Tomorrow, I begin my 54th year of teaching a class in American economic history at Ohio University. As I prepared my syllabus for the course, I started reflecting on how much things have changed–or in some cases remained the same, over the years. Ten things stand out.

  1. In 1965, I assigned several books to read in addition to the required textbook. Today, I only assign the textbook, although occasionally I will hand out some short readings that I view as interesting and relevant, or perhaps suggest students watch a short video found on YouTube or similar website.
  2. At the beginning of my teaching career, the average grade in my freshman principles of economics class was around a “C,” with no more than 10% getting an “A” or “A-.” In my economic history classes, the typical grade was probably a “C+” or “B-.” The average grade in the latter course has now risen to about a “B,” and students complain a bit that I am a tough grader; in some disciplines (e.g., education) most grades are “As.”
  3. There are about 10% fewer hours of class time. The semester has shrunk a week, and we take at least one day a semester for a holiday, sometimes justified on quasi-legal grounds (Martin Luther King Day), sometimes a “reading day” (where drinking exceeds reading). In short, students do less work, attend class fewer hours, and get higher grades. If anything, I have moved less radically in that direction than the average professor.
  4. In 1965, professors dressed professionally, much more so than students. That is not true today (although I am antediluvian in that regard, still wearing a coat and tie.) A few students then smoked in class, long verboten today.
  5. In 1965, the annual tuition fee was $450 a year. In today’s dollars, using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to adjust, that is about $3,400. In fact, most experts believe the CPI moderately overstates inflation; adjusting for that, the 1965 Ohio University tuition was probably about $3,000 or even less in today’s dollars. Today, the in-state tuition is $12,192, about quadruple the 1965 rate, so attending college today is actually a greater financial burden than earlier in history–something that can be said for almost nothing else that we purchased both in 1965 and today.
  6. In 1965, there was a sense that the faculty very much shared in the governance of the university; for example, we had faculty meetings where sometimes we voted on course requirements, occasionally rebuffing administration desires. That rarely happens today. Administrative apparatchiks today more often interfere in essentially instructional matters, for example, telling us how to deal with disabled students in class, or ordering us to get instruction on how to handle sexual harassment issues.
  7. Globalization has strongly impacted university life. My 2018 class has far more foreign students than was the case in 1965, for example. Similarly, faculty and students spend more time teaching and learning in other countries.
  8. The emphasis on research has increased somewhat, although some of the changes are more rhetorical than real. Even in 1965, professors at most mid-quality institutions or above were expected to do some publication in order to advance, and those expectations were substantial at top research institutions.
  9. The increased emphasis on research has led to significant reductions in teaching loads. In my department, typically professors taught nine hours weekly in 1965, six hours today. Whether that reduction is justified on any broader social grounds is in my judgment highly debatable.
  10. In a fundamental sense, however, I marvel at how little things change. I teach pretty much the same way I did more than 50 years ago, or, arguably, about the same way that Socrates did 2,400 years ago–facing a group of learners and talking to them. To be sure, there are some flashier visual aids (e.g., PowerPoint) now, and I occasionally email students, an option unavailable earlier. But, relative to most occupations, the amount of change is minuscule. Online learning is a big innovation, but, like for most faculty, it is still peripheral to my professional life.

My sense is that the rate of change in higher education is going to start increasing substantially, driven by unsustainable economic realities–soaring college prices, underemployment of graduates, etc. I have had a great life as a professor; I feel less confident that the newest crop of professors will have the same happy experience.