Saturday, August 02, 2008

Don't Shoot the Messenger

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.

2 comments:

Richard said...

As usual, Richard Vedder is mostly right, and only a teenie bit off the mark.

Let's start with that teenie little wrong assumption that the Spellings commission was right on the mark.

If so, then that 'negotiated rulemaking' would not have been shut down in one nanosecond by David Obey and Lamar Alexander.

I'm sorry,education is a regulated industry and the U.S. Department of Education isn't the only player. Somebody on Spellings' staff or the Secretary herself didn't understand how Washington operates.

That said, Richard Vedder is absolutely right. Only competition from without academe will compel reforms. No college president at any institution in America will lead the reform of how higher education is managed unless he's hit on the bottom line.

Unfortunately, while Richard Vedder and his fellow Commissioners were talking about longitudinal surveys of learning outcomes, they neglected de-regulation of the accreditation system that stifles entry into the education marketplace.

When this chapter of higher education reform history is written that will be seen to be the lost opportunity.

But, in a few months we'll have a new team at the Department of Education and maybe they'll get it right this time.

Melissa said...

"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."

In an earlier comment I posted, I said that reform has to come from within. I still stand by that, for two reasons:

1. Ultimately the change will come from within before public outrage forces it on them through government agencies. And I don't like the idea of a government designed higher education institution, because the only thing our government does well is deliver the mail. I was also referring to people like Dr. Vedder who are trying to influence and cause change now.

2. Because I don't see a lot about higher education in the media (which could very well be because I do not watch the news or a take newspaper). People have not yet realized that changes in higher ed need to be implemented and can be implemented if the public acts in a collective manner and demands change (my god, I sound like Obama).

With that being said, change coming from within alone would probably be a shell game.

I believe Dr. Vedder needs to take this show on the road to reach the threshold he speaks of more expediently.