"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reforming Higher Education

The Washington Post published an editorial today (12/2/11), praising Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s attempt to contain the cost of higher education(http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/some-welcome-steps-toward-reducing-the-cost-of-college/2011/12/01/gIQAb2UNIO_story.html).  While I agree that costs are out of control, it isn’t enough to reduce spending, but to focus what resources are available on a more focused curriculum – one which is geared to graduating economically productive and democratically savvy students; and one which produces verifiable results to measure these objectives.

The Duncan proposals are a step in the right direction, for far too many students are deep in debt; but the editorial does not state that not only are students in debt, but the cost-benefit ratio of their investment is very low.  That is, many students graduate without the requisite skills to make their way in today’s economy; and few enter the world with an understanding of history, economics, finance, and government which will enable them to be competent and responsible voters.  

The Post editorial states:

THE PRICE OF a college education keeps spiraling upward. Tuition is up 8.3 percent for in-state students at four-year public universities for the 2011-12 academic year, according to the College Board. Lest you think state budget cuts are solely to blame, tuition at four-year private colleges rose 4.5 percent at the same time. Both figures far outstrip the rate of inflation.

The time has come for a vigorous attack on the cost side of this equation — as Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged in an important speech Tuesday. “I believe that postsecondary institutions and states also have yet to fully tackle the cost-containment challenge in a comprehensive and sustainable fashion,” the secretary said, noting that much higher-education spending is connected only remotely to the core mission of educating students. “Too many universities today actually have a perverse incentive to invest in expensive non-academic perks to drive rankings and attract students, like building gilded athletic centers and residential dorms.” [my italics]

This is a good start, and should contribute to lower operating costs and lower tuitions. However, as I have suggested above, the curriculum needs to be reformed so that the cost of tuition be directly related to the verifiable benefits of it.  A university without the frills will simply be a lower-cost university, not a better one.  In today’s competitive world a better one should be one which provides the skills necessary to thrive after college. 

I have written previously about the need to reconfigure higher education so that public universities, with taxpayer money, serve the nation’s interest as well as the students; and be at the vanguard of this new technical and civic education.  Private universities should continue to offer a wider range of subjects not available in the public sector; and public vocational education should be expanded in partnership with industry.

The Post editorial goes on:

To this welcome dose of straight talk, Mr. Duncan added a call for more innovative use of technology when teaching large courses, accelerating the four-year degree schedule and awarding degrees based on demonstrated knowledge as opposed to accumulated course credits.

Again, I am all for these innovations; but they are not the structural reforms that are required to reorient higher education – as suggested above, focus public education on technical, economic, and civic education; and increase public investment in vocational education.

The editorial goes on:

[Duncan] suggested ways in which the federal government can encourage the adoption of such reforms: steering federal loan dollars to schools based on the graduation rates of low-income aid recipients, or offering grants that reward states and institutions for systematic reforms that increase graduation rates.

Another good idea – steering federal loan dollars – but it doesn’t go far enough.  Increasing graduation rates and universities which do not have the curricula to enable their graduates to perform will, does nothing but inject more ill-prepared students into the workplace where they will still have difficulties getting employment.  Federal dollars, if needed at all, should be spent on supporting those institutions which graduate qualified students.  Accreditation and eligibility for loans should be based on institutional performance.

In short, I am pleased to see that at least small steps are being taken to reform and improve higher education

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