By Richard Vedder
My new junior sidekick Jim Coleman keeps me informed on the day's news in higher education, and two pieces, one from INSIDE HIGHER ED and one from the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION caught my fancy today.
Cliff Adelman is one of the brightest and shrewdest observers of the higher education scene around today, a former U.S. Department of Education official who has moved out of the Maryland Avenue bureaucracy and continues to make informed commentary, much of which makes people very uncomfortable (and appropriately so).
Cliff's new study claims that Americans talk a lot about accountability but really do little about it. As an aside, I was reading a major study from the 1970's that said the real issue in higher education was accountability --and 30 years later, it STILL is an issue, meaning there is an awful lot of talking and very little action.
Cliff says, "look at Europe." As part of the decades long Bologna Protocol, EU nations have long worked together to coordinate some of the ways they do higher education. Cliff notes that at every level of education, there are learning outcome expectations, such as for the bachelor's degree. The bachelor's degree in history at all the schools means certain content is covered, that persons hiring new holders of that degree can expect certain minimal learning, if the graduate went to an elite French school or a lower prestige, non-flagship school in, say, Spain or Greece. Everyone is singing the same song, albeit sometimes in different keys, or with different styles.
On the minus side, Americans believe that vast diversity of offerings and a lack of standardization is a virtue --greater choice of products. Yet there is probably an optimal amount of standardization of outcomes that is desirable --and we are not there. We cannot begin to agree on curricular content among American universities, many of which are private and the public ones are in 50 jurisdictions. We talk a lot about standards of accountability, and have even taken a few modest moves in the direction of achieving it (the VSA process that a few hundred schools have agreed to), but what we have done is pretty pathetic. Whether the Bologna approach is optimal (it strikes me as vaguely like what some State Department of Educations try to do to individual school systems in K-12) or not, I don't know, but I usually find that Cliff is more right than wrong.
Move west to Colorado, where I read that the University of Colorado may have to alter the terms on over 100 scholarships if an anti-affirmative action initiative passes this fall. Tough. Assessing students, faculty, or other employees largely on the basis of race or gender is morally wrong and fundamentally un-American, as voters from Michigan to Washington have pointed out, but the higher education establishment refuses to accept. I am presiding over a panel Thursday on higher education that includes Hank Brown, former CU president (who finally got rid of Ward Churchill), and I am anxious to here what he has to say about the initiative.