Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The State of Higher Education: A Review

By Richard Vedder

As I start a new year of teaching undergraduates, I think perhaps this is an appropriate time to review briefly the current state of higher education in the U.S. and its future. This is the sixth decade in which I have spent at least part of my time as a student or professor at an American college or university, so I bring a bit of historical perspective to this exercise. Despite vast increases in resources expended on colleges, in some respects they are no better, and even arguably worse, at performing their missions than a generation or two ago.

I have been called a vocal critic of our colleges and universities, but let me state a bias I hold right up front: I love universities, I love their missions, I think they are important and potentially noble institutions. Moreover, they have many strengths. While the oft-heard claim that "we have the best universities in the world" is subject to a good deal of debate (particularly given our lack of good ways of measurement), we are clearly at the top of the class in performing some important forms of cutting edge basic research and offering advanced graduate and professional instruction (e.g., medical schools).

At the same time, American universities have a number of rather stormy clouds on the horizon. Rising costs have led to rising public criticism. Dubious academic quality, heretofore largely ignored by a publc blissfully unaware of a growing problem, may start to arouse the public and future consumers. A lack of curricular coherence, grade inflation, an atmosphere of partying and hedonistic excesses present on many campuses, increasingly corrupt athletic practices -- the list of additional serious problems is getting pretty lengthy.

American higher education has survived earlier challenges, and it may well successfully surmount the current ones. But I doubt it will do so without serious reform. There is a threshold beyond which the perceived benefits of continued large public support falls below the costs of that support. That may be a reason why state appropriations for colleges have not risen markedly in the last couple decades. As the cost of college continues to rise, but the college/high school earnings differential levels off, the private rate of return on college financial investments may start to fall as well, and more people may look for lower cost alternatives to the traditional residential universities --community colleges, alternative means of certifying of skills, on-line learning, foreign universities, for-profit alternative institutions -- there are a number of options.

If the traditional colleges are responsive, and I think that is a big "if", they will start changing by toughening standards (increasing quality, demanding more of students for a grade of "A" or "B") while slashing costs --asking professors to teach more, shedding a lot of non-essential administrative staffs,using technology to reduce costs, striving for year-round use of physical plants, eliminating duplicative expensive graduate programs, putting limits on subsidies for intercollegiate athletics, contracting out non-academic services to a greater extent, offering courses that students want and/or need rather than what professors want to teach, etc. We at CCAP want to be part of the solution, not the problem, and we will be in the camp of those urging an attitude of "tough love" towards universities.

One aspect of the coming change in higher education is the rise in on-line learning. Yours Truly will be part of a discussion of this tomorrow (Wednesday) at 3:00 p.m. EDT on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, hosted by Neil Conan. Tune in.

No comments: