Why does applying for student aid seem to require an advanced degree in accounting—and yet college keeps getting more expensive? Why does accreditation involve countless hours and mountains of paperwork—and yet many college graduates still don't learn very much?
Why are so many things in higher education complicated and ineffective at the same time?
The answer can be summed up in a single word: "kludgeocracy."
The term, coined by Steven M. Teles, an associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, comes from computer programming. A kludge is a poorly designed software patch intended to fix an immediate problem. Such solutions make sense, in a limited way, and keep things running in the short term. But as one kludge piles on another over time, without any consideration of larger design principles, the resulting system is both overly complex and maddeningly inefficient.
This, says Teles, writing in the latest issue of National Affairs, is a fair description of modern American public policy: a kludgeocracy. The federal, nonparliamentary American political system distributes power to states and has an inordinate number of veto points, which have been strengthened in recent years with the radical expansion of the filibuster in the Senate. It's almost impossible to pass bold, common-sensical reform.
But the desire for reform is still there. So politicians do what they can by creating a series of small programs—policy kludges—that eventually add up to an awful mess.
Take the public financing of higher education. There are two rational, principled ways to subsidize the cost of college. One is to give people a government-funded voucher and let them spend it where they choose. The other is to directly subsidize public colleges and universities while simultaneously regulating their tuition.
That is the way things actually worked in America for quite some time—state universities and community colleges plus Pell Grants equaled affordable higher education and more college graduates. But then the system began to break down. Status-chasing colleges increased spending and prices even as states increased spending on health care and prisons at the expense of higher learning. Then profit-seeking corporations like the University of Phoenix entered the mix.
The right solution would be to clarify and strengthen the terms of higher-education federalism. States would commit to adequately finance and regulate colleges, while the federal government would provide robust support for grants.
That is not what has happened. Instead, the feds ration scarce grant dollars by making families submit elaborate statements of financial circumstance to receive awards. Colleges, increasingly unconstrained in setting tuition, do the same in order to bargain with families for the best price.
Instead of keeping tuition affordable, federal lawmakers have built an elaborate web of tax and loan subsidies for higher education—529 savings plans, income-tax deductions for loan interest and tuition, and tax credits with an evolving set of happy-sounding names (Hope, Lifetime Learning, American Opportunity). Since all that hasn't kept college affordable, and more people are borrowing to pay tuition, the government is also subsidizing the cost of college, with a smorgasbord of loan programs and no fewer than nine ways for borrowers to repay their federal loans, based on a variety of schedules and percentages of income, plus a menu of opportunities to have some loans forgiven depending on what kind of job borrowers have, when they borrowed, how much they earn, and possibly the phases of the moon.
As a result, it's nightmarishly difficult to figure out how much college actually costs. Yet everyone is convinced that it costs too much—which it does. Financial aid has been kludged to kingdom come.
The same is true for our methods of ensuring educational quality. Once the decision was made, in the late 19th century, to build American universities around the German research model, systematic quality control became impossible. There's simply no way to reconcile meaningful standards of learning with autonomous departments and professorial academic freedom as we know them today.
The model proved a poor fit with the 20th-century move to mass higher education, in which the large majority of students enrolled in programs and majors that lead to the professions, not Ph.D.'s. Meanwhile, as the federal government began subsidizing higher education, it needed some way to make sure taxpayer money wasn't being wasted or stolen.
Regrettably, it chose to shanghai the accreditation system for the task. Confidential, voluntary peer review is a perfectly legitimate way to get useful advice from your colleagues about improving your institution. It's a terrible way to conduct hard-nosed regulation of federal programs that disburse $150-billion in student aid every year.
As a result, many colleges enjoy full accreditation despite failing to graduate most of their students. Learning among those who do graduate is highly variable and, on average, mediocre. According to a recent study from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 38 percent of American college graduates failed to meet at least the third level on a five-level assessment of numeracy. Only 19 percent met the fourth level, compared with the average of 25 percent in other industrialized nations. Level 3 tasks "require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies and relevant processes."
And because colleges are rightly skeptical of academic standards at other colleges, transfer credit for increasingly mobile students is a bureaucratic nightmare, resulting in endless wasted dollars and hours in the classroom.
The right solution would be to get accreditors out of the regulation business and create authentic academic standards, supported by the academic disciplines, professional organizations, and employers. Then we could help students choose among colleges and other learning organizations that are good at teaching those things.
That is not what's happening. When Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of education from 2005 to 2009, tried to reform accreditation, she got slapped down by a Congress that is much better at stopping things than starting them. So the federal government has left the accreditation system in place while building a new regulatory apparatus around it, based on proxy measures for learning, such as employment, earnings, and loan-repayment rates.
These policies make sense, in a limited way, particularly when applied to highly dysfunctional and/or fraudulent colleges. Doing this is better than doing nothing. But it's easy to see the outlines of a new kludgeocracy emerging.
Giving students access to affordable, high-quality postsecondary education is one of the key domestic challenges of our time. The problem isn't that we don't know what to do. It's that our most basic democratic institutions are failing right in front of our eyes. Students deserve better than a future of full of kludge.