We Need More Truth Telling in Higher Education ?>

We Need More Truth Telling in Higher Education

A lot is being written about the future of higher education, but truth-telling about the current state of colleges and universities is still in short supply. So a book-length gathering of papers caught my attention — for the breathless way it skewered current practices. Here are some outtakes:

Rather than embracing innovations that have swept over the rest of the economy, boosting productivity, lowering prices, and improving quality, most colleges and universities have chosen to batten down the hatches, raise tuition, and hope for the best.

Many facets of the governance structure push higher education toward higher costs, minimal transparency about outcomes, and a low level of quality control.

Established colleges are often ineffective and always inefficient.

For colleges and universities to make real lasting change, they must first be able to look at themselves, and recognize what they are doing wrong. I get the feeling a lot of colleges are still just waiting for the economy to improve and thinking all will be better when it does. They are wrong.

The papers were prepared for a little-noticed event held in August by the American Enterprise Institute. The conference was titled Stretching the Higher Education Dollar, but it reads more like a general diagnosis of most of the ills afflicting higher education, not the least of which is myopia. Which is why, when read together, the collection is so bracing.

If you are trying to bring together all of the stakeholders on your campus to study your current state and the future of higher education, assigning everyone to study these papers might be a good place to start.

The papers are being collected to be published as a book — most of these chapters are at least 30 pages. So in the interest of saving you time, here are some of the topics covered and the highlights of what is said (I think these quotes give a sense of the strength of the arguments):

The need to reform accreditation — “Like with the postal service, the arrival of new and cheaper options allows students/customers to differentiate themselves by type and by need. Institutions negatively affected by such differentiation are raising prices while reducing services— the business model death spiral.” (For our view of this issue, see here and here.)

Emphasizing the college with the best “fit” — “The annual tuition lost on students who fail to persist is offset by many institutions using price increases on new and continuing students. The bottom line is that the students who stay end up paying for the students who drop out and, at public institutions, society at large foots the bill.” (our view)

The need for innovation NOW — “Aside from the elite institutions and flagship research universities (and really, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and the University of Virginia do not have to spend a moment worrying about online education as a threat, no matter the pronouncements of their leaders), the great majority of colleges and universities stand to be disrupted. … It is easier if the institution is lower down the status ladder. Institutions that enjoy high status within the industry (or in their own minds) tend to resist innovations that are admittedly inferior at their start (as was early online education), fail to accept the improvements, and overestimate the security of their position.” (our view)

The promise of online learning — “Almost one in three college students is taking at least one online class, according to the Sloan Consortium. Whether through hybrid classes, fully online degrees, mass-access ventures, adaptive learning modules, or as-yet-invented technologies, it seems hard to believe that this phenomenon will not continue to spread.”

“What we now know with certainty is that well-designed online education provides improved learning, better service to students, greater access to programs and resources, and improved economics to the provider institutions. … The standardized course design allows us to effectively use adjunct faculty at $2,500 to $3,500 per course versus a FT faculty cost of $16,571.” (our view)

Inflated price tags — “In higher education this is known as the Chivas Regal effect. … The association of price with quality leads to a particularly perverse incentive: the more a college or university spends per student, the more consumers associate that institution with higher quality. … A corollary to the Chivas Regal effect is any attempt by a single competitor to lower cost will be interpreted as an attempt to lower quality.” (our view)

Broken governance — “This model is popularly known as ‘shared governance.’ Unfortunately, it has been undone by administrators, who simultaneously convinced boards that faculty will not tolerate intrusion into academic policy and faculty that boards will not tolerate faculty meddling in their jurisdiction. As it stands now, shared governance is fragmented governance.” (our view)

And lastly Administrative bloat (these figures are mind-blowing!)– “To give you an idea of just how deep the organization was at Berkeley, in one level of management that was four steps below the chancellor, there were 525 supervisors earning $57.6 million in salary and benefits. This dense layer of management created significant bureaucracy and often paralyzed the organization by tying up key resources in endless meetings. … Non-academic employees were reviewed using a five-point performance ranking system (1-2—below expectations; 3—meets expectations; and 4-5—above expectations). Of the 13,000 employees in the system, only seven received a 1 or 2 rating.

Taken as a whole, these papers present a bleak portrait of higher education, one that is likely to be kicked aside unless it wises up.

As one paper says, “We should promote new ventures to lead the way with disruptive innovation. As they become successful, the establishment can either follow along or perish.”

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