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Posted at 4:57 PM ET, 02/20/2011

Fixing higher ed: Andrew Gillen, Richard Vedder

By Daniel de Vise

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.

Follow College Inc. on Twitter.

By 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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Next: Fixing higher ed: Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC


This is a great topic and one near and dear to my heart. I have a couple bachelor of science degrees and a couple master of science degrees (mostly) from top tier schools. Needless to say, I enjoy the world of higher education.

One proposed 'fix' was spot on. The others were, well, not so spot on. Tying public funds to finishing college is a fantastic idea. Large schools generally do not provide much support to their undergrad students. Such a fix would seemingly motivate them to be more selective and/or to provide additional support and guidance to their young students. Either way, public funds would be better spent.

'End merit aid,' really? This seems quite twisted and nonsensical to me. University education should be even more achievement focused than it is today. Removing merit aid removes incentive, in general. Maybe this would work in some Gene Roddenberry utopia where money is no longer valued and self improvement is everyone's prime motivator in life. Star Trek rocks, but it is not a good model for the real world.

Standardizing a three-year bachelor's degree is similarly nonsensical. An undergraduate degree is more than the diploma. It's an opportunity for students to engage in personal and intellectual exploration. Besides, students can shorten their bachelor's degree program by taking AP classes in high school, registering for heavy course loads each semester at University, or attending a couple semesters of community college before attending a University. Let the kids expand their minds before you kick them out, man.

The 'bring back homework' suggestion left me scratching my head. I received both a BS and MS from Johns Hopkins and the homework damn near killed me. In the end, the homework was extremely valuable and is the reason that I learned so much. Do other Universities really skimp on this? I hope not. If they do, then they should bring it back baby! I'm with you on this one.

Over all, some good thoughts, but I think that most of the suggested fixes should be left as suggestions.

Posted by: meland1 | February 20, 2011 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Funding colleges based on graduation rates might seem to make sense, but what about colleges where:
1) Students enter unprepared for college as is the case at community colleges in southern California? If you give more funding to elite universities that have rampant grade inflation that would not be fair or make sense.
2) Students drop out because they are so poor they have to work in a deadend job instead of go to college.
3) Students do not get support or encouragement at home? One student who was the first in his family to go to college said his family would ridicule him when he returned home each day.
4) Latina students are told by their families that their place is in the home instead of in college or at work?

Posted by: Yaddaa | February 21, 2011 4:21 AM | Report abuse

Many community colleges need more funding so that they can help their students to graduate. The colleges with lower graduation rates need more funding, not less.
It is apparent that many of the fixes are being proposed by people who have spent some time studying the problem of low graduation rates, but the problem is that they have not spent enough time studying whether their fixes would cause more harm than help. Some times the cure is worse than the illness.

Posted by: Yaddaa | February 21, 2011 4:38 AM | Report abuse

In Sunday's article, Daniel de Vise mentions the Accelerated Learning Program at the Community College of Baltimore County favorably. I am director of that program.

In recent years, higher education (with a lot of help from the Community College Research Center at Columbia U) has come to the realization that developmental education has not had the kinds of success in helping underprepared students gain the college-level skills they need. At CCBC, we found that fewer than 30% os students placed in our upper-level developmental writing course ever passed ENG 101. Most did not fail; they gave up, life happened, they were evicted from their housing, their children became sick, their cars broke down, their marriages broke up, their home situations became abusive, the stress of trying to cope with a difficult life and go to college became more than they could handle.

To try to improve this dismal success rate we instituted a pilot of ALP in 2007. This year we have scaled up to 80 sections. And the results have exceeded our hopes: Almost 70% of student who choose the ALP route pass their developmental course and ENG 101. To date, 23 other colleges around the country are beginning ALP. To borrow a phrase from Uri Treisman, we have joined a "joyous conspiracy."

More info on ALP is available at our website:

Peter Adams
Director, ALP at CCBC

Posted by: padams21 | February 23, 2011 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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