Thursday, April 30, 2015

US Higher Education: Diverging and Descending? Round One


Recapping, this series on higher education futures is premised on the complexity of educational institutions that have had a couple of centuries to nationally evolve, and with world roots that reach back almost a millennium.  Accordingly, the intent is to tackle in any single post just a few of the factors prompting current debate.   Round one will seek to define parameters of US higher education, a growth industry most of last century – albeit not without critique witness the first presidential commission on higher education (Mr. Truman’s) – but now undergoing challenge and potential change.

First Principles

Before there was a Harvard, before the Boston Latin School, before US public schools, before Horace Mann, before John Dewey, literally before most humans could broadly read and write, there was a university, the University of Bologna (Italy), followed shortly afterward by the University of Oxford (England).  Harvard was a latecomer in 1636.  The need for harboring and classifying knowledge, and for scholarship and research mark the evolution of civilized societies.  US colleges and universities expanded rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century powered by land grants, followed later by states’ establishment of teachers colleges to feed the need from growing public education.  Prophetically, even at birth, many postsecondary institutions projected a measure of independence from the governance that was established over public primary and secondary programs, a factor that has come home to roost in corralling escalating costs of a degree.

The GI Bill, post WWII, launched unprecedented growth and democratization of higher education. Both Federal and states’ funding drove expansion of both campuses and faculties.  Until approximately the 1950s much curricula still mirrored the pre-war conception of a degree.  But prompted by technology and research growth, accelerated by Russia’s Sputnik, and the private sector’s demand for more prescriptive disciplines, the decades of the 1960s and 1970s saw another expansion of science-based disciplines and curricula, including the social sciences and business.

An exception to the call for greater basic discipline development in curricula, a few positive departures still standouts, was the generic collegiate school of education.   For whatever reasons, education as a discipline walled itself off from the increasing science content being demanded of surrounding schools and disciplines.  Even in this century, education dogma has skirted much neural science, clinging to the deductive models of learning – many plain wrong – used last century to shape classroom rubrics.  Part of the explanation may reside in the questionable rigor or misdirection of its curricula, and the quality of its recruits.  At the time in 1959 when this writer became a faculty member, schools of education generally were considered close to or at the intellectual bottom of the university pecking order, vying with health, physical education, and recreation (HPER) for that dubious honor.  Its students allegedly represented the bottom one-third of the college admissions ranks, though this oft-cited proposition lacks empirical testing.  That election by collegiate education to ignore the rest of academia was directly responsible, two decades later, for the launch of public school criticism and destructively what is now called “corporate reform” (actually inappropriately because no contemporary business is sufficiently misguided to employ its present tactics).

Related to the above, fault that must be attributed to the whole postsecondary academy, in the education and screening of those who would become public systems' peak administrators, little distinction was made between classroom preparation and fully equipping school leaders to perform with managerial competence.  As much to blame for public K-12 education's malaise last century as any other factor, the failed preparation, and vetting, of public school superintendents and principals stand out.  That failed comprehension of organizational behavior and proper leadership was compounded by broken oversight in the form of present BOE requirements to serve and frequent performance failures.  This factor has still not been touched by alleged reform thinking.

After calls for more science in all areas, all was cool in academia for a time, until states, pressed by ever-growing demands for services, started to reduce state higher education funding.  America’s institutions – by definition usually managed by smart people – responded by:  Increasing prices, i.e., tuition, residency, and services; by seeking more research funding; and by marketing the institutions to their successful alumni to create endowment dollars.  With that increased self-funding came a measure of independence from state oversight, launching the growth of higher education management that saw their institutions as independent entities, with increased power, both from control of advanced education, and by being the focal point of national sports obsessions.

All aspects of higher education expanded; more diverse offerings of education services, and the growth of students to be served, expanded both the core human resources manning the classrooms, but drove even higher rates of growth in non-teaching and bureaucratic head counts.  The cycle plus obsession with ever more campus construction created increased fixed costs, aggravated by “Baumol’s Disease” (failure to increase academic factor productivity).  An explosion of digital capabilities challenging traditional learning design, and over a trillion dollars of student debt driven by cost escalation, ultimately created the current calls for higher education reform.  Clearly there is more to the story, but for purposes of this exploration that is a thumbnail picture.

The Chess Pieces

The major factors impacting higher education futures span the differentiated segments of higher education institutions, through mushrooming demand for postsecondary work, to innovations in how that learning can be achieved.   Current rhetoric feeding critique of higher education ranges from the assertion that colleges will financially fail as costs and tuition push degrees out of reach, to the view that innovations like MOOC will undercut traditional institutions’ education delivery.  While some for-profit institutions are failing – the University of Phoenix losing double-digit thousands of students, and Corinthian Colleges shutting down, current examples – for-profits generically are struggling as the base of postsecondary institutions expands, and governments crack down on online postsecondary fraud.

Reading higher education’s tea leaves is not for the faint-hearted.  The most influential determinants of those futures may be:

  • The track of the leading 100 US colleges/universities, that may persist simply because they are at the top of the education food chain, where high level firms will continue to first search for human resources, and pay premium salaries.
  • Limits of Federal control of postsecondary education that is both Constitutionally and pragmatically constrained, stuck with trying to influence those leaderships with Federal student grants that have slowly become less significant compared to other funding.
  • MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) blossomed as higher education’s salvation, then receded as limitations were revealed, the most prominent being their present limits in providing regular institutional credit hours.  Like all innovations, the skeptics pounced before all of the pieces of the game came together.  There are currently 12 or more non-profit sources of MOOC, many from our top 25-50 US institutions; and 14 or more commercial MOOC sources.  As these mature, expect their offerings to ultimately win credit toward degrees.  Perhaps of even greater portent, the unique presentation quality of the best MOOC is being recognized as a basis for blended learning, combining MOOC presentation that can feature the best of any discipline with localized student classroom work and/or constructivism.  The potential is for upgrading course quality, especially on community and satellite campuses, while cutting the cost of course delivery.
  • How many US postsecondary institutions can you name?  There are presently 5,300, a number that has been steadily growing as community colleges and satellite campuses have multiplied.  A growing issue is, there is no accepted national standard for assessing the quality of most of these programs.  Many will be fiercely defended by local populations that view any institution of higher education, irrespective of quality, as a major asset and source of pride.  Alleged accreditation is virtually useless as a basis for assessment of meaningfulness of degrees issued; short of national testing of the products of degree programs, or an unprecedented system of inspection of their faculties, curricula, and syllabi, there appears no easy way to assign quality metrics.  The product, if the present pattern of oversight prevails, may be an educational variant of Gresham’s financial law (“bad money drives out good”) – “mediocre or weak collegiate work drives out legitimate higher education?”
  • Because of how our major state universities have prevailed in the face of declining state support, developing their own controlled sources of revenue, there is an ego factor in university leadership.  Perhaps not as extreme as the “too big to fail” mantra of our financial institutions, before they did fail, our majors nevertheless have simply ignored the various calls for tuition reduction.  Some institutions, while those words were being offered in our national press and from the White House, actually raised tuition.  Mr. Obama’s saber-rattling accompanying a threat of rating our institutions had all the effect of a shower of that garden’s rose petals.  An inside budgeting source in a major public university has confided that planning models employed have factored in six percent annual increases in tuition.  The scary part of that university hubris should be apparent to those in stratospheric positions – that is not sustainable.  In economics the term is “bubble,” and bubbles can burst.
  • Next, a devastatingly ignorant game is being played in Ohio, threatening to accelerate a higher education version of Gresham’s Law.  That is the move (seriously lacking specification of process) to turn secondary public school teachers into college professors, sans any of the real screening, preparation, and scholarship that goes into creating the real resource.  Running such course work through filters, cultures, and assets with the norms for Ohio 9-12, and that can’t replicate the real academy is the formula for mediocrity to malfeasance.  Ohio’s parents and students may possess greater intelligence than being exhibited by whatever Ohio education brain trust hatched this tactic, and walk, no sprint the other way.  Simultaneously, some intelligent innovations need to be sought generically -- perhaps combinations of resident work plus contemporary online work and/or a better mechanism for creating an adjunct faculty that could use the logistics of local school assets to provide credit pre-college matriculation -- to get a handle on the stretched times being taken to achieve a degree, legitimately a material cause of the escalating total cost of getting through college.  How much alleged "collegiate" work should occur at a 9-12 level for cognitive reasons is itself an unanswered question. Ohio's underdeveloped "CC+" hatchling is not an answer, and the program dropped officiously, and sans intelligent pre-testing, on the state's parents suggests incompetence and/or unacceptable political sycophancy by both Ohio's state public school and higher education leaderships.  Equally egregious, ignorant to indifferent local BOE are rubber-stamping the proposal without challenge.
  • Lastly, a quiet crisis has been developing for years or even decades in scoping how higher education delivery and maintenance of standards are to be enforced.  Our major institutions – though not necessarily the top schools – have methodically reduced the proportion of courses being handled by tenure track faculty.  Arguably this was a coward’s way of dealing with the tenure issue; instead of tackling the reform of tenure that has been an elephant in the room for a half century, our institutions simply cut faculty costs and ducked the issue by now fielding from one-half to two-thirds of courses taught by adjunct faculty, lacking health insurance, lacking contracts, lacking any career path, and doing no research.  To the hard-nosed, this might appear a proper emulation of corporate values (prudent outsourcing); to those who have spent a lifetime in education based on better values, the question they might ask is – what does this do to teaching motivation, and the quality levels of delivered instruction?

Questions on the Table

Self-evidently, trying to create dialogue on these issues is not a matter of “one and done.”  Hence, the decision to try to partition the issues, and handle each material issue in a separate post.

The tasks as presently envisioned:

  • Just defining the postsecondary universe; there are tens of attributes that might be used to classify our institutions.  Without that specification, there is the risk of comparing, metaphorically, passion fruit and lemons.  The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has a massive postsecondary relational database, but has executed literally no multivariate analysis that would help to classify colleges and universities for analysis of performance.  The NCES data combined with the US News' ratings detail, and other private data sources, could be a platform for making sense of sorting what is happening in 5,300 colleges and universities.
  • Try to project and assess the direction of MOOC evolution, and how it could materially change the entire postsecondary learning game, shifting emphasis from degrees to what its students can perform with the learning acquired.
  • Speculate how college/university student performance can be assessed and equilibrated across the various strata of institutions, short of creating the same standardized testing malfeasance akin to that degrading public K-12 learning delivery. 
  • Examine Ohio’s dubious to shatteringly ignorant attempt to turn public school teachers – coming from the same pool of human resources who have with only standout exceptions failed to create public 9-12 performance that is college-ready – into pseudo-college professors.  Failure can be a learning experience; simply replicating and extending the practice is one definition of insanity. 
  • Where are our universities beyond the top 25 or 50 heading, and what could overtake their penchant to simply ignore the criticism being leveled and continue expansion, increasing pricing, and executing learning business-as-usual?  Is this becoming a true bubble, and could it burst? 
  • What are the pragmatic limits of creation of so-called “community colleges” and satellite campuses – is there a point not sustainable, where the quality of faculty available, absence of research, and the limitations of their management become so tenuous that the systems simply become a version of high school II?  Reality is that some of our best private 9-12 schools, and even premier public 9-12 programs, are superior academically to community college and splinter satellite 2- and 4-year postsecondary degree programs. 

The list may go on, but next post will extend this series by asking perhaps the grittiest question:  What happens, if the gap in quality of learning between our top 100 institutions, versus the next tier of postsecondary work, versus community college and satellite education levels, becomes so substantial it ruptures the historical assumptions about what a degree means, and what it will return to its holder in the marketplace?  Hard questions, and miles to go.

RPW, 4/29/2015

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