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Texas Round-Up

A new report by the Texas Public Policy's Center for Higher Education makes a strong case for some credible reforms.

By Jay Schalin

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January 13, 2013

The higher education reform world is starting to get crowded. It seems as if every time you blink your eyes, there’s a new organization or website focusing on the reform of higher education.

There’s a very good reason for that: higher education is in bad need of reform. At the Pope Center, we believe the more eyes focused on the problem, the better. So if we face competition, that’s all to the good; we’re free-market types—we like competition.

One of our newer friendly competitors is the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, which, like the Pope Center, focuses directly on the policies and spending of a specific state university system (or in the case of Texas, several university systems.) In recent years, Texas has been one of higher education’s innovation hothouses, implementing such concepts at the state university level as full transparency for professors—including public online posting of syllabi, CVs, and student evaluations—$10,000 bachelors’ degrees, and more. TPPF has played a large part in this spirit of innovation.

Last year, the Center for Higher Education cranked up its profile by hiring former Shimer College president and National Endowment for the Humanities deputy chairman Thomas Lindsay to be its director. He initiated a new website, complete with a blog featuring well-known reform analysts.  (Disclosure: this includes myself—although I might not qualify as well-known—and my Pope Center colleague George Leef)

In December, the Center for Higher Education released a report that laid out his intended areas of focus, entitled “Toward Strengthening Texas Public Higher Education; 10 Areas of Reform.” Lindsay is the primary author, with contributions from Richard Vedder, Richard Bishirjian, and Harry Stille.

For the most part, Lindsay’s analysis of higher education’s problems is spot on. He takes advantage of the growing body of evidence produced by higher education reform think tanks to make a case for higher standards and greater efficiency. His list of ten issues doesn’t necessarily break new ground—higher education’s problems are glaring, and his co-authors have been at the forefront of the reform movement—but his analysis is still powerful and frequently convincing. 

One thing missing from the report, however, is any mention or awareness of one of higher education’s most glaring problems, that much of higher education is unnecessary but is still being pushed as something for everybody. The educational and political establishments continue to encourage young people who have no interest in academic pursuits and who have shown little promise in high school to chase academic degrees. Furthermore, even if such students complete their degrees, they do so in programs that offer little hope for professional career-track employment. Even worse, many such students wind up deeply in debt.

This bias toward young people attending traditional four-year colleges occurs despite the fact that, even in this down economy, there are entry-level positions open that lead to well-paid careers available in skilled trades.

Lindsay doesn’t mention the problems inherent with such “overselling” of higher education. He instead directs his attention to how rising costs are reducing access. He does mention enrollment as a problem in itself, in that “current higher education funding formulas overwhelmingly encourage universities to enroll students, but not to graduate them.” But the problem goes deeper than he suggests—many enrolled students simply don’t have the aptitude, drive, or interest necessary to complete a reasonably difficult degree program. Graduating more students is a solution to a non-problem, at least in the foreseeable future.

Another question about Lindsay’s perspective is when he states that “Texas’ system of public higher education, like that of every other state in the union, finds itself fighting a war on two fronts: it simultaneously is battling to restore not only affordability but also quality.” Perhaps Texas’ university systems are fighting a war to restore affordability and quality—Tom would have more insight about that than most—but in much of the rest of the country, university systems are fighting tooth and nail to continue their current wasteful and unproductive practices. The reform movement is primarily waging a war against state university systems to get them to cut costs and restore quality.

Those objections aside, Lindsay and his co-authors make many keen observations and excellent arguments for specific policies or changes of direction by higher education systems. His top recommendation is intended to reverse higher education’s abysmal failure to produce an informed citizenry. Lindsay’s recommendations to make sure students are grounded in civic knowledge is the only way to maintain a free nation—according to such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. So many of the nation’s problems would disappear if our educated elite had a deep understanding of the  “moral and intellectual foundations of the American theory of justice”—instead, as Lindsay reveals, “most colleges in the country today do not even require an introductory course in American government.”

The report recommends not only thorough grounding in history and American government—particularly and the U.S. Constitution and other founding documents—but in economics as well.

His second area of concern focuses on what might be called the Holy Grail of higher education reform: finding meaningful outcome measures. Many state university systems have fallen in love with the idea of “performance-based funding”; however, they choose quantitative criteria to be judged on, such as graduation and retention rates or the number of degrees produced. Such funding models can cause all kinds of mischief, and Lindsay correctly suggests that “to date, what interest there has been in funding outcomes, rather than merely funding enrollment, has focused primarily on increasing graduation rates. To do so to the exclusion of learning outcomes is wrong-headed, as it only incentivizes the dilution of standards.”

Indeed, at a University of North Carolina Strategic Plan meeting in November, Catherine Grigsby, the president of the UNC system’s faculty association, said “we can give you any outcomes you want,” implying that graduation rates could be improved through grade inflation.

Lindsay and his co-authors also zero in the array of reasons driving up the cost of higher education (which are passed on to either students or taxpayers). These include faculty members’ teaching loads; according to Rich Vedder’s Center for College Affordability and Productivity, “between 1988 and 2004, it is estimated that teaching loads fell 42 percent,” while non-faculty staffing—whose numbers now exceed those of professors—and administrative salaries increased “as much as 50 percent” between 1998 and 2003.

Lindsay and his co-authors also promote greater transparency—a crucial step if higher education is ever going to mend its wasteful and ineffective ways. Along with student learning outcomes, they also favor making employment outcomes public, mentioning an experimental program within the Texas State Technical College System in which state funding will depend upon “the employment and earnings of its graduates.” This is quite radical and intriguing—how much of an improvement over straight enrollment funding it is remains to be seen, but at least it’s an attempt to base funding on a meaningful outcome.

Another pet recommendation of the authors is to end the ability of public colleges and universities to block the presence of new competing private schools. Current Texas law allows “tax-supported institutions” to reject “an articulation agreement (agreement to transfer credits) with a new institution,” eliminating competing private schools from setting up shop within the state’s boundaries. Lindsay recommends that Texas allow an articulation agreement with another private institution to suffice for building a new school in the state.

Perhaps Lindsay should be a little more wary of the efficiency gains provided by online education, which he is enthusiastic about. While online courses have been growing exponentially, so far online education has excelled mainly as an alternate form of information delivery; online education providers still struggle with the problem of making it more cost-effective than traditional classroom instruction when lots of give and take and communication between professor and students are required. Likewise for the much-ballyhooed “$10,000” bachelor’s degree—such a program would necessarily raise some quality concerns.

But time will tell about whether online education becomes the panacea many believe it will. For the most part, Lindsay and company’s recommendations would go a long way toward improving academia and the report is eminently worthy of a read.

 


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