Saturday, October 27, 2012

Higher Education Must Be Forced Back To Its Roots

One of the wisest observations I’ve ever heard regarding the role of higher education was imparted to me many years ago by a fellow graduate student. We, along with many others, were laboring away on our PhD research fully expecting that our discoveries would change the world.

“It probably won’t,” he said. “If you want to change the world, then you should focus on your teaching skills. You will have far more impact through the undergraduates you educate than through any research you conduct.”

He was right. Only a very small fraction of the research conducted at even the finest research universities will have any lasting, tangible value. But we turn out millions of young people, each of whom will affect the world in at least some small way. And some will change it in a big way. Cumulatively, they will have a far greater impact than all the professors who educated them.

By failing to acknowledge this truth, higher education has underperformed in its core function, education. And through its negligence, higher education has burdened the nation and the economy with maleducated graduates, weighed down with crippling student loan debts that will leave them underperforming in the economy for decades. And their underperformance will harm all of us. It already is.

Unfortunately there is no system in place to hold colleges and universities accountable for the quality of their product. And let’s be honest. Although higher education traditionally sneers at the great masses of unwashed who toil outside of its ivory towers, the simple fact remains that a college education is a commodity, and colleges are too far removed from the quality of the commodity that they produce.

In the real world, the consumer dictates what commodities it will consume and what price it will pay. In the land of higher education, the factory (higher education) tells the market what it must accept. They are able to get away with it because the federal government insulates them from the consequences of their work.

As economist Thomas Sowell once observed, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”

Federally managed financial aid has helped fuel a staggering inflation rate in higher education. For the last few years, tuition at Washington State University has been rising at an annual rate of roughly 15%. These tuition increases have been forced upon WSU by a state that has reduced its support for higher education by more than half.

The state has been able to unload its obligations onto the students because the students then postpone bearing that burden with financial aid. This aid can take the form of direct grants or student loans. WSU will disperse roughly $300,000 this year and will get it all right back in the form of tuition and mandatory fees.

Under this system, colleges and universities get their money regardless of how poorly their graduates perform in the economy.

And once again, the federal government contributes to the declining quality of education. While the state cuts its support for education, higher education’s priorities turn away from education and toward the pursuit of federal research grants.

I am old enough to recall when university departments would hire faculty with the aim of providing undergraduates with the proper spectrum of academic specialties within a major course of study. Each faculty member was hired to provide expertise in specific disciplines needed to turn out a properly educated graduate.

That is no longer the case. And higher education pays no price for its neglect of undergraduate education.

I have a modest proposal to address that. Require each department cosign for the student loans taken out by undergraduates who major in that department. If colleges and universities were on the hook for the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of student loans that their undergraduates must take out, then those departments would give more consideration to their priorities.

They might also use a little more discretion in how many majors they certify. There are a number of easily researched majors that have little utility in the job market. Some have never had value and others no longer fit into the current job market. To charge exorbitant tuition for degrees in these disciplines is educational malpractice. And those malpractitioners should be held accountable.

The ten worst majors.

The best majors.



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