TCS Daily


The Future of Higher Ed

By Bryan O'Keefe - September 26, 2006 12:00 AM

The National Commission on the Future of Higher Education will release its final report today, with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings giving the administration's response to the Commission's work.

The Secretary should be pleased with parts of the final document, but also realize that the report does not completely address the growing problems that plague and threaten our colleges and universities.

The Commission does deserve credit for at least discussing some controversial issues. The report correctly criticizes the disorganization and inefficiencies that surround the current system of federal financial assistance programs. It also calls for greater accountability and transparency, especially in relationship to academic performance, and recommends broader use of innovative technologies that, in the long run, could help contain college costs.

Unfortunately, even these recommendations sent the higher education establishment into shock. Many demanded that mild criticisms be removed and that the Commission issue a kinder, gentler report that basically gives higher education a clean bill of health.

In crafting her implementation plan, the Secretary of Education would be wise to ignore that feedback. In fact, while the establishment would like the report watered down even more, the real drawback is that the report does not go far enough in many places. Critical issues are either neglected altogether or the solutions offered are couched in broad, diplomatic language void of any real substance.

Take for example the commission's work on federal financial aid programs. While correctly noting that the current system is confusing and duplicative and often times does not deliver need to those who need it the most, the commission shied away from any groundbreaking recommendations, instead only saying that the government should "propose replacing the current maze of financial aid programs, rules and regulations with a system more in line with student needs and national priorities."

That might sound nice, but what exactly does it mean? If federal financial aid programs are confusing and duplicative as the report suggests, then why not at least streamline or maybe even eliminate the lackluster ones? There is little evidence that federal financial aid programs have actually lowered the cost of higher education, but the commission makes no specific recommendations on how to solve this serious flaw which produces millions of dollars in wasteful spending.

The commission was also silent on other important issues. Despite a plethora of evidence that higher education lacks intellectual diversity, especially amongst faculty members, there is no mention whatsoever of this eyesore in the report. This was a glaring oversight, especially since many important groups have documented this problem extensively in recent years. In the same vein, the report ignores areas such as grade inflation, the unnecessary increase in university bureaucracy, the explosion of labor unions on college campuses, the shift from faculty instruction to faculty research, and the growing costs for non-academic activities such as intercollegiate athletics and the construction of Taj Mahal dorms and fitness centers. The commission's work would have been significantly stronger if they would have at least examined these issues.

Even with these omissions, the report still has value and can be used as a baseline for future reforms. Regretfully, many in the higher education establishment do not seem interested in pursuing this path. David Ward, President of the American Council of Education and the unofficial spokesman for the status quo higher education establishment, served on the Commission and voted against the final report because it was too critical. His opinion is widely shared by many in higher education, where the prevailing wisdom is that very little is wrong, and that more subsidies from the government can solve whatever problems exist.

Simply put, this view is perilous. Being in denial about problems does not make them go away and colleges and universities are no exception to this rule. None of the financial and intellectual deficiencies engulfing higher education is going to disappear, and, if we continue on the current path, there is a very good chance that the problems will only worsen in the years to come.

Secretary Spellings and her staff would be wise to both build upon her Commission's work with specific solutions and also tackle the thorny issues that the Commission chose to ignore. More than money, higher education today needs tough love, leadership, and encouragement to make the necessary reforms that will ensure American colleges and universities remain the envy of the world in the 21st century.

Bryan O'Keefe is the Associate Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). CCAP Director Richard Vedder was a member of the Secretary's Commission. CCAP's blog can be found at collegeaffordability.blogspot.com

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5 Comments

Improving Higher Education
Less than 25% of Americans complete higher education. One of the reasons for this is cost. With the exception of health care, higher education is the most inflationary industry in America in recent decades. In a competitive market with substantial unrealized penetration, it would seem economically logical for educational institutions to improve services and cut costs to attract additional revenue (and profits). Instead, educational capacity lags demand, productivity declines and inflation roars while the industry claims that all in is well and demands always increasing (seemingly unlimited) taxpayer dollars.

The Dept. of Education should focus their mission and funding on STUDENTS, not educational institutions. One significant step they could take is to establish the criteria for college degrees, such Business, Engineering, the Sciences, etc…And just as importantly, establish a testing process that proves student competency. To receive a BA in Business, a student would be required to successfully complete a series of tests within a time frame. Instead to taking tests to get into college, students would have to take tests to get out of college. Under these circumstances, students would have expanded options. They could home study, or use private tutors, or sign up for helpful university courses or all of the above. Currently MIT offers standard courses (but not for credit) on their web site. With a few enhancements, these courses could be offered to millions of potential students preparing for degree testing. Many high school students take summer school or AP courses on-line. The digitizing of education has already begun.

In the end, it should be proof of competency via objective, standardized testing that counts, as opposed to attendance in a classroom of Elite State U.. Higher education would then have to compete for student dollars, since degrees could be obtained without their services. Empowering students (consumers) is the key to reducing higher educational costs, reducing taxpayer subsidies of higher education and expanding education opportunity in America. Secretary Spelling has an opportunity to be an advocate for the American student…all 300 million of us.

Optional
Higher education is becoming more and more optional in my line of work (IT/software engineering). Experience in a certain technical environment is the driving factor for employment. Entrepreneurs only need it for reasons of perception in certain settings. Most don't need it at all.

If someone was driven and had direction, I'd counsel the four year headstart. Half a decade of drunken debauchery really shouldn't count for much in the employment market.

Of course, people who don't get a liberal arts education don't know how to think... :)

Don't Expect Universities to Agree
Your idea, brilliant though it is, of requiring standardized exit exams for university students, would NEVER EVER be adopted. The reason is the same as why private secondary schools don't publish their students' standardized test scores. They don't want the public to learn that the education being offered at the school does not justify the massive tuition. Imagine if it was revealed that Psychology majors at Harvard were only scoring a few points above Psychology majors at UMass? How would Harvard justify the massive difference in tuition? Prestige? Fanciness?

Please, No Government Standards
Maybe fewer subsidies?

Higher education costs more because the people making the decisions do not pay for it. (Does this sound familiar?) There is so much money floating around that the universities spend it on unnecessary amenities instead of education.

You can teach quantum mechanics with a blackboard and a piece of chalk, given an instructor who knows the subject and a willing student.

Higher Education's Loss of Control of Classrooms
Administrators over the years have tried to make students equals and feel they are loved and wanted on the campus. This has led to student evaluations of courses at the end of the semester which are published for all to see. These evaluations are used by administrators for making promotions and pay raises. Naturally, many professors are terrorized by the thought of pblished course evaluations.

Just as K-12 is taught for students to pass tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, higher education courses are taught to secure good student evaluations. Thus courses are watered down so no student will fail and/or feel inadequate. This has led to grade inflation so current grade point averages at many institutions are meaningless.

Bring classrooms back to control of the professors. Eliminate student evaluations and pressure on professors not to fail students that have no knowledge of the courses taught.

Regards, James H. Rust, Retired Professor of Nuclear Engineering, Georgia Tech

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