By Richard Vedder
I have had two trips recently that show the geographic differnces in perspectives on higher education. Last week, I visited with some folks at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. where I sensed most people believed that they were important in deciding the pace and pattern of higher education change in America. I believe all participants came from East of the Mississippi River. This week, I am on a road show in one of our states --Washington--where higher education is actually conducted. They think THEY will determine the pace and pattern of higher education change, and I think it is at least barely possible they will be right. To them, Washington, D.C. is a place 3,000 miles away that is largely irrevelant but meddlesome in determining the conduct of their schools.
The good folks at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation have me speaking with legislators, civic activists, etc., about the future of Washington higher education, occasioned by a report Andy Gillen and I did on the topic. Washington, for all its high level eminence in high technology, has some fairly good but not world class universities, where costs have been rising significantly in recent years. Only one school in the state made the top 100 on our new rankings with Forbes.com, namely little Whitman College.
The head of the Higher Education Committee in the House, Deb Wallace, seems moderately reformist, willing to think of a scholarship approach that involves moving funding from institutions to students. She is a hawk on easing the transfer of credit from one institution to another, an issue fraught with some peril but nonetheless one worth exploring.
A hugh problem in Washington is the opposition of reactionary labor unions to any and all meaningful change --even in higher education, where they represent many workers. That type of oppositon probably is keeping Washington from having truly first rate schools. The University of Washington, typical of flagship state schools, is relentlessly pushing graduate education and research --but has undergraduates sitting in classes in the triple digits even in the senior year, often taught by graduate students with limited English comprehension. No wonder that institution ranked only fourth in the state in the Forbes rankings --below Whitman, Whitworth and the University of Puget Sound, schools where undergraduate teaching is taken seriously, not merely an inconvenience needed to secure state funding.
I talked to some of my friends from Oregon like Bill Connerly and Steve Buckstein and learn the situation is similar there. Special interests, including the university administrations themselves, block meaningful reform --even full disclosure of information of what is going on --what are the kids learning? how are staff and physical plant being deployed? How are resources being used? In Washington, the state auditor wants to learn more what is going on in the colleges fiscally, and that is good. But on the whole, American higher education is on a collusion course with reality, and when it comes it will not be pretty.