Friday, April 30, 2010

Two Approaches to Higher Education Reform

by Richard Vedder

Yesterday, I spent the day immersed in thinking and talking about the reform of higher education. I spent more than five hours in a meeting of supposedly some of the best and brightest minds at a little mini-conference on developing better methods of measurement in order to improve outcomes. It was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and included the presidents of four universities or university systems, key accreditors, two former Secretaries of Education, people representing academic trade associations, research groups, etc. 39 of us had a candid discussion. I then spent a couple of hours reading the views on higher education of an 18th century writer. Who had the most intelligent things to say? The 21st century individuals who live good lives thinking and managing higher education organizations, or the 18th century thinker who attended two universities for a few years and taught for a few more at one of them? The 18th century scholar wins, hands down.

The scholar was Adam Smith, and I was semi-compelled to read him in preparation for a forthcoming three day seminar I am attending that focuses on earlier thinkers on higher education. Here are a few insights from Smith, relevant to today:

1) Where faculty control the curriculum, they will teach what they want and when they want, often to the neglect of the student's best interest;

2) Tying job eligibility to diploma acquisition and even university attendance is a mistake, leading to "quackery, imposture, and exorbitant fees;"

3) Professors who have their salaries paid for from endowments (or, I would add, government subsdies) rather than directly from student fees are going to perform less well, as their income is not directly related to exertion used in teaching, as it is when the student pays the professor directly;

4) Where students are directed as to which professors to study with, there is less of a positive learning experience than where students choose the professors themselves;

5) restraints on academic mobility that colleges impose --moving between colleges, etc., are injurious to student and thus to social welfare.

Right on, Adam. Professors ignore their students in today's America because they can. They teach what they want, when they want, and to whom they want. The high cost of transfer between and often even within insitutions is the eqivalent of an academic tariff --crude protectionism. Credential inflation has pushed up college costs ("exorbitant fees.")

Meanwhile, back at the Gates Foundation, important (to themselves at least) leaders of American higher education kept discussing how to get better information and make use of it in reform, with much of the discussion showing how little we know about what is going on, and how little most university follks want to do about it. My little, apparently politically naive, suggestion that we change privacy legislation to permit (or even require) the IRS to give us post-graduation or attendance earnings data on students by college of attendance was met with disinterest by most, and by the comment from a White House official to the effect that was impossible, the IRS will not give up the data --the consumer be damned, we don't want to offend the mighty IRS. It is so discouraging. Bring back more Adam Smiths.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman was greatly influenced by Adam Smith, and in his book "Free to Choose" he included a chapter titled "What's Wrong with Our Schools?"

Friedman came to the conclusion that government's growing role in education has led to huge taxpayer waste, and s poorer education system that we'd have had through voluntary cooperation. Friedman's book was published in 1980, before the rise of market-driven for-profit higher education.

After a successful career as a business leader and marketing executive I found myself serving as president of four large (1200+ enrollment) for-profit career colleges, where we regularly tracked and disclosed our graduate placement and starting salary rates by degree program. At my last posting our placement rate exceeded 93% within six months of graduation, a major attraction for students and their supporting families.

It is both possible and necessary for higher education institutions to become accountable to their customers (yes, students and their employers are customers of higher education), and for those customers to begin choosing and expecting educators to deliver value-oriented education. Faculty are a vital part of the value equation, along with the choice of curriculum.

Customers also care about and have very different expectations of the total experience, and with more working adults entering the ranks their expectations are different from traditional high schoolers. Working adults want convenience, flexibility, price value, relevance to their goals, and quality instruction. They will "vote with their feet" to get what they want.

This market change is driving the tremendous growth of charter secondary education and career-focused higher education. Traditional education is falling behind, and looking for government intervention and regulation to protect them (and maybe to reign in for-profit education, which ironically goes back to Smith's and Friedman's writings).

If we are to succeed in transforming education to deliver the learning needs of our future generations, we must stop seeking "educational experts and leaders" who are embedded in the culture of outdated systems and can't or won't see the forest for the trees. It will take fresh eyes, courage and commitment to the end vision for us to overcome systemic and institutional bias that keeps the status quo while a tsunami approaches.

Joe Marzano