Ending Higher Ed’s Tuition Addiction to Produce Teachers We Need

If colleges want to reverse the declining number of teachers of color, create more STEM teachers, and calibrate teacher supply with district demand, then teacher preparation programs need to become less dependent on individuals’ tuition.

The current tuition-driven system is incentivizing teacher preparation programs to prioritize quantity over districts’ needs.

The country needs more effective STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers as well as teachers of color. President Obama endorsed the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s 2010 report that called for the recruitment and development of 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade. Despite being over half of all public school students, people of color only represent 15 percent of teachers (projected 5 percent by 2020). Since collegiate teacher prep programs educate 90 percent of all teachers, universities must lead the charge in cultivating these areas of need.

Related: How college ed programs try, fail to recruit teachers of color

Choice has to be tempered with need. I’ve stated numerous times that diversity has to be included in our standards of quality. Currently, individuals who hold tuition dollars are driving colleges of education’s output. Teacher colleges are producing too many elementary school teachers because individuals’ tuition money is the tail wagging the dog.

“Tuition is higher education’s favorite cocktail. If a state reduces the amount allocated higher education, colleges raise tuition.”

Tuition and becloud higher education charge to address social need. Higher education’s dependency on individual’s tuition is a barrier for allowing supply to fit demand.

On the subject of alcohol dependency, Charles Bukowski once said, “That’s the problem with drinking… I f something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”

Related: Will weak teacher training ruin the Common Core?

Tuition is higher education’s favorite cocktail. If a state reduces the amount allocated to higher education, colleges raise tuition. If enrollment numbers aren’t met, we solve it with a tuition spike. Higher education will also celebrate success with a hike. Increased demand for specific academic programs spurs tuition increases. The reaction to stagnation is the same. We cure fiscal inertia with new dormitories and academic buildings, which are offset with multi-year tuition hikes.

Ever-increasing tuition rates discourage cash-strapped talent from pursuing teaching careers. Extortionate tuition prices are making majors like education at high-priced colleges into bad economic decisions. Not everyone can afford to be a preschool teacher. Also, education degrees rank as some of the lowest paid majors. College shouldn’t help make smart people worse off. Higher education has a responsibility to maximize the wealth of our most important professionals – teachers.

There has to be another way for colleges to generate the revenue needed to do the work as well as the incentive to address needs.

Related: The real cost of college? It’s probably even higher than you think

What if states and districts paid the tuition of aspiring teachers? What if teacher preparation programs were financed based on the delivery of outcomes rather than tuition? Tuition is the life-blood of post-secondary institutions, but it shouldn’t corrupt higher education’s charge to address workforce demands and societal needs.

As a college administrator I know too well, what gets paid for gets done. States can provide districts and schools with funding to pay eligible teacher preparation programs based on whether or not they’ve met districts’ needs. If teacher prep programs were paid based on math teacher production, you’ll see an immediate reaction.

I’ll digress. I’ve always believed that teacher prep faculty should hold joint appointments with districts and universities. College faculty can help train aspiring as well as current teachers in the natural setting. In addition to teaching candidates, embedded faculty can provide continuing education credits (aka professional development) for the entire school. In-school faculty can reduce our current emphasis on pumping out new teachers and put a renewed focus on developing currently employed teachers. This conceptualization fits well with a pay for outcome model.

I’ve never been against using standards to encourage performance. However, our metrics never seem to directly favor those whom reforms are supposed to benefit. Let’s incentivize colleges to reduce tuition and educate students.

Some postsecondary institutions are creating revenue streams based on outcomes. The Texas Legislature voted to create a revenue model that will pay institutions in the Texas State Technical College System based on how much alumni wages are above minimum wage. Real to life outcomes are driving the system. My own institution, Davenport University, will provide three semesters of free classes and career guidance for accounting students who fail to land a job six months after graduation. Teacher prep programs need a revenue structure that facilitates the training of the teachers that schools actually need.

District needs should include factors such as subject area, grade level, diversity, effectiveness and longevity. A percentage of the tuition can be paid on each factor.

Related: What law schools can teach colleges about lowering tuition

The tradeoff of such a system is that it would require more adjunct faculty. Or, full-time faculty would have to be generalists. Faculty would have to be able to teach a wider variety of courses that could adjust to the trends of the district. Also, states and districts would have to redirect professional development and scholarship dollars from individuals to colleges. An aside – I agree with the remarks Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave to the National Education Association. Duncan said, “school systems pay teachers billions of dollars more each year for earning PD (professional development) credentials that do very little to improve the quality of teaching.”

If higher education continues to drink from the same troth, we’ll be too unresponsive to local and national needs. Colleges haven’t shown they can control their appetite for tuition. Maybe the funding should come from somewhere else. The country can’t afford a tuition-driven system to be a barrier to reaching her teaching needs.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).