Fixing higher ed: Andrew Gillen, Richard Vedder
In a story that published Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine, I offer eight suggestions to "fix" higher education. I will host a brief online Q&A on the fixes at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Click here to pose a question in advance. There is even a poll, which you will find farther down on the blog.
For the story, I sought help from several great leaders and thinkers. Some submitted their own thoughts on how to improve higher education. I'm posting them this week and next. Here is the fourth of those submissions, from Andrew Gillen and Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
The Three "I's" of Higher Education Reform
Higher education costs are rising at unsustainable rates, student debt loads are reaching crushing levels, and more and more Americans are beginning to ask if the costs of college attendance are worth it. There are three "I" words that are key to transformative change in higher education: incentives, information and innovation.
Currently, incentives in virtually every aspect of higher education lead to dysfunctional behavior. Students are rewarded for seeking out easy majors and dropping challenging courses with a higher GPA. While they strive to get into good schools, once there, they try to minimize their effort. Meanwhile, faculty are punished for devoting time to teaching, even though that was the purpose for which they where ostensibly hired. All the incentives are geared toward rewarding research. One aspiring scholar asked about teaching:"'Teaching,' he was told, 'is like hitting a home run at the faculty-student softball picnic. Your career here will depend on how your scholarship is judged. And if you hit a home run at the picnic, well that's nice too.'" Lastly, universities and colleges themselves are forced to compete based on prestige or reputation. This means that there is always an incentive to spend more money, never an incentive to spend less.
We believe that just about everyone would be better off if these perverse incentives were replaced with better ones. Students should be rewarded for acquiring new knowledge and experiences, not for their ability to jump through hoops. Faculty should be rewarded for teaching. Universities and colleges should be rewarded for offering the greatest value (the most learning per dollar spent). But how is that done? The key to reformulating incentives is information.
We do not even know whether students at a typical college receive good "value added" while at school: do they know more when they graduate than when they entered? Have their critical learning skills improved? Have they become inculcated with values that will make them better citizens? Have they acquired vocationally desired skills? Who knows? Despite being in the business of disseminating and creating information about the human condition, colleges collect relatively little about their own operations -and share even less with the public.
In order to increase productivity and lower costs, we need to know more about collegiate outcomes as well as the costs used to acquire them. We cannot evaluate the appropriateness of an educational improvement strategy if we do not measure the outcomes and the costs of inputs. We do no meaningful cost-benefit analysis of the value of most academic research, much less teaching. The rest of society --even K-12 education -has been able to deal with this (in part through the "bottom line" of markets), why can't universities? They can, but up to now they have been unwilling to, perhaps afraid of the results of learning what their students know and whether their research is read and useful. But any new strategy requires doing things differently -innovation.
As the economic historian Brad DeLong points out, universities originally arose because books were too expensive for wide distribution prior to the invention of the printing press. Universities economized on the most expensive aspect of providing an education (books), by having one person read the book to many others. But while books are no longer prohibitively expensive, universities today look very similar to their ancestors. This remarkable persistence tells us that universities are providing us with something else of value. The question is whether that value can be delivered more efficiently.
Since we view it as extremely unlikely that the institutional structure designed to fit the needs of those centuries ago is still the ideal one, we believe that greater information will unleash a tidal wave of innovation. For example, if greater information allows us to separate the learning and teaching aspects from the screening and certification aspects of college, then perhaps other institutions can fulfill those roles better and cheaper. There are some promising efforts already being made on the fringes that could become commonplace: Khan Academy and Straighterline type teaching, for example, may become dominant, while professional associations may well be compelled to develop methods of certifying competency.
In other words, colleges are currently providing a plethora of functions that may be performed better and more effectively by others if we concentrate on the 3 I's - incentives, information, and innovation.
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Daniel de Vise
| February 20, 2011; 4:57 PM ET
Categories: Administration, Finance, Pedagogy | Tags: fixing higher ed washington post, fixing higher education, fixing higher education vedder gillen, how to fix higher education washington post
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