By Richard Vedder
A fellow soldier, indeed a general, in the little army fighting for higher education reform in the United States is Pat Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, chaired by former North Carolina Governor (and fellow Spellings Commission member) Jim Hunt. Pat is a voice for change, for transparency, for academic excellence, and, above all, for affordability.
In his latest Report Card on Higher Education, Pat and his crew give most states a "F' grade on affordability. Utah and California got C- grades, the highest of any state. I think NCPPHE got it about right. Callan only grades nine states at all on their role in evaluating what students actually gain from college --the failure of most universities to do much at all in terms of measuring results borders on a national scandal, one addressed by the Spellings Commission. And the new report notes that we are by no measure the best in the world in terms of graduation rates among young adults --we are better at getting kids into college than out.
Moreover, Pat realizes some of the standard remedies will not work. For example, the idea of expanding Pell Grants to deal with affordability has problems: "all the new money gets absorbed." Translation: colleges raise their tuition rates more when Pell Grants rise. Ironically, Pat's boss, Jim Hunt, was the champion on the Spellings Commission in calling for bigger Pell Grants. I might add that some research done by us and also at the Federal Reserve Bank at New York suggest that student performance is compromised to some extent by grant assistance.
What is needed, of course, is systemic, near-radical reform of the way we finance higher education. Third party payments need to be reduced, not increased. Students should not receive additional governmental assistance if they fail to perform after a year or so of trying. Kids from affluent families should pay their own way through college. Universities should be given incentives to reduce costs -- and to deemphasize research (not end it, nor to even reduce it in the scientific areas where it holds considerable promise in improving our lives). Colleges wanting governmental assistance should have completely open financial records prepared in a standardized fashion, just as publicly held corporations are required to by the SEC.
The value added" by colleges to a student's stock of intellectual capital should be measured and published. The list of needed reforms go on and on.
In any case, the new 2006 Report Card is much welcomed, and hopefully it will be a cataylst for positive change.