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Higher Education: Two Challenges and No Choice March 2012

Higher Education: Two Challenges and No Choice

By Joseph Burke

Joseph Burke

Higher education now confronts two — seemingly contradictory — challenges. It must simultaneously raise quality and cut costs. This dual challenge calls not only for changes in programs, but also for a revolution in philosophy. Colleges and universities, public and private, have long followed the “resource and reputation model” of academic excellence. Their reputations flow primarily from the resources spent and the status won in the academic world, rather than from their contribution to students and society. In many ways, higher education merely mimics the attitudes of our country and its people, for both have long linked status with spending.

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Joseph Burke, a senior fellow at the Institute, has written and lectured on a wide array of topics in higher education, including the role of college and university presidents, system governance, accountability in higher education, academic outcomes and assessment, and the interrelation of teaching, research and service. He has served as provost and interim chancellor of the State University of New York.

Now the recession and the demand for reduced federal and state spending — along with soaring student debt — require higher education to cut its costs. At the same time, the global competition in a knowledge and information economy demands that American colleges and universities raise both the number and the quality of their graduates. Results show they are failing on both counts. The United States once ranked first in the number of adults with college degrees. Now we rank 12th among the 36 developed countries of the world for degrees among 25- to 35-year-olds.

Moreover, a recent book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses concludes that students learn very little in college. The authors support this conclusion with survey results from 2,300 full-time students at 24 four-year institutions based on questions of family background, high school grades and college experiences. Although relatively small, the sample includes all subgroups of gender, ability, family background, and colleges and universities with the full range of selectivity in admissions. The study shows scores from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which evaluates student learning on the core college outcomes of “critical thinking, problem solving, and writing.” Experts call these skills essential for the economic success of our country and for good jobs for graduates in a global economy driven by knowledge and information.

The book shows startling shifts in student study habits. In the early 1960s, students spent “roughly forty hours per week on combined study and class time.” Today, that has fallen to 27 hours, just 12 hours of study outside of class. In 1981, 44 percent of students studied more than 20 hours a week, today just one in five do the same. More startling, the authors conclude that these factors have only “modest effects on degree completion.” The sad conclusion is that this decline in study time has not produced a decline in grades. Quite the contrary, grades have soared.

George Kuh, an expert in “student engagement” and “learning outcomes,” offers a disturbing explanation for this “academic drift.” He claims a “disengagement compact” exists on many campuses between faculty and students. The unspoken bargain is, “I’ll leave you alone, if you leave me alone.” It lets both do what they want, students to fun, faculty to research. It also explains how students, without working hard, get decent grades — Bs, and even better.

The uninformed public might ask how presidents could let this happen. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, gives the answer. “[S]uccess in increasing student learning is seldom rewarded, and its benefits are usually hard to demonstrate, far more so than success in lifting the SAT scores of the entering class or in raising the money.” Arum and Roksa conclude: “Administrators have been asked to focus largely on external institutional rankings and the financial bottom line.” So once again, we find the villain: the resource and reputation model of campus excellence promoted in the U.S. News and World Report College Ranking.

Despite these challenges, the authors of Academic Drift believe, “The tide is shifting, as concerns about turning out productive workers and wasting resources become paramount in an era of globalization and fiscal constraints.” They and others, such as Jane Wellman of the Delta Cost project, see raising quality and cutting costs as allies, not enemies. They reject the easy but common belief that “more is always better.” Both believe a focus on increasing degree completion and reducing the time to degree can help to achieve both goals. Time to degree has become a growing problem, for six-year degrees, once rare, are becoming trendy. Combining raising quality and cutting costs attacks the “academic drift” that has eroded the quality and raised the cost of undergraduate education. These reformers would disavow the “disengagement compact” between students and faculty, which has turned the undergraduate curriculum into a “Wal-Mart of choices.” In its place, they would transform the curriculum into a more structured set of courses, which can help students acquire the knowledge and skills required for labor and living in the 21st century.

My only concern is that the reformers will fail to attack the quality/cost problem at its heart and its start: the resource and reputation model of undergraduate education — the model propagated and perpetuated by the current college ranking system of U.S. News and World Report. Reformers have made great progress in identifying the knowledge and skills required for undergraduate education. Yet all these internal efforts will fail without a change in its public image of campus quality. Hollywood has its Oscars, television its Emmys, Broadway its Tonys, and higher education its U.S. News rankings. Making undergraduate education better and cheaper calls for a rating system devised not by outsiders, but finally by ourselves, the educators — a rating system based on student learning outcomes, rather than resources and reputation.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.