Friday, August 11, 2006

Vive La Difference?

By Richard Vedder

The big news, if there was any, from yesterday's final meeting of the Secretary of Education's National Commission on the Future of Higher Education was not the relatively bland nature of the recommendations, but rather the failure of David Ward, the President of the American Council of Education, to support it. Of the 19 commissioners, Ward was alone in his dissent.

As I said prior to voting, accepting the report was a tough decision for me --only because I thought it was not hard-hitting enough, not mentioning many key factors (e.g., grade inflation, curricular incoherence) at all, and also being only moderately strong on the issues closest to CCAP --- affordability, efficiency, and productivity. But in the final analysis, the report did make some important and useful recommendaitons, so I supported it.

David Ward, an amiable and thoughtful man who is truly the chief Mandarin of DuPont Circle and the titular head of HEE (the Higher Education Establishment) in his role as President of the American Council of Education, was in a tough position, since several organizations of colleges opposed the report, in some cases almost rabidly, while one or two showed cautious support. As head of the umbrella organization that covers the entire establishment, David was in a bind, and his vote was understandable.

Yet this points out the problem. A large part of the higher education community just doesn't get it: Americans are increasingly fed up with the indifference of universities to issues such as soaring tuition costs. The Ward vote is a sign that, on average, universities are going to fiercely support the status quo, fight innovation, oppose accountability and transparency --yet still demand our financial support. It is time to tie public support for higher education (which is increasingly indefensible, in my judgment, on the basis of any rational analysis) to performance --keeping costs down, showing signs of learning improvements, etc.

By the way, kudos are to be given to Bob Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, an innovative Internet institution, who says he is holding the line on tuition next year, and is starting to make public that school's already commendable data on measuring student progress , etc. Bob already is carrying rhetoric into action. We need more people like President Mendenhall in higher education.


Bob said...

It is a shame that, in addition to soaring tuition, american families are not fed up with the shoddy education many of their children are getting at public universities because the full-time faculty do not want to be bothered with teaching undergraduates. Indeed, the #1 activity by faculty at many universities is looking for ways to get out of teaching or, when they do have to teach, looking for ways to shirk. Of course, this is prima facie evidence that colleges/universities are under-rewarding high-quality teaching and over-rewarding mediocre research.

superhiker said...

Bob, if you really believe the research universities do such a lousy job, if you really think the research is so detrimental, send your kid to a place with no research -- a community college, a four-year college, or a non-research university. These are the vast majority of higher education institutions, you know, and they will also by and large cost you less.

If Harvard doesn't suit you, try Ameherst; if you don't like Berkeley, maybe you'll like Cal State San Diego. Don't like Caltech? Cal Poly is down the freeway. Don't like Kansas University? Ft. Hayes State is out west a few dozen miles.

Put your money where your mouth is, and save money while you're at it, so to speak.

The fact is, the best students by and large want to go to the best research places (with many individual exceptions, of course).

But if you are so sure it's smart to be different, you are certainly entitled to.

Bob said...

Nice strawman you set up there, superhiker, and the typical argument from the "what, me teach?" crowd.

Yes sir, if public universites have to pay ANY atention at all to teaching [the students whose parents and taxpayers pay the tuition that pays faculty salaries] they won't be able to do ANY RESEARCH AT ALL. Oh the humanity! I can't drink coffee and pontificate if I have to teach.

It's not teaching or research. It's the proper balance between the two and, in the current environment, the balance has moved far, way too far, away from teaching.

And you're right, I don't like Kansas University. Seems that a lot of the Kansas faculty don't like it either given that so many send their kids to some other school.

Nothing like "do as I say, not as I do" .....

superhiker said...

Bob, talk about a straw man. Yeah, a lot of Kansas faculty send their kids to other schools when possible. Like MIT, when they get the chance. Why not? But I'll bet not too many to Ft. Hays State. (By the way, I have no association with KU, I just used it as an example).

Bob, if you think there's too much research at Kansas, but you don't want no research at all (e.g. Ft. Hays State), you can always choose K State, or if there's still too much research there, Wichita State may suit you.

There are lots of choices, don't just make blowhard statements about things you probably know nothing about (like whether faculty at Kansas are interested in teaching). Exercise your considerable freedom of choice.

R.A. Shaw said...

About Kansas: let me try to bring this back to Dr. Vedder's point --

The problem in Kansas and the entire HEE is that there is no financial transparency. It is one thing, for students to go to MegaStateU for "beer and circuses." Heck -- without good data, we can't even gauge how much and fast they are dropping out!!

If there is an advantage to smaller public colleges -- at least it is harder to fade into the "beer and circuses." People notice you. That is NOT true about MegaState -- per The NYTimes story on U of AZ.

Bob said...

What I think about Kansas--and other taxpayer-supported public universities--is that there is too little teaching by tenured, tenured-track faculty.

When tenured, tenure track faculty at public universities teach one undergraduate course a semester, and many don't teach any at all, taxpayers in those states have a right to demand more than your petty "send your kid somewhere else if you don't like the way we don't teach (while we continue, of course, to take your tax dollars)."

I've talked to many faculty at large public universites and when push comes to shove almost all admit that the primary reason they refuse to send their kids to their own school is because undergraduate education there is shoddy. Bottom line, they do not want to send THEIR children to schools where faculty don't care one twit about undergraduates, where courses are taught in sections of 500 by graduate students who have more pressing things to do, where fill-in-the dot exams are the only exams on the menu, and grade inflation keeps students content (leaving them plenty of time to party, drink, and become a member of the MTV generation). It sure as hell ain't because MIT is full of kids whose parents teach at public universities.

superhiker said...

Bob, Shaw: I'll try to explain it one last time.

There is a variety of choices at public universities. If you don't like the way Kansas does things -- if you think there are too many graduate students teaching -- go to one of the other state campuses where the "real" faculty do all the teaching. There are plenty of them out there.

The fact is the best students in Kansas and other states tend to go the universities with the research. Is there perhaps a connection?

You may think the legislature can dictate that Kansas become better by having the research professors cut down or stop their research. But you know what? The most able of them will leave, and what you'll be left with is Wichita State, or Ft. Hays State.

And as I say, the students who want those places can and should go to them.

As for the education being too shoddy for faculty members to subject their kids to it. Well, maybe that is one way to put it. Standards are lower at large public universities than at presigious private (and some public)universities. As they are low at a huge swath of private colleges and universities.

Personally, I would tell any kid with the gpa and sat's that he'd be crazy to go to Kansas if he can get a nice scholarship to MIT or Stanford.

On the other hand, I'd say that Kansas is a very good deal compared to any number of vastly more expensive but not markedly better private universities and colleges.

In the interest of being polite, I'll leave their names out.

Overlook said...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.