By Richard Vedder
Friday's USA TODAY had an editorial that suggested that, despite good intentions, the Spellings Commission did few positive things: "the effort floundered." That was accompanied by a second editorial by John Strassburger that raised the false argument that the Spellings Commission was trying to wring diversity out of colleges, forcing them to follow a one-size-fits-all testing program. He claimed the Spellings Commission ignored "both the transparency and the accountability built into higher education." Strassburger, a college president (naturally) is downright wrong, in my judgment.
If it is true little has happened in higher education over the past couple of years, it is not the fault of the Spellings Commission, but rather that of an over sensitive, anti-competitive, arrogant and elitist higher education community that thinks the role of the public is to give it money and then let it alone, consistent with sacred notions of "academic freedom," "institutional autonomy," and "diversity." And they have been pretty effective in opposing big change, for example, fighting meaningful accreditation standards being enacted either by the Department of Education or through the newly approved extension of the Higher Education Act, that drops more money out of airplanes over campuses or student homes but does little to alter the basic equation as to how schools operate.
The galling thing about the USA TODAY editorial is that it implied that the Commission was too confrontational with the colleges, not bowing and scrapping to them or even very gently chiding them. If it were not for the shock value of the report, groups like NASULGC (National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges) and others would not start voluntary accounting standards that, while inadequate, are a step in the right direction. The Commission success to date is modest, but American higher education is a bit better off because of it, an accomplishment considering its very modest cost.
I am more convinced then ever that fundamental reform will have to come from outside the academy, and that we are building up to a threshold of public irritation that will unleash such a torrent of public criticism of universities that even the higher education lobbies cannot overcome. We are not there yet --and some politically savvy leaders of the higher education scene (like Peter McPherson of NASULGC) are trying to prevent that time from happening by meeting the growing public demand for reform. But I do not think the colleges are quite ready to respond. It may take a combination of brutal competition from emerging for profit schools, the forthcoming decline in the 18 to 24 year old age cohort, and an emerging stagnation in the college/high school earnings differential to force real change. A dozen forms of real cost savings change would include:
1) Sharp reductions in university administrative staffs
2) Higher teaching loads and reduced research expectations at all but about 100 top research oriented institutions.
3) More aggressive use of technology as a cost saving tool.
4) Better utilization of physical plants.
5) Colleges decoupling "auxiliary enterprises" and maybe even research from the teaching function.
6) Full disclosure of student learning gains, utilization of university funds, etc.
7) Accreditation that is meaningful, quality and outcomes oriented, and pro rather than anti-competitive.
8) More ease of transfer of credit between institutions.
9) Better coordination of high school and college curricular expectations.
10) Giving public funding to students not institutions, or at least tying institutional funding to demonstrated learning improvements.
11) Getting the federal government out of the student lending business and rationalize the federal financial aid process.
12) Reducing public participation in higher education and making it more of a market-based private enterprise like the bulk of the rest of society.
The list could go on, but the point is made.