Will Higher Education Ever Change as It Should?

Gwenda Kaczor for the Chronicle

August 03, 2009

The history of American higher education is well supplied with reform movements that have gone nowhere. Despite fervent calls for change in a number of areas, most often issued by a commission with an impressive masthead, nothing much happens—or worse, the only visible result is hurt feelings and a hunkering down by the college leaders on whom change depends.

But reform, while difficult, is possible. Consider Europe's Bologna Process, a decade-long effort in which the ministers of education from dozens of countries have put in place a process of extended consultation that has resulted in greater integration and cooperation. The process has gone a long way toward creating commonality and interchangeability among Europe's competing systems of higher education—and is being celebrated as a remarkable achievement in multinational reform.

What can would-be reformers of American higher education learn from that? First, the Bologna Process was conceived of as a multiyear undertaking. Second, it linked six sets of key actors: ministers of education, university administrators, student leaders, heads of international organizations, European Union bureaucrats, and policy wonks. And third, a limited number of goals were set, with clear benchmarks.

Would a similar process work to reform higher education in this country? Could the president of the United States ask the secretary of education to organize not a national commission, but a multiyear process? Could the 50 states work together and with Congress to create and carry out strategies to promote purposeful change?

Unfortunately, many people in American higher education would be uncomfortable with the idea of a federally organized process. Leaders of private colleges in particular would argue that the market, for all its imperfections, is a better gauge of what does and doesn't work in higher education. But the problem, as the economist Richard Vedder and others have noted, is that the classic rules of supply and demand apply at best imperfectly to higher education. In a market so awash with federal money—for research support, for grants and loans to students and parents—competitive pressures aren't sufficient to change the system.

Our previous reform efforts have also taught us that:

  • Strong rhetoric changes nothing—not even a clear indictment, based on what the reformers believe is overwhelming evidence, will shame the academy into changing.
  • Demand for reform must be internal. Faculty members do not necessarily have to want to reform, but they do have to see in the proposed reform a means to a desirable end.
  • Like outside reformers, state agencies cannot prescribe change (unless they are prepared for a long, exhausting battle) but must create the conditions that make change possible. Money can't in itself secure the changes reformers want, but unwillingness to invest new money almost guarantees that change won't be forthcoming—especially given higher education's practice of hunkering down when appropriations are cut.
  • It is best to focus on truly systemic change. The nature of the academy sucks the air out of piecemeal reforms. People lose interest, and old ways win out. Individual institutions can—and do—change, but their successes tend to pale with time because of the inertia in the system.

For true reform, we need a process that will change most, if not all, institutions simultaneously. What is required is a kind of dislodging event. Such an event might promote reform because the various parts of our higher-education system, despite their distinct missions and organizational arrangements, are linked to one another. What happens in one place is almost always translated into something happening in another.

Over the past three years, I have asked friends, colleagues, students, even potential adversaries, "Can you imagine a dislodging event of sufficient magnitude that it breaks the gridlock that now holds hostage any attempt to reform higher education?" My questions have produced three pretty good answers. Although none may prove feasible or desirable, they suggest that a dislodging event could in fact drive real reform.

Dislodging Event #1: Congress could metaphorically "nuke" today's federal student-aid program, and turn the experts loose to craft a system that supports participation, invests in motivation, and rewards institutions that use aid money effectively. Such a system would link what happens in schools more directly to what happens in colleges, involve better incentives for family savings, and get students—perhaps as early as sixth grade—actively engaged in planning and saving for college.

Jonathan Grayer, a former chairman and CEO of Kaplan Inc., has proposed, in fact, giving every sixth-grader in the nation a $10,000 stake in a 529 plan—a federally guaranteed college-savings account whose value would grow as that of the federally monitored stock accounts increased over time. The impact would cascade across higher education. Colleges would have both the opportunity and the rationale to work early with school students in their neighborhoods. As a result, they might be committed to grooming and not just recruiting their students. Faculty members might also be more focused on understanding how their would-be students learn as well as determining what they know.

Federally funded 529 plans could even help spark a broad-based consumer movement in which students and their families learn early on to ask tough questions about the nature and quality of the higher education they are purchasing. The administrative side of colleges would have to rethink how prices are set, what services are provided, and what kinds of information would have to be routinely made available.

Dislodging Event #2: Institutions with big endowments have become like hedge funds: They use their accumulated capital to make money through the shrewd buying and selling of capital assets. It is not hard to imagine Congress passing legislation requiring college endowments to pay the same taxes on their earnings from their investments that other, similarly constituted hedge funds are required to pay.

A simple rule could differentiate the strictly commercial from the educational: All dividends, interest, rents, and realized capital gains would be taxed at current rates, but the money owed the IRS would be reduced by the amount of cash an institution withdrew from its endowment to support educational and research programs. In years when the money spent exceeded the growth in the value of the endowment, a credit would be awarded to offset future taxes.

Such a proposal would have little immediate effect on institutions with small endowments. But the megabillion-dollar endowments that often earn annual returns in excess of 15 percent would have to significantly increase their expenditures on education and research or pay substantial federal taxes.

Ultimately this dislodging event would have mixed consequences. Institutions with large endowments that appreciably raised their spending would flourish, and their students would benefit. The rest of higher education, however, could find itself increasingly disadvantaged. One result could be a drastic consolidation of the industry.

Or, if many institutions chose to pay taxes instead of spending more, an unintended consequence might be a renewed scrutiny of academe as a source of tax revenue for cash-strapped states and localities. The resulting fracas would draw state legislatures, and perhaps the public, into an examination of just when a college is an eleemosynary institution or is not.

Dislodging Event #3: What would happen if a Bologna-like process concluded that the standard undergraduate degree in the United States, as in Europe, should be a three-year baccalaureate? With more Americans pursuing advanced degrees, it makes sense to look for ways to shorten the undergraduate portion of their postsecondary education. For many college-ready students, the senior year in high school is something of a waste. More of that year's curriculum could be devoted to acquiring advanced college-ready skills in a foreign language, composition, and mathematics. What's more, an undergraduate education would then cost 25 percent less.

In many ways, the second-order effects of a shift to a three-year baccalaureate curriculum make the proposal attractive and establish its bona fides as a truly dislodging event. Suddenly all the questions about teaching and learning would be on the table as faculty members everywhere would have to wrestle with questions of how to teach what. To judge whether their shorter degree programs were achieving the same learning outcomes as their four-year programs had promised, they would find themselves in need of the performance measures they had hitherto eschewed. Technology might become a handmaiden of change rather than an educational add-on, while the balance between general and specialized education would have to be restruck.

Those are just a few examples of dislodging events. I am not offering a list of solutions but rather am recommending a fundamental change in how people inside and outside of higher education generally conceive of the reform process. To overcome the gridlock that, for most of the last half-century, has held reform captive, we must create conditions that foster change—even change for change's sake—such that those of us in higher education will own the results

Robert Zemsky is chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, based at the University of Pennsylvania. This essay is adapted from Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, to be published next month by Rutgers University Press.