Sunday, April 21, 2013

US Higher Education: Too Big to Fail; Too Endowed to Be Nudged; or Too Tracked to Be Sustainable?

Today’s post starts a series on what reform of US higher education might be if the current public K-12 reform mania starts invading the former venue. 

Even using the word “reform” applied to higher education requires some chutzpah. Our colleges and universities have historically been the envy of other parts of the world; society and corporations genuflect, parents assume major debt to place their progeny, alums throw endowment dollars at them, they are big business, and change is a word that evokes something between distrust and condemnation.  An old academic joke resonates:

Q.  How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?

  A.  Change?  Change?  Who said anything about CHANGE?”

What could precipitate such a reform movement?  Consider some of US higher education’s evolved current numbers for starters:

  • The cost of a US college degree has increased 1,120 percent (almost 12 times) in the last three decades, since records began.  Higher education’s total cost has risen in the same period from one to three percent of US GDP.
  • Related change in cost per student has been five times the rate of inflation, and twice the increase even in medical spending.
  • Tuition to reach a degree can range from $10,000 (Texas Governor Perry’s wish list), to $15,000 (Western Governors University), even less for a community college, to over $215,000 (Harvard).
  • National student debt is now over one trillion dollars.  That number is equivalent to almost six percent of the total US deficit, and greater than 2013’s estimated Federal deficit.
  • But “you gets what you pays for?”  While a degree still carries the much promoted salary premium versus a high school diploma, in that same three decades salaries of college graduates in real dollars haven’t increased.
  • Over the same period, higher education productivity – the ratio of degrees granted to total sector expenditures – has declined by over 50 percent; while mean non-faculty and administrative human resources employed per faculty member have almost doubled.  The explanation is bureaucratic growth and collegiate expansion into non-education functions.
  • Add that it is estimated that tenure-track faculty now teach as little as a quarter of US collegiate course work.
  • Lastly, the generally authoritative McKinsey consultancy estimates the nation will need one million more college graduates per year by 2020.  At the present cost of creating a graduate, that would represent an additional $52 billion per year on top of present total annual cost of higher education of approximately $300 billion.

Putting together the latter two factors, adding the other financial trajectories, would appear to translate into something best described as mission impossible without wholesale higher education change.  A needed research effort is an econometric analysis of these various post-secondary cost and performance trajectories through 2025 to try to verify the threshold where present US higher education policies may become unsustainable.

In spite of a being a 5 percent fraction of public K-12’s institutions by count, US higher education expresses as much heterogeneity as K-12 systems, perhaps more; and higher education has become even less constrained in operating styles because of the retreat of public funding.  Estimates are that public sector support of American higher education, once over 50 percent of funding, now approximates 20-22 percent.  That retreat, of course, also precipitated today’s present crises in parental/student funding, consequentially tuition and related debt inflation, as well our institutions’ capacities to ignore calls for reform.

None of this is new news, but our public’s acceptance of higher education intransigence for over a half century seems still something of a mystery.  If “intransigence” seems too loaded a word, reflect that starting with President Truman’s creation of the first Presidential Commission on Higher Education, there have been six similar commissions.  That includes the President H. W. George Bush mystery commission, purged from the record, its findings literally buried because they were politically unacceptable.  Few of the recommendations of any of these commissions, including the Truman commission, have ever seen full adoption by America’s colleges and universities.

Parenthetically, the never released report of the H. W. George Bush commission (seen in draft form), that included at least five Nobel laureates, stated in its concluding paragraph:  “…America’s colleges and universities are riddled with dry rot.”  The blatant censorship of that commission’s findings was explicable, albeit not a merit badge for the integrity of that administration.

However, that public acceptance of higher education’s self-centric leadership may be changing.  In 2012, TIME and Carnegie Corporation of New York sponsored a poll of both a sample of the public, and a sample of senior college/university administrators, posing identical questions.  Narrated without the full qualifications of sampling variances that can occur, the results were still illuminating:

  • A key finding – 89 percent of the public, and 96 percent of the administrators, said “higher education is in crisis.”
  • Referencing average student debt load in 2010 of $25,250, 74 percent of the administrators said this was “reasonable,” versus 38 percent of the public.
  • To the question of whether college is now worth the cost, 80 percent of the public respondents said it was not, versus 41 percent of the administrators.
  • On the issue of capping tuition, 73 percent of the public said there should be Federal price caps, versus 16 percent of the administrators asserting that.
  • To the core of the issue, 90 percent of the public sample respondents stated that colleges/universities aren’t doing enough to improve affordability.
  • Then two currently highly material findings:  On whether funding should be tied to how much students learn in college, 61 percent of the public respondents said yes, while the same percent of administrators stated the opposite; and whether teaching on campus can be replaced by online courses (MOOC), 68 percent of public respondents said yes, versus 22 percent of the administrators.  In the famous words from the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke, “…what we have here is a failure to communicate.” 

Aside from the above differences, another finding was very troubling.  On the role of a college/university education, only 26 percent of public respondents ranked as “first” or “second,” “to learn to think critically.”  While 62 percent of the collegiate administrators did rank that value accordingly, the glaring contradiction is that it was only 62 percent.  Perhaps the greatest threat to the future of higher education is the undiscriminating unfolding of layers of intrinsically competent post-secondary learning, but without the careful discrimination of what the missions and learning paradigms are for each of those strata.  To further complicate the discussion, our class one research universities perform functions beyond churning out degrees, and the amalgam of teaching versus research roles further roils the debates. 

The prior paragraph is code of sorts for a contemporary core higher education issue that gets divisive very quickly:   What is the purpose of US post-secondary work?  Is it getting an entry level job?  Is it to support a higher salary?  Is it simply a four-year introduction to a good life for those who can afford the experience?  Is it to acquire HOTS?  If that acronym eludes you, back to school to acquire some.   Coincidentally, today’s New York Times featured an op-ed by NYT columnist Frank Bruni that addressed that question, linked here.  Interestingly, the stimulus for the post was Texas, where extreme reactionary Governor Perry is being challenged by his own legislature for trying to dumb-down collegiate education, and challenging Texas’ excessive K-12 standardized testing influenced by Pearson, linked here.

The collegiate issue, however, is even more complex than Bruni’s interpretation.  US post-secondary offerings are experiencing major diversification, from classic university education, through high level online work (MOOC), for-profit traditional collegiate work, career intensive work, to community and technical (not necessarily STEM) colleges.  Along with that diversification have come built-in differences in the quality of instruction.  Is that course from a MIT tenure-track professor (or a Big ten university) equal to the same title from Anyplace Community College?  This question goes way beyond the emotional issue of egalitarian values; to be developed in a subsequent post, an almost universal property of post-secondary teaching is that regardless of level it has thus far been endowed with a classroom independence and freedom lacking performance measurement.  As collegiate level work has been democratized, and moved outside the “academies,” the quality of faculty has changed markedly.  One example is in community colleges, where many “faculty” are moonlighting high school teachers, or professionals lacking terminal degrees and classroom experience.

Diversity of teaching resources is only one of the higher education challenges.  A half-century ago economists William Baumol and William Bowen identified the higher education productivity problem later dubbed, “Baumol’s cost disease.”  It states that education is “…a profession where labor productivity was not amenable to improvement through technological advance.”  Baumol’s disease was likely applicable to higher education (as well as to public K-12 education) for decades following their observation.  But contemporary understanding of neural biology, communication theory, and the explosion of digital tools since the onset of the 21st Century have changed the game.  What has not changed, even in higher education that should be leading the charge, is that overall venue’s unwillingness to commit to changing what are becoming unsustainable campus parameters.

What was likely not missed by the reader from the earlier reported survey – that the public’s belief that funding should be tied to what is learned in four years of college is analogous to what has occurred in the alleged ongoing reform of public K-12.  Federal, states’, and the Gates Foundation‘s propaganda, that standardized testing, VAM, and state’s school grades actually represent valid learning measurement, has convinced too great a fraction of the public that is reality.  If the now solidifying professional understanding, that significantly different testing needs to be created to measure real learning is imperative for improving K-12 performances, then the issue of how to do this in the far more complex setting of collegiate courses and teaching is an even larger problem.  The public may be totally wrong in assuming that such performance measurement is either a given or an easy acquisition, but a movement supported based on that theme and belief set would be a major threat to intransigent collegiate leadership.

The sum of these observations leads self-evidently to the politically incorrect question:  Why are so many of our collegiate leaderships so committed to blocking needed change in US higher education?  Any answer to that is as complex as higher education that has become more massive and diverse.  Contributing is that colleges/universities are inherently managed in a decentralized fashion, and increasingly insulated from many prior sources of institutional oversight. 

The next post will seek to summarize the answers to the above question from a large contingent of higher education watchers and critics.  Subsequent posts will summarize the recommendations over six decades of the Presidential Commissions, to sort what has been adopted but mostly dismissed, look at possible organizational reforms, and speculate how technology might leverage the future academy.


A footnote:  Addressing higher education’s challenges and possible reforms in this blog is without question a bold venture, competing with mushrooming press interest in the issues.  But it is rooted by a quarter-century in university classrooms, as an administrator, as a researcher, in assessing other faculty and administrators, and as a contributor to academic curricula design and assessment.  Then the academy was also seen from a totally different perspective, from an additional dozen years in senior private sector management where collegiate products were recruited and diverse senior academics were hired for consulting inputs.  That was capped by additional years serving in an advisory capacity to university resources.  Observations over this series will reflect the awareness of being, for a major part of a career, on the inside and hands-on higher education roles.  RPW

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