COMMENTARY | We have a love-hate relationship with college. We love its culture, its role in developing the mind, its social function, but hate its rising prices and increasingly ambiguous relationship with professional success. Higher education is back at the top of the news cycle this week with reports that, for the fifth year in a row, fewer than half of college-bound high school seniors have SAT scores indicating they can handle college-level rigor, reports TIME. The latest cover of TIME magazine questions what college students of the next decade will be learning. And a recent article in The Atlantic re-ignites the constantly smoldering debate over the merits of tenure for college professors.
College education is in trouble. How do we fix it? There are two options that are polar opposites and would fix different, but perhaps equally important, deficiencies in higher education.
The first option is a big government solution and would essentially involve making public higher education an extension of K-12. Though this sounds extreme, it is undeniably the path public higher education is already taking, albeit slowly. For example, standardized college exit exams now exist and are becoming more common, reports NBC. It will only be a matter of time before standardized tests proliferate higher education just like K-12, allowing different colleges and majors to be measured and compared using a [theoretically] objective yardstick.
If we truly want to hold colleges and universities accountable for making sure young Americans learn the necessary knowledge and skills, why not speed up the evolution toward K-12-style accountability? Currently, little regulation exists. College courses feature arbitrary grading, little or no standardization across schools or majors, and are often taught by holders of advanced degrees who have little formal education or training in pedagogy. Twentysomething graduate students can teach courses, subjectively grade essays, and effectively determine whether or not thousands of dollars in tuition money results in credit toward graduation. Is this really what we want in an age when tuition prices are through the roof? Why are standards for teaching so much higher in K-12 when costs are so much lower?
“K-12ing” higher education could drastically improve accountability, quality of teaching, and trim extracurricular costs by imposing objective standards and oversight on an unregulated and highly lucrative industry. You would know what your kids were learning, be assured that they were taught by someone with genuine pedagogical and classroom management training, and be better able to ascertain whether your tuition dollars were getting results. The age of arbitrary would be over.
But, of course, problems abound. Since college students are technically adults, how would “K-12ing” college curricula work? All the rules and regulations followed by high school students would be difficult, if not impossible, to impose on legal adults, especially those paying their own way. And do Americans, despite their claims of wanting greater accountability and improved college teaching, really want higher education to become grades 13 – whatever? I doubt it.
Which brings about the second option: Go old-school and remove much of the government funding from public higher education.
Though removing big chunks of state and federal funding would be painful, especially for those who were no accepted to newly cash-strapped schools, it would improve the effectiveness of higher education in the long run. No longer would so many twentysomethings be graduating with college degrees that the degrees were watered-down in value. No longer would campuses be overrun by slackers. In an age of reduced funding you would have to prove your mettle to get in the door.
Competition would be the name of the game. High school students work harder and compete to get into college. College instructors, facing less funding, work harder and compete to retain their jobs. Schools, facing less government funding, must compete to trim their own expenses to keep prices low enough to attract applicants. Basically, the problems fix themselves…though painfully.
Under both options the quality of teaching improves, knowledge and skill attainment by students improves and would likely be more accurately measured, and excessive campus costs, especially those related to “glamour projects,” would be cut. The big differences? Under the “big government K-12 plan” citizens’ tax burdens would likely increase and the number of college enrollees would remain high, perhaps not helping bring back the value of a degree.
But, of course, if the government was running the show it could force public colleges and universities to stop inflating grades and kick out underperforming students.
Under the “small government old-school plan” fewer young people would be accepted into college. College faculty and staff would be downsized. The risk is high that many qualified students who would do well in college and beyond would not get in or would find the reduced-subsidy tuition cost to be too expensive to afford. Universities might be pressured to focus more on enrolling students who could pay than students who could learn and grow.
But the freedoms we cherish as part of college culture, especially academic freedom and treating college students as adults, would remain untouched.
Which would you choose?