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Lessons for Educators

At their core, two very different books on higher education that were published recently have the same mission: finding ways to serve students better. One deals with a long history of decline in state support for colleges and universities and the other is a concise handbook on teaching college students.

What’s Happening to Public Higher Education?: The Shifting Financial Burden, by Ronald G. Ehrenberg (editor), $24.95, The Johns Hopkins University Press; Reprint edition, (December 2007), ISBN-10: 0801887135, ISBN-13: 978- 0801887130, pp. 408.

 If you had to guess, it would be logical to assume that in an increasingly complex and te chnolog i c a l world and in this prosperous, democratic nation in the 21st century, political support and funding for public higher education would be at an all-time high. You would be wrong.

Though it probably comes as no surprise to those most deeply involved in finance for public colleges and universities, it is troubling that the share of state funds that goes to higher education “has declined by more than one third during the last 30 years,” the editor tells us right off the bat in his introduction. Appropriations per student in public institutions, which educate the vast majority of all college students, have remained nearly flat, he warns.

How could this be in this great, advanced industrial society? This represents the best attempts of educational leaders, administrators and analysts to explain it, and the reasons are complex.

Major factors cited in the opening chapters include:

• Increases in Medicaid expenditures by states draw money from education. • Court orders to increase state funding for elementary and secondary education pull money from higher education.

• Merit-based state scholarships for individuals are increasingly popular, shifting funds away from direct aid to schools. 

• State funding cuts lead to tuition increases, which, in turn, “appear to lead to subsequent state funding cutbacks.”

• Federal grants to low-income students cover the tuition increases, encouraging states to cut appropriations and raise tuitions, transferring the burden to national taxpayers. The editor, Ronald G. Ehrenberg, is the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI), which studies trends in higher education. This book evolved from papers presented at the institute’s 2005 research conference, “Assessing Public Higher Education at the Start of 21st Century.” This book should be required reading for government leaders who appropriate funds for education, as well as state university and college administrators, lobbyists and fundraisers.

College Teaching: Developing Perspective Through Dialogue by Michael W. Galbraith, $27.50, Krieger Publishing; (February 2008), ISBN-10: 157524294X, ISBN-13: 978- 1575242941, pp 152.

Anyone who has ever stood in front of a college class to teach for the first time, while wishing for either a trap door or a manual, will want this book.

The author has spent much of his life focusing on and writing extensively about how adults learn, and he offers here a compendium of basic and not-sobasic tips for teaching, from knowing the philosophy, attitudes and biases you as an instructor bring to the classroom to a good way to learn everybody’s name. His first rule of thumb is to remember that college students are by definition adults and should be treated that way, whether they act like it or not.

Galbraith, who is professor of leadership studies at Marshall University Graduate College in South Charleston, W.Va., lays out his advice compactly in a question-answer format. The answers include references to numerous other sources for further explanation of his points. The book is simple but not simplistic, as he deals with such modern dilemmas as how to work through uncivil, unacceptable behaviors, many of which are now common but unheard of a generation ago (cell phones going off in class, threats to the instructor, inappropriate e-mails and so on) and how to accommodate disabilities legally and humanely.

This handbook could be a lifesaver for new college instructors and useful for experienced ones who want a check up on their methods, as well as anyone contemplating college teaching.

— Angela P. Dodson is an online editor for and freelance journalist.

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