Little Consensus on Higher Ed Problems and Solutions

Lee Sigelman Apr 29 '09

Public Agenda[1] has a new report that “summarizes the ‘state of the debate’ about college costs and prices among different higher education stakeholders,” drawing on interviews with state higher education officials, college presidents, college and university presidents and chief financial officers, faculty members, and members of the general public. It’s a small-scale study – so small-scale, in fact, that they don’t even provide quantitative summaries of the responses. Even so, the responses, as summarized below, are intriguing. They indicate, first, that the various groups of “stakeholders” (can we all agree to banish that word from the language?) disagree fundamentally about what “the problem” really is. And from that it follows that they also disagree fundamentally about what “the solution” may be. Note in particular that faculty members are way out there by themselves in terms of their understanding of both problem and solutions.

State higher education officials
Understanding of the problem
* See higher education institutions as not producing enough graduates.
Possible solutions
* Productivity—asking hard questions about things such as class size.
* Focus on retention—easier to keep students than to get them.
* Incentives—incentivize schools for students completing programs, not for enrolling in programs.
* Technology—expand online education.
* Dual enrollment—students take college classes in high school.

College and university presidents
Understanding of the problem
* See institutions as caught between declining state revenues and rising expenses. Result: either higher prices, decreased availability or lower quality.
Possible solutions
* Productivity—colleges have already done most of what can be done; only marginal efficiency gains possible.
* Redefine education as public good—deserves massive increase in funding, e.g., portion of stimulus package.

Higher education CFOs
Understanding of the problem
* See institutions caught between declining state revenues and rising expenses.
Possible solutions
* Productivity can be increased.
* Willingness to explore alternatives such as larger classes, distance education; new ideas should all be on the table.

Understanding of the problem
* Seldom focus initially on declining revenues and increasing costs, or sometimes blame increasing costs on higher administrative costs.
* Major problem: quality.
* Declining quality of incoming students.
* Remediation dilutes quality.
*Too many students going to college (nottoo few), drags down quality for good students.
*Administrative pressure to retain students, leads to lowering standard.
Possible solutions
*Skeptical of many solutions proposed above, fearing they will decrease quality. Concerns include:
*College classes in high school aren’t equivalent to collegiate courses.
*Distance education; good only for most motivated; requires more work from faculty.
*Rewarding completion: more graduates does not mean more educated citizens.
*Business models inappropriate.
*Productivity means asking faculty to do more with less.
*Raise standards; produce better-educated individuals—more important to produce fewer better-educated graduates, even if it means fewer people will have degrees.

Understanding of the problem
*Students and individuals are caught between growing sense that a college education is absolutely necessary for success and growing fear that increasing college tuitions/fees make college out of reach.
Possible solutions
* Protect access to higher education. High support for measures that protect access. Growing sense that colleges are inefficient and can educate more students without necessarily needing more money.

fn1. From the Public Agenda website:”For over 30 years, Public Agenda has been providing unbiased and unparalleled research that bridges the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues ranging from education to foreign policy to immigration to religion and civility in American life. Nonpartisan and nonprofit, Public Agenda was founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1975. Public Agenda’s two-fold mission is to help American leaders better understand the public’s point of view and citizens know more about critical policy issues so they can make thoughtful, informed decisions.

[Hat tip to Inside HigherEd]