By Peter Sacks
Americans expect the impossible of their higher education system. We demand that it serve dozens of different constituencies; the political and public agendas of left and right; national economic imperatives; and contribute to the world's scientific progress. Moreover, we require that the system perform these tasks equitably, maximizing the welfare of well-off and poor alike.
It's no wonder, then, that criticisms of higher education have mounted in recent years. From the right, critics have charged that American higher education, fueled by excessive government subsidies, is bloated by wasteful overspending and overreaching. Critics on the left allege that higher education has lost sight of the American ideal of equal educational opportunity, promoting agendas that systematically enrich the wealthy and punish the disadvantaged.
Now comes former Harvard president Derek Bok, weighing in on these controversies with a middle-of-the-road analysis of higher education's present condition and prognosis for its future. As its weighty title suggests, Higher Education in America is an exhaustive treatise on the subject, what the book's promoters call the Bok's "magnum opus."
An Encyclopedic Approach
At almost 500 pages, the book covers a great deal of ground, including the state of undergraduate education; professional education, including medicine and law; and, finally, the scientific research efforts of higher education system. At times, the book feels like a mis-titled Encyclopedia of America Higher Education, with prose as uninspired as an encyclopedia entry. Nonetheless, Bok has given patient readers a thought-provoking book that defies political stereotypes. Because of its nuances, the book is a refreshing change from the openly hostile diatribes attacking higher education in recent years.
One might expect a former president of Harvard to be a staunch defender of, an apologist for, the status quo, but that is not the case. Bok does have an argument here, and he builds his critique slowly and without undue alarm. He suggests that the higher education system as we know it, given the larger context and constraints that we place on it, is perhaps unsustainable. Indeed, he argues that the very nature of the higher education enterprise may be the root of its own demise.
Similar to other knowledge-intensive enterprises, the value of higher education's output is tough to measure -- even if we were to agree on what exactly its output is. As an enterprise that intensively employs knowledge workers, who produce knowledge and train others how to work with knowledge, the paucity of performance measures leads to outcomes that threaten the whole enterprise, Bok argues.
Consider this scenario. Policymakers want to hold public colleges and universities accountable for any state subsidies they are provided. Legislatures want answers to their questions about productivity of colleges and universities.
What Legislators Say
"Tell us what you are doing to deserve all this spending," legislators demand.
"Well, we are doing ground-breaking research and training the next generation of lawyers, accountants and engineers," the university shouts back.
"But what are taxpayers getting for their money? You should be operating like any business," says the Legislature.
To which the university answers, "Sorry, you can't apply standard business measurements to higher education."
And around this dance goes until legislators start withdrawing from the higher-education business by reducing state subsidies. "Since you can't show us what good you're doing this state, you'll have to find your own money."
Hence, the university starts jacking up tuition and fees it charges students. In fact, state subsidies as a percent of public college and university revenues declined from 32 percent in 1980 to just 18 percent in 2009 -- resulting in large tuition hikes to make up the losses. As a result, students borrow far more to meet higher costs. Other students decide the price is too high to even pursue a degree.
The inherent financial vulnerabilities of higher education lead to more unintended consequences. The scarcity of state resources intensifies the competition among colleges for private donations and funding. Overzealous alumni groups and boosterism threaten to weaken academic standards, as university backers lobby for relaxed standards and admissions policies for recruited athletes and other students favored by donors and alumni.
Activities Unrelated to Learning
Indeed, greater competition among colleges for funding leads to activities that have little or no bearing on teaching, learning and other core aspects of higher education. The increasingly intense race for prestige and reputation in higher education is but one example. The prestige race has led colleges and universities to place undue emphasis on SAT scores of entering freshman and other pseudo-indicators of quality that have virtually no relationship to what students actually learn and achieve on campus. These measures, do, however, enhance reputation, as measured U.S. News & World Report.
The prestige race also leads to empire building, as universities get caught up in building bigger and better facilities, launching multitudes of various enterprises in health care, entertainment, etc., while striving to move the college or university to bigger and "better" place in the higher education hierarchy. Although greater prestige produces more private donations and bigger campuses, it also raises costs and effort to keep the largess going. But for all this, the prestige race creates little value in terms of serving the public good.
To all this, Bok says American colleges and universities need to refocus on their core missions, asking themselves what is in the public's interest, not necessarily in the interests of politically motivated university presidents and wealthy donors. "The public will often benefit more if four-year colleges concentrate on finding ways to lower dropout rates and improve the quality of the education they provide, instead of devoting their energies and resources to creating new master's and professional doctorate programs in an attempt to become comprehensive universities," Bok writes. "A metropolitan university that excels in teaching students is likely to add more value than it would by becoming medium-quality research institution."
He continues, "Even so, because the contributions from first-rate teaching are hard to evaluate and seldom win public acclaim or achieve much prestige, they tend to be overshadowed by more tangible, measurable gains, such as higher SAT scores, new programs, and successful fund drives."
The Good, Bad and Ugly
In the end, Bok's effort amounts to a catalog of pluses and minuses, costs and benefits, and a rather complete list of the good, bad and ugly in American higher education. But despite all the problems, he invokes that often heard refrain about our system, that, all things considered, Americans still have the best system of higher education in the world.
But, he cautions, two of the many problems with higher education deserve immediate attention. As has been repeated by many experts and observers, Bok says that dwindling college completion rates must be dealt with sooner rather than later. Failing to make headway on this problem will not only lead to diminished economic growth for all Americans, but will make inequality even worse between the nation's haves and have-nots.
The second most pressing issue is related to the first: higher education's evolution over the last 50 years from a privilege of elites to what is now effectively a system of universal post-secondary education has been accompanied by a hazardous decline in academic standards and excellence.
Disturbingly larger numbers of high-school graduates now pursuing college degrees are not well prepared for college-level work. Add to that the dubious efforts of many colleges, striving to climb the higher education hierarchy, creating more doctoral programs to create "research" that few scholars cite or care about. As a result, the quality of undergraduate education has suffered. In fact, the combination of empire building at comprehensive universities and ill-prepared students being admitted to these schools has been a poisonous mixture for academic quality.
What is to be done? The answers might be found by examining higher education's intrinsic flaw -- the paucity of guideposts, standards and measures that allow consumers and policymakers to evaluate whether colleges and universities are serving the public well or not well. Unless higher education can find ways to monitor progress in teaching and learning, institutions will continue to compete in non-productive ways, leading to overspending on efforts that matter little for teaching, learning and research that actually matters for the scientific community at large.
Peter Sacks is an author, economist, essayist and social critic. His most recent book is Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education.