In teaching excellence and tuition cost, how much do degrees matter?

I began my journalism career in 1989 at the Philadelphia Inquirer during the paper's glory days under editor Gene Roberts, when it was called "The Pulitzer Factory." As a cub reporter, I learned fast under some of the best journalists around: Tim Weiner, David Lee Preston, Steve Lopez and Dave Taylor among them. And yet ...

in that paper's caste system -- sharply divided between privileged staff writers and the less-respected full-time freelancers -- one of the worst-kept secrets was that quite a few freelancers could write rings around some mediocre, lazy staff writers ... even though those staffers made three, four or five times as much.

Academia is much the same, I fear, when it comes to the inordinate amount of value it often places on masters degrees or PhDs in certain disciplines -- particularly where current, day-to-day experience counts more. Anyone who's seen Rodney Dangerfield in "Back To School" knows that the street-smart businessman Thornton Melon (Dangerfield) makes his econ prof look like a fool; theorem and equation don't stand a chance against the abilities of someone who's achieving and succeeding in their given workaday field of endeavor.

I've spent eight-plus years at Loyola University Chicago as a communications lecturer. (I'm not a professor, though my students call me "Professor Lou" anyway). I've always been treated with respect and courtesy by the vast majority of my more educated peers. Quite a few are fabulous teachers, too.

So why raise this issue in the context of the "Tuition Ignition" series? Because universities everywhere, in search of prestige and bragging rights, too often pay pedigreed professors gobs of money while non-staff lecturers and instructors eat crumbs -- all because the system values degrees and curriculum vitae achievements over all else. And that includes, in too many cases, the ability to teach itself.

Yet what determines a teacher's excellence? I know my students rarely if ever talk to each other about someone's doctorate. They determine who rates based on what they see in class, and what their peers say. Word of mouth. That's a smart way to buy anything, provided you trust the source and use the right ratings categories: knowledge, intellectual stimulation, challenge quotient and potential for growth, for starters.

For those new to this: Associate and full professors, whether under contract or tenured, have advanced degrees and dedicate their lives to teaching, research and scholarly writing. Instructors or lecturers have much lower pay, no benefits, and in many cases a basic undergrad degree. For them, it's a part-time job.

But is it possible that in some cases -- many cases, even -- these non-staffers can be better teachers, thus saving universities and students money (their traditional role), while improving the quality of education at the same time?

When I attended Rutgers University in the 1980s, it boasted one of the best English departments in the nation. Yet it held onto one oft-published academia monolith whose classes I never took. How come? Because every student I knew who'd sat in his lectures described him as an utter, uninspiring bore. About that time, Rutgers let go of English teacher Alan Nadel, who as my creative writing instructor steered my life's course toward a writing career thanks to his humorous, passionate brand of teaching. (Thanks Alan.)

The ability to teach is no doubt positively influenced by a higher degree -- but should that represent the deciding factor for schools that pay the educated prof more, and pass the bill onto students? The qualifications to teach a subject also depend on the discipline, and whether the adjunct who's still active in it has any decided edge over the professor who hasn't worked in that field for years, or even decades.

Take journalism, for example. What value does a professor who hasn't set foot in a newsroom since teletype have over someone who's in the thick of the deadline battle -- as well as the light-speed technology changes -- every single day? To be sure, a wizened prof may have decades of acumen as a reporter and can thus teach writing fundamentals. But in the ever-changing worlds of social media and entrepreneurial journalism, I would submit that a journalist learning and doing it every day has the fresher, more vital inroad to these key topics of importance that will influence a student's future success. Put another way: I always considered myself too busy going after deadlines to get a higher degree in writing them.

Lecturers in, PhDs out? Hardly. It takes a thoughtful mix to make any program work. But in topic areas such as journalism, why not consider the years of experience a professional accrues as a sort of equivalent to a doctorate? Hire more instructors in proportion to professors and pay them more money (though still less than the academic rock stars). Students save dough and get a better education, too.

Burea of Labor Statistcs figures show that by rank in 2008-09, salary averaged $108,749 for professors and $76,147 for associate professors, compared to $45,977 for instructors and $52,436 for lecturers. That's quite the pay gap, but I'm not here to argue any unfairness. Rather: In many cases, those instructors at the bottom of the pay scale could represent a real bargain. Depending on the program, colleges could stress what many in academia would consider a disadvantage as, in fact, an advantage: "At DIY Tech, the bulk of our teachers don't have masters degrees ... because they're still masters in their field."

I lost track of how many times well-meaning advisers told me to get a masters in anything so I could move up the ladder of Academe. "It doesn't matter what it's in," said one. "Just get your masters." Now think about that. What value is a masters in Basket Weaving when it keeps me out of the newsroom, and cooped up in a classroom learning skills I'd never apply to teaching my students -- and paying tons of cash to boot?

Sounds like a case of "Tuition Ignition" to me.

Ultimately, college classroom leadership is about teaching -- the ability to ignite the spark of passion and possibility in a student, and make it catch flame. And the correlation between this gift for mentoring and leading students, and the higher degree one attains, is sketchy at best. If my years at Loyola have proven anything, it's that you don't need higher degrees to speak to kids' hearts, mirror back their dreams in high relief and help change their lives. I've seen PhDs and lecturers do it; and I'm sure many PhDs fail to do it with maddening intentionality. They should never be allowed to set foot in a class.

I once had a well-meaning but misguided academic tell me that I was "too emotionally attached" to my students. For someone who had a slew of high-falutin' conference papers under his belt, he offered an imprecise label at best. What was the preferred alternative? That I steel my advanced degree resolve and learn to hold kids at arm's length while I doled out assignments and grades with the robotic choreography of a synchronized swimmer?

What I'd let leak out to him was that I loved my kids, and would get my hands dirty for them -- do anything for them. I didn't apologize then for saying it, and I don't now. He was wrong in his judgment. While always maintaining a respectful distance, I learned just how much a college teacher can achieve by listening, caring, and getting to know his kids for the challenges they face, and the hopes and hindrances that test them outside class time. In the college learning milieu, the heart should always work in tandem with the head. How else will students learn passion for their calling until they see the teacher embody it?

An article in the January-February issue of The Atlantic sums it best for me. As part of a massive study of its corps working with underprivileged and at-risk kids, Teach for America set out to learn what makes a teacher great. Writer Amanda Ripley sums up the watershed findings thus:

"What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance -- not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives -- and ranks their perseverance based on their answers ... In a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for 'grit' -- defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test-were 31% more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer."

Here's to the day some academic institution has the bravery to see that often -- and with no disrespect to those doctorates who get it -- the PhD emperor has no clothes. Here's to the day that a teacher can just as easily be accorded status and respect based on work experience, their gifts for teaching, their ability to listen, their "grit" ... and their heart.

Grit and heart: Every teacher who changed my life possessed those tandem qualities.

And they didn't need a zillion-dollar graduate degree to get them.

Lou Carlozo is the editor and founder of Money College, a mentor to more than five dozen college students, and the author of the journalism textbook "Tap Your Passion: The Art and Heart of Reporting and Writing," currently under consideration at Oxford University Press.
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