By Richard Vedder
Today Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education, officially releases the report of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, offering the administration’s response to it. While acknowledging that American universities have many strengths, the report points out many inadequacies of America’s colleges and suggestions for improvement. Eighteen of 19 highly diverse commissioners have signed the report, with only David Ward, President of the American Council of Education, wavering in supporting it.
The report promotes greater access for underrepresented students, argues that the soaring growth in higher education costs and tuition charges needs to be reduced, champions new technologies to cut costs and promote adult access. It calls for reforming accreditation, reducing barriers to transferring credit, and promoting more college work for able high school students. Above all, it calls for greater transparency and accountability in university operations, with greater uniform, easy to understand data on college performance readily available to potential students and policymakers.
Most of this is fine, and since the good in the report exceeds the bad, I joined others in signing the document. Yet there are many problems with our current system of higher education that are ignored or only vaguely discussed:
• While appropriately calling the patch-work system of federal financial assistance programs “dysfunctional,” there are no recommendations to improve it;
• Little emphasis is given to the shocking indifference shown by most faculty to helping students, or in defining a common curriculum that all educated Americans should be acquainted with;
• Nothing is said about grade inflation and other indicators that students are typically challenged less than in the past; likewise little is said about evidence suggesting reduced performance levels by college students;
• Huge subsidies to non-instructional activities like intercollegiate athletics or elaborate recreational facilities are not critically evaluated;
• The bloated university administrative structure and the salary explosion fueled by third party payments is inappropriately ignored;
• Bad federal practices such as legislative earmarking of research grants on political criteria rather than scholarly merit are unmentioned;
• Is tenure a device protecting academic freedom or incompetence? It is a non-issue to the Commission;
• Does a lack of intellectual diversity in many universities lead to a decline in critical scientific and literary inquiry? Another neglected issue.
• The reduction over time in teaching loads to support research is neglected –are the benefits of that research worth the costs, financial and otherwise?
• Inefficiencies abound, and they are not specifically discussed –buildings are used only part of the year, colleges engage in nonacademic functions (food, lodging entertainment) that they have no expertise in, and shared university governance is costly, inefficient, and often dysfunctional.
Of all the problems concerning higher education in America, the most vexing is the huge increase in costs. In inflation adjusted terms, tuition fees have more than doubled over the past couple of decades. It takes fewer hours of work to buy bread, computers, airplane trips, or automobiles than a generation ago, and the quality of most of these products has improved, a consequence of economic growth. Yet the same cannot be said of higher education: one has to work more hours to pay the bills –and there is real doubt the quality offered has improved.
Rising costs reflect many things: third party payments (from governments and private philanthropists) have made customers fairly insensitive to costs. A tripling in student financial aid since 1994 has not led to big increases in student college participation, but has aggravated sharply rising tuition costs. A lack of a “bottom line” because of colleges’ non-profit nature means there are few incentives to cut costs and increase efficiency. The enrollment-adjusted number of non-faculty professional employees, for example, has doubled over the past generation, while the key to productivity advance is reducing labor inputs. In universities, technology is viewed as cost- enhancing, leading some schools to impose student “technology fees,” whereas in competitive profit seeking businesses technology reduces costs.
Some tough love needs to be practiced if real cost containment is to occur. The sharp explosion in federal student assistance programs, for example, needs to end –maybe the feds should even get out of the business of financing college education entirely, except for the very poor, since it merely fuels further tuition increases.
For every 100 students entering high school, only about 18 have earned a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent a decade later. There are three reasons for this: large high school dropouts, a significant portion of high school graduates choosing not to go on to college, and, most relevantly, a very high attrition rate of college students. A decent case can be made that we have over-invested in universities, luring unqualified students to them who ultimately fail to graduate, acquiring big student loan debts in the process. Perhaps we should limit our public investment in marginally qualified students to giving them a chance to perform in low cost community colleges, allowing them to go on for more extensive education only if they succeed at the two year schools.
Our colleges have accomplished much, but they need to become more accountable, more efficient, more competitive, and, quite frankly, a good deal better if higher education is going to adequately fulfill its special mission of transmitting the knowledge of the past, and adding to it to benefit future generations of Americans.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and teaches at Ohio University.