January 3, 2013

Some Pluses, Many Negatives for Higher Education

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By Richard Vedder

As American higher education begins its 378th year, we can rejoice that our universities have several strengths, but lament their growing number of weaknesses.  The beginning of a new year is a good time to reassess the system.

Let us begin with the strengths:

  1. A large portion of adult Americans have had higher education experiences, giving the U.S. an adult population relatively high in literacy and acquaintanceship with higher forms of learning;
  2. For many Americans, higher education has assisted them in achieving the American Dream, moving up the economic ladder;
  3. American university research is responsible for many scientific breakthroughs and commercial innovations that have given us longer and more prosperous lives;
  4. America has more higher education choice than any other country -literally thousands of options, mostly somewhat distinctive, offering different curricula and campus cultures.

Offsetting -maybe more than offsetting--these considerable strengths are a much larger number of deficiencies:

  1. American higher education is becoming exceedingly expensive, with costs to users rising faster than family incomes, an unsustainable condition;
  2. The federal college student financial assistance program is Byzantine and dysfunctional, contributing both to the tuition cost explosion and to a higher education bubble that cannot be sustained forever;
  3. Academic rigor has almost certainly declined over time, and there is good evidence that colleges add little to student civic knowledge or critical thinking skills;
  4. There is a complete disconnect between the realities of job markets and the number of students leaving the universities, so a growing number of students are graduating into low-income jobs, but with large student debts;
  5. A majority of entering full-time students at four-year schools fail to graduate in four years, and a large minority either never graduate or do so only several years later than planned;
  6. The use of technology to bring about lower-cost, higher-quality educational offerings has been slow to come to higher education;
  7. Colleges are slow in adopting to changing curricular needs, and slow to eallocate resources to better uses;
  8. Many schools have lost sight of their primary teaching/research missions and devote too many resources or attention to commercial ventures, intercollegiate athletics, obsessions with student or employee skin colors, sexual orientation, etc.;
  9. While promoting diversity in skin complexions, colleges are increasingly intolerant of unorthodox ideas, particularly those of a conservative or libertarian orientation;
  10. Vast amounts of college resources are underutilized: many teachers teach too little, many buildings are empty too often, and too many administrators form unwieldy bureaucracies;
  11. Much faculty research is on trivial topics that few are interested in, even scholars in the academic discipline in which the research is being conducted;
  12. Colleges, ostensibly devoted to expanding knowledge, either fail to gather or actively suppress some important information about their own performance, making it difficult for consumers to select the best school for their needs;
  13. There are increasing scandals in higher education, sometimes involving the payment of excessive amounts to key university personnel or other examples of what economists call "rent-seeking;"
  14. A better than decent case can be made that higher education no longer on balance promotes egalitarian ideals and the American Dream, but increasingly promotes greater income inequality and reduced intergenerational income mobility.

Each of the 18 points above could be amplified by many pages of elaboration, but that goes beyond this tour de horizon. What is most discouraging to this writer, however, is that despite growing recognition of the problems, the amount of progress has been relatively scant.

In 2005, then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings created her Commission on the Future of American Higher Education, which after a year of hearings and reports, issued its own rather critical assessment of the state of U.S. colleges and universities. I was a member of that commission, and was pleased at the attention its deliberations and recommendations received. Several Commission proposals dealt with some (but not all) of the deficiencies mentioned above. It did its job reasonably well, I think. Yet relatively little has happened.

Why?  While with some of the system's deficiencies, such as the measurement of academic achievement, there is a severe information (lack of knowledge) problem, in other cases (e.g., the underutilization of faculty and buildings) the issue is incentives -there is little financial gain to key personnel from cutting costs, for example, or forcing students and faculty to use facilities in July or on weekends, etc. (As I write this my university is on an eight day closedown -what would be the reaction if Wal-Mart, Google, or the New York Stock Exchange closed down the entire time between Christmas and New Year's?)

The most disturbing thing, however, is the amount of callous selfishness and near fraudulent behavior that has occurred. Most reprehensible to me is how colleges lure students to their institutions who they know full well will likely not graduate and/or get a good job, and how these schools utilize taxpayer largess in the form of loans to consign them to a financially shaky future. This is as much a moral as an economic problem.

While universities fiercely fight change, it is coming nonetheless -belatedly, somewhat tumultuously to be sure, but it is at hand.  While the exact form that change will take is unknown, possibly hundreds of schools will close during the tumult and shouting of the coming decade, and many professors and staff will lose their comfortable jobs. But the current system is not sustainable, and the government lacks the resources to prop up this inefficient and overblown system much further; dis-investment, not more investment, is needed.


Richard Vedder is Director of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Ohio University, and Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

Comments (1)

Harris Tweed:

"American university research is responsible for many scientific breakthroughs and commercial innovations that have given us longer and more prosperous lives."

Yes, and in most cases the Federal Government financed the research. Why must scientific research be carried out at universities? Research institutes or foundations or hospitals make more sense as a location for scientific research.

Nobody really cares about "research" in, say, Peace Studies or Communication Studies; so, they can remain in the universities.

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