Higher education must change

That’s the conclusion of a commission report[*1] commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to justify the department’s existence and justify a budget increase. . . um . . . er . . . (cough, cough)

The purpose of the Commission is to consider how best to improve our system of higher education to ensure that our graduates are well prepared to meet our future workforce needs and are able to participate fully in the changing economy. To accomplish this purpose, the Commission shall consider Federal, state, local, and institutional roles in higher education and analyze whether the current goals of higher education are appropriate and achievable.

Oh, that’s OK then. Let’s look at the recommendations:

1. Every student in the nation should have the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education. We recommend, therefore, that the U.S. commit to an unprecedented effort to expand higher education access and success by improving student preparation and persistence, addressing non academic barriers and providing significant increases in aid to low-income students.

In other words, fix the high schools. Most high schools are places where learning sometimes occurs despite the efforts of the teachers and the school administrations. Public K-12 education is drowning in money, political indoctrination, empire-building, turf battles, and occasionally muddleheaded good intentions. Those teachers who truly want to teach are smothered by their administrations and the entire misguided primary and secondary education system. We need to return to teaching reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to teach a kid to read and write. It does take caring and competent teachers, and lots of them.

Once given the basic tools, our needs to teach kids how to think (NOT, emphatically not—what to think). Students need to learn how to critically process information, how to look into issues, how to engage in intellectual dialogue with their peers. This also doesn’t require a lot of money. Once again, all it takes is competent, caring teachers and a classroom free from unnecessary distractions.

Of course, should we actually decide to educate our children, the introduction of masses of intelligent, reasoning, eloquent, and intellectually demanding college freshman will be a nasty shock to some college professors. But that’s a good problem to have.

2. To address the escalating cost of a college education and the fiscal realities affecting the government’s ability to finance higher education in the long run, we recommend that the entire student financial aid system be restructured and new incentives put in place to improve the measurement and management of costs and institutional productivity.

This is, of course, a money grab. Basically, government is supposed to pour more money into the student aid system (and, therefore, into the colleges and universities) in hopes that something good will happen. Let’s think about that for a minute . . . more money into the system will reduce cost increases.

Someone needs to go back to economics class.

There’s some handwaving about reducing the regulatory burden on colleges and universities, while simultaneously monitoring “productivity and efficiency”. Yeah, that’ll reduce costs.

3. To meet the challenges of the 21st century, higher education must change from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance. We urge the creation of a robust culture of accountability and transparency throughout higher education. Every one of our goals, from improving access and affordability to enhancing quality an innovation, will be more easily achieved if higher education institutions embraces and implements serious accountability measures.

Yeah, right. The Ivy League schools are different from the rest of higher education in only two ways: 1) their reputation as “elite” schools, and 2) their enormous endowments. Can you see any scenario where Harvard and Yale will de-emphasize “reputation” as a recruiting tool?

4. With too few exceptions, higher education has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing needs of a knowledge economy. We recommend that America’s colleges and universities embrace a culture of continuous innovation and quality improvement by developing new pedagogies, curricula, and technologies to improve learning, particularly in the area of science and mathematical literacy.

Well this must be good, it has the phrase “knowledge economy” in it. Also, the Demingesque “continuous innovation and quality improvement.” It’s all good. (I think my cynicism is starting to overflow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for “continuous innovation.” I just find the concept very amusing when applied to the current higher education bureaucracy. Let’s move on . . . )

5. America must ensure that our citizens have access to high quality and affordable educational, learning, and training opportunities throughout their lives. We recommend the development of a national strategy for lifelong learning that helps all citizens understand the importance of preparing for and participating in higher education throughout their lives.

See my comment for #1. People who know how to learn will keep learning, in spite of the best efforts of the education establishment.

6. The United States must ensure the capacity of its universities to achieve global leadership in key strategic areas such as science, engineering, medicine, and other knowledge-intensive professions. We recommend increased federal investment in areas critical to our nation’s global competitiveness and a renewed commitment to attract the best and brightest minds from across the nation and around the world to lead the next wave of American innovation.

Another money grab. What they won’t do is redirect Federal money from, say the National Endowment for the Arts or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to the National Science Foundation. They’d do this if they were really serious about increasing competitiveness in “science, engineering, medicine, and other knowledge-intensive professions.” Any bets on when this will happen?