If Winston Churchill were alive today and living in the U.S., he might be saying regarding America’s colleges and universities: “Never have so many spent so much for so long learning so little.” Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a Wall Street Journal article commenting on the peculiarities of the academy: in the real world, an “hour” is 60 minutes, but in higher education it is usually only about 50; a year in the real world is 12 months, but on campuses is only 8 or nine etc. In the real world, bosses hire employees; sometimes in higher education, employees fire the bosses (as Larry Summers of Harvard can attest.) That began a fascination with my own vocation, involving an earlier book Going Broke By Degree, service on the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, running a think tank, and culminating in a book summarizing my thoughts, Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today, being released by the Independent Institute on May 1.
Today I begin a series of almost 20 blogs released roughly weekly now through June (maybe even later). This blog provides an overview.
American higher education is an increasingly troubled enterprise, which even politicians and the general public increasingly recognize despite frenzied efforts of the cheerleaders for America’s universities to claim otherwise. It is suffering from a triple crisis: colleges are too costly, too little real learning occurs, and there is a serious disconnect between what little college students learn and what labor markets want. Moreover, with respect to learning, the quest for truth and understanding requires that students be challenged with a diversity of viewpoints –we need an often currently lacking intellectual diversity as much or more than the oft-discussed forms of diversity that are obsessions on many campuses.
Before proceeding much further, however, I must acknowledge that the term “higher education” encompasses many widely differing institutions, and some schools are marvelously successful and make important contributions, while others don’t. For example, community colleges are far different than Harvard College. We tend to over generalize, and indeed the diversity of different approaches to disseminating and creating knowledge and artistic works is a major strength of America’s postsecondary institutions. Amidst many concerns and even some despair, there is much that is good.
The major problems –high costs, little learning and vocational mismatch –do not cover the full gamut of academic dysfunctional behavior and problems. Some other challenges: colleges are increasingly run by armies of administrators who, aside from raising college costs, are divorced from or even hostile to the core functions of universities, teaching and research. Intercollegiate athletics are often extremely expensive, exploitative of players, and filled with scandals –financial, academic, even sexual. Many faculty spend much of their time exploring obscure topics already heavily researched. Most academic research is little read or cited. University governing boards are often ineffective rubber stamps and cheerleaders, not providing needed external advice and restraints on the schools they allegedly control. Freedom of expression is stifled on some campuses, with Orwellian speech codes and other forms of thought control substituting for lively, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue that makes for vibrant learning and discovery.
While colleges, in the knowledge business, often try to suppress inconvenient truths about their own behavior, enough of the problems are filtering down to a public already angry about rising costs. Public support for higher education has declined, leading to slower growth in public subsidies. Even more important, enrollments have been declining for several years.
Ultimately, the “bottom line” question is: what should we do? Is government the problem or the solution? Can major changes come within the academy or will they be forced on it from outside? Can the market mechanism, which so magnificently brings efficiency, innovation and prosperity to the general economy, help solve the problems of higher education? (I think the answer is yes) What are there solutions?
A majority of the blogs following this one look at ideas dealing with some of the problems, especially rising costs. I will argue three “I” words –information, incentives and innovation–are key to reform. But before we can talk about solutions, we need to better identify the big problems. I do that in my book, and in abbreviated form in coming blogs, starting Thursday. Stay tuned.