less inclined to be teachers and school administrators? Poor pay is one reason. In Louisiana, teachers are severely underpaid, and the state doesn’t participate in Social Security. Why would anyone invest their career in education knowing it will be damned difficult for them to retire comfortably?

Secondly, a public-school classroom is often not a nice place to be anymore–especially in the inner cities. Student discipline is a serious problem in some (but not all) schools. Standardized testing has put teachers under stress to deliver good test scores. The bureaucratic maze of providing services to students with disabilities has made teaching a lot less satisfying for many educators.

My father was a cattle rancher, and when one of his cows got sick, he got out his spring-loaded “pill gun” and tossed a bovine-grade antibiotic pill down the sick cow’s throat.

But universities do not have an equivalent remedy for their sick cash cows. For professors and students alike, the education business suffers from a malady for which there is no known cure.

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