Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Common Sense Approach to Higher Ed

by: Jonathan Robe

The other day I struck up a conversation with a total stranger while traveling in the DC area, and we eventually chatted briefly about higher education. Although my new-found traveling companion admitted that he was by no means an expert in higher education (his collegiate training was in engineering), he explained to me three of his own misgivings with higher education today, partly drawing from his own educational experience. The general gist of what he said, which I would characterize as a kind of “common sense” critique of colleges and universities, lined up very closely with several of the themes CCAP has been espousing for some time. Since my conversation, I've been thinking a bit more about my companion’s points, adding some more context to our discussion.

The first thing we talked about was the apparently excessive level of compensation for high level college administrators, particularly college presidents. After all, even as recently as 2002, there were no college presidents with million dollar salaries, yet now there are two dozen or so. Is the marginal product that these college and university presidents add to their institutions really this high? No one knows, precisely because there is no bottom line in higher education. At least we can make some sort of judgment about whether the pay for the CEO of, say, Microsoft or Apple is appropriate, given the bottom line of the respective company. But we simply can't do that with the president of either Harvard or Yale. Furthermore, the current economic downturn has further illustrated how out of touch college administrators' compensation is with actual production; as the Chronicle reported in early 2009, the growth in pay for senior college administrators still outpaced inflation (some even saw large double-digit pay raises) at the same time most Americans were trying to figure out ways to slim their own personal budgets and companies were downsizing.

A question I suspect many others besides my fellow traveler are asking is why college presidents should be paid more than, say, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even the President of the United States? So far, no satisfactory answer is forthcoming from institutions of higher education.

Second, my friend bemoaned what he perceived as higher education's falling away from its primary mission- educating students. While he clarified that he was not against the ancillary research missions of universities, he did think that, over time, universities' focus on education is in decline. Certainly, falling teaching loads, possible grade inflation, the rise of the college country-club atmosphere, the systemic decline in study time, etc., all attest to a decrease in focus on teaching as the first and foremost mission for higher education. (I remember my own engineering dynamics professor lamenting the decline he had seen in his students' efforts in his classes over the years).

Declining focus on real education is, I think, closely related to the rise of excessive administrative compensation. After all, there is no meaningful incentive structure in higher education to prevent college administrators from seeking only to advance their own "success" at the expense of educating students. For administrators, the focus too easily can be on building the institution's prestige or reputation; that to them is far more important than what is going on in the lecture hall on the other side of campus.

Third, and finally, my companion brought up remedial classes: what on earth, he said, are colleges doing teaching basic mathematics, for instance? He is right. Students should be taking, and mastering, courses on basic algebra or paragraph writing before they start college, not struggle with it during or after (a former law school dean once told me how frustrated he was with the prevalence of poor writing among law students). Diverting scarce resources to remedial education means that there are fewer available to devote to the core courses, the foundation of what the students should be studying. Rather than spoon-feeding under-prepared students through remedial classes, colleges and universities should ensure that their admissions standards are appropriately strict, both in principle and in practice. Students should not be allowed to enroll in college unless and until they have demonstrated satisfactory academic achievement. Once the students are in, schools need to push students harder so that they are adequately prepared for the real world after graduation.

To be sure, these three points aren't the be-all/end-all solution to the problems facing higher education; nevertheless, a "common sense" approach is badly needed today in determining how best to refocus colleges on what really matters in providing quality education to students. If we're going to start reforming higher education, though, we've got to start somewhere.

No comments: