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Higher Ed Framework Revisited

Higher Ed Framework Revisited

A recent Washington Post business section comment on higher education (Sunday, July 14), based loosely on Jay Selingo’s challenging new book, College Unbound, prompts some comment. It covers ground familiar to devoted readers, but given its obvious currency the repetition is warranted.

The column blasts higher ed on two grounds, one essentially inaccurate at least for public universities, the other questionable.

Inaccurate: education costs have gone up because of frivolous decisions, like building the infamous climbing walls for students. Just not true. Controlling for inflation, costs at public universities have gone up less than 1% over the past few years; the figure for Mason since 2000 is 2%. The real reason for higher costs is simply the effort to compensate for massive public disinvestment – the huge reductions in state support. The article does mention the fact of reductions later on, but in a buried sentence with no specificity. There has been no deluge of frivolous decisions – the implication is simply untrue, the consistent attempt to conceal a very dubious political decision truly unwise.

Doubtful: students learn very little. This claim is based on a study of the (relatively few) universities that test both freshmen and seniors to determine what has been gained. The study is deeply flawed because the testing involved is notoriously “low stakes” – seniors have no reason to try very hard.

Granted, the testing results warrant some attention. There does seem to be evidence about declining time put into studying, though even these data are complex given new sources of information.

Granted also, the cost points need attention as well, even though the framework is so often miscast. The fact that political decisions have caused most of the crisis does not mean that universities do not have to deal with it.

So this is not a defensive plea for changelessness. We do need to think about new systems of delivery, about cost containment (though note, as against glib technology claims most of this containment will come through lower pay and/or poorer quality as in less attention to student writing, more reliance on machine-graded exercises).

I am not, in other words, really contesting the point that higher ed has real troubles, that innovation is essential. Hopefully, Mason is an example of responsiveness, and will be even more so in future.

But critiques that are based on flawed information have their own drawbacks. They are less likely to persuade many faculty of the need to change than more accurate and complex portrayals. They encourage politicians to continue to duck responsibility, by pointing to imagined inefficiencies and irresponsibilities. And, frankly, they do ignore the real strengths of many colleges and universities, and the fact that many students do not actually want a lot of change. In responding to the current situation, universities need imagination but also balance. External exaggeration does not really help the former, and it positively discourages the latter. Let’s try to do better, even in brief public commentary.