I came across an interesting article this morning on the Spellings Commission, which is looking into reform of higher education in the U.S. It’s “A Stinging First Draft,” and it’s about the first draft of the report coming out of this group. Feel free to read these pieces, but I guess I have a few quick thoughts:
The article talks again and again about how “mean spirited” the report is. Given the politics of the folks leading this group, that’s hardly surprising. Only three things comfort me about all of this. First, I hope that the public and legislators have enough of a memory to recall the on-going problems of “No Child Left Behind” and thus will not repeat the mistakes of that legislation. Second, the fact that this is a first draft and one that members of the committee are themselves divided about suggests that there will be changes. And third, since so-called “public” institutions get increasingly less money from states or the feds, I’m just not sure how much difference this or other reports will make.
The bottom-line (well, at least so far) of the problem(s) at hand and the problem(s) of solutions is summed up pretty well in the Inside Higher Ed piece with the comment by Jonathan Cohen (I’d link to it if I could, but I couldn’t figure out how). To summarize it/put my own spin on it here: the report says that there are three basic problems that impact higher education:
- K-12 education quality and standards are inadequate.
- Costs are out of control.
- There’s no reliable feedback on what students are actually learning.
Well, first off, there isn’t much higher ed can really do about K-12. And if the thinking is that higher ed should up the requirements for entry (thus forcing K-12, particularly secondary schools, to get their act together so their students are prepared for college), I can tell you right now that flat-out isn’t going to work. It certainly wouldn’t work at “opportunity granting” institituions like EMU.
As far as costs being out of control goes, I would say I agree a lot with what Cohen says about how the first place any reformer ought to look is at the administrative costs, both in terms of the high-priced salaries of administrators, the number of administrators, and the “creep” of administrative work on to faculty. Take me, for example: right now, I receive a course release a term for being the coordinator for the writing program (meaning our undergraduate majors and graduate programs), and next year, I’ll receive even more release time as I step into the role of interim writing program administrator (meaning first year writing). Not to mention the faculty time it takes to research and write the mind-numbing and irrelevant reviews and reports and crap that no one ever reads.
Sure, there are other places to save money too, but it seems to me that other things vary too much from institution to institution. Comparing the costs of faculty and virtually everything else between a place like EMU and a place like the University of Michigan just doesn’t make that much sense. But the one “universal” here seems to be administrative costs.
Oh, and the other reason why tuition is going up so fast is pretty simple: the government at both the state and the federal levels are getting out of the higher education “business,” and they’ve been doing so for a long time now and at an alarming rate. If the state of Michigan cuts funding to EMU, then EMU has to look someplace else to pay the bills, and that someplace else is student tuition. Seems like math even an English professor can figure out.
Finally, figuring out what students learn: I think that this commission and others that have driven things like standardized testing are looking for an answer to an unanswerable question: how can we really really tell what students learn in our classes? To me that’s like trying to figure out what someone really really “believes.” There comes a point where it is ultimately an act of faith.
The best we can do, IMO, is think about this via accreditation. We’re about to go through an interesting, um, “time” here at EMU with NCATE, which will assess and ultimately accredit our many majors in K-12 educaiton. While this is likely to be a highly problematic process in all sorts of ways, that’s one way to deal with this: have accrediting bodies of higher education actually do more than rubber-stamp.