Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"La plus chose change...."

By Richard Vedder

The French have a marvelous expression, "the more things change, the more that they are the same."

This all came back to me in reading the cutting edge Establishment wisdom about higher education of three decades ago, specifically a book by Howard Bowen (with a foreward by the sainted Clark Kerr) on Investment in Learning, talking about issues relating to higher education c. 1977.

Bowen was something of an iconic feature, making a significant reputation as an academic economist before becoming a high level university administrator, including a stint as president of Grinnell College and Iowa State University, finishing his career at the Claremont Colleges.

Let me simply quote from page 5 of the 1997 reissued edition of the book: "In the present state of public opinion, evidence of the benefits of higher education --not rhetorical flourishes --is being demanded....The fashionable words are ‘efficiency’ and ‘accountability.’” As one who sat through many meetings and hearings of the Spellings Commission, this Bowen quote of 30 years ago described pretty accurately our mantra. We asked college presidents: “How are you being accountable? What are you doing to enhance efficiency?" To be sure, we have added some new buzz words, like "value added," but the rhetoric of the 1970s and that of today is remarkably similar.

This has more than some minor historical relevance. It suggests that not a heck of a lot has happened in 30 years --the cries for efficiency and accountability have not been heeded. Bowen talks about the need to measure outcomes --exactly what the Spellings Commission was demanding. Not much happened for 30 years, so I doubt it is going to happen now.

The reform of higher education has to be radical in nature, I think (and maybe even fear, because I have enjoyed the academy as it is currently structured for about half a century). We need to have new incentive systems, new ways of financing, new institutions, and we need to kill or radically change some old institutions, including accreditation agencies. For profit schools may have to become much more prominent; the shift in funding from institutions to students may have to become more radical; the challenge to the US News and World Report approach to evaluating success needs to become more spirited (in this, CCAP is starting to directly weigh in). For decades, there has been talk about accountability and efficiency. It is time for action, and the Old Guard is probably going to fight rather than assist the necessary changes.

No comments: