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Posted at 12:40 PM ET, 02/18/2011

Fixing higher ed: College Board's Sandy Baum

By Daniel de Vise

In a forthcoming story for 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.

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 second of those submissions, from Sandy Baum, an economist and policy analyst known for her annual College Board reports on college pricing and aid.

How can we fix higher education?

1) Replace short-term fixes with long-term planning. baum.jpg

Too many suggestions for cost-cutting are short-sighted. Across-the-board cuts are rarely efficient. Postponing hiring until the economy picks up probably causes institutions to end up paying more for less qualified individuals. Abolishing tenure might sound good to some people, but the ongoing trend towards less tenure and more part-tie faculty appears to be hurting student success. And in fact, shorter term contracts are not likely to lower costs measurably. Asking faculty to stop spending time on research is another idea that sounds good but is likely to be very destructive of the mission of the university.

2) Stop trying to make individual institutions be all things to all people.

Each institution doesn't have to offer every program of interest to every student on campus. More cooperation among institutions - and better use of technology - can make it possible for people to learn Japanese even if it isn't offered on their campus. This doesn't mean cutting all the programs that don't seem to make money. We need philosophy departments, and we need expensive basic science programs. We need strong general education and liberal arts. But we have to remember that the most important thing is to help students learn to think, communicate, solve problems - and learn new ways of thinking. It matters less exactly what subject matter that helps them develop these skills. This may mean that some campuses simply can't accommodate all students. This is true both for specific subject matters and for specific accommodations that are necessary for small groups of students.

3) Find ways to use technology to both improve the quality of teaching and reduce the cost of educating large numbers of students with diverse preparation, interests, and aptitudes.

Instead of arguing about whether on-line learning in general is as effective as classroom learning, we should be focusing on how to use technology to improve the learning experience. Experiments like those going on at Carnegie Mellon University suggest that we can both save money and help students to learn more quickly and more easily if we do this right. This does not mean just having individual instructors or institutions put their courses on line. It means a lot of investment and a lot of cooperation to find the best ways to use technology constructively.

4) Modify state funding patterns so the cyclical ups and down in state budgets are not directly reflected in institutional budgets.

Public institutions swing from good times with relatively generous annual funding to hard times that force them to cut all sorts of critical expenditures at the last minute. If they try to save some of the extra funds in the good years, they usually forfeit them and suffer with lower appropriations in the future because the state thinks they don't need the money. This pattern makes long-term planning very difficult. And we need long-term planning.

5) Use the dollars we spend on higher education more efficiently.

Target subsidies so the focus is more on changing behaviors in socially desirable ways instead of just subsidizing people to do what they would do anyway. In some cases this may mean higher tuition at public institutions and more money for need-based financial aid. It may mean rethinking the way we charge for courses so we encourage students to graduate more quickly.

6) Collect better data so we can really understand what is happening to costs at individual institutions and at different types of institutions.

Right now we really don't know how to compare the cost of educating first- and second-year students at a community college to the cost of educating the same students in the same fields at a four-year college or a university. We don't really know how much is being spent on the individual activities in which colleges and universities engage. Collecting data may not sound like change, but it is a prerequisite to constructive changes.

7) Simplify pricing and student aid systems and make information about them more easily accessible to students and potential students.

The long and complicated federal application for student aid is a common target these days, as is the formula for determining how much students and families can afford to pay. These are very real problems. But they don't tell the whole story. Try going to the web site of a randomly selected college or university and looking for the price of attendance. If you can find it, you are likely to find that there are so many different components and different factors that affect that price that you will be able to get only a vague idea of how much it would cost you to enroll. This of course makes it much more difficult for students to take price into consideration - even absent the complication of financial aid.

8) Loosen the anti-trust restrictions on colleges and universities so they can work together to stop wasting their money on trying to convince students from affluent families to attend their institution instead of one of their competitors.

The destructive nature of the competition for students embodied in the increasing reliance on "merit aid" is widely recognized. Competing institutions bid up the price of "buying" students with high test scores and deep pockets, even though these are the very students who could afford to pay something closer to the full cost of their education. This puts upward pressure on sticker prices - and downward pressure on the funds available to help students who really can't afford on their own to enroll.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 18, 2011; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions, Aid, Finance, Pedagogy, Public policy, Research, Technology  | Tags:  How to fix higher education, Post fixing higher ed, Sandy Baum College Board, Washington Post fix higher education, higher education reform  
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Next: Fixing higher ed: A poll

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