• August 30, 2015

Will Higher Education Ever Change as It Should?

Will Higher Education Ever Change as It Should? 1

Gwenda Kaczor for the Chronicle

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Gwenda Kaczor for the Chronicle

The history of American higher education is well supplied with reform movements that have gone nowhere. Despite fervent calls for change in a number of areas, most often issued by a commission with an impressive masthead, nothing much happens—or worse, the only visible result is hurt feelings and a hunkering down by the college leaders on whom change depends.

But reform, while difficult, is possible. Consider Europe's Bologna Process, a decade-long effort in which the ministers of education from dozens of countries have put in place a process of extended consultation that has resulted in greater integration and cooperation. The process has gone a long way toward creating commonality and interchangeability among Europe's competing systems of higher education—and is being celebrated as a remarkable achievement in multinational reform.

What can would-be reformers of American higher education learn from that? First, the Bologna Process was conceived of as a multiyear undertaking. Second, it linked six sets of key actors: ministers of education, university administrators, student leaders, heads of international organizations, European Union bureaucrats, and policy wonks. And third, a limited number of goals were set, with clear benchmarks.

Would a similar process work to reform higher education in this country? Could the president of the United States ask the secretary of education to organize not a national commission, but a multiyear process? Could the 50 states work together and with Congress to create and carry out strategies to promote purposeful change?

Unfortunately, many people in American higher education would be uncomfortable with the idea of a federally organized process. Leaders of private colleges in particular would argue that the market, for all its imperfections, is a better gauge of what does and doesn't work in higher education. But the problem, as the economist Richard Vedder and others have noted, is that the classic rules of supply and demand apply at best imperfectly to higher education. In a market so awash with federal money—for research support, for grants and loans to students and parents—competitive pressures aren't sufficient to change the system.

Our previous reform efforts have also taught us that:

  • Strong rhetoric changes nothing—not even a clear indictment, based on what the reformers believe is overwhelming evidence, will shame the academy into changing.
  • Demand for reform must be internal. Faculty members do not necessarily have to want to reform, but they do have to see in the proposed reform a means to a desirable end.
  • Like outside reformers, state agencies cannot prescribe change (unless they are prepared for a long, exhausting battle) but must create the conditions that make change possible. Money can't in itself secure the changes reformers want, but unwillingness to invest new money almost guarantees that change won't be forthcoming—especially given higher education's practice of hunkering down when appropriations are cut.
  • It is best to focus on truly systemic change. The nature of the academy sucks the air out of piecemeal reforms. People lose interest, and old ways win out. Individual institutions can—and do—change, but their successes tend to pale with time because of the inertia in the system.

For true reform, we need a process that will change most, if not all, institutions simultaneously. What is required is a kind of dislodging event. Such an event might promote reform because the various parts of our higher-education system, despite their distinct missions and organizational arrangements, are linked to one another. What happens in one place is almost always translated into something happening in another.

Over the past three years, I have asked friends, colleagues, students, even potential adversaries, "Can you imagine a dislodging event of sufficient magnitude that it breaks the gridlock that now holds hostage any attempt to reform higher education?" My questions have produced three pretty good answers. Although none may prove feasible or desirable, they suggest that a dislodging event could in fact drive real reform.

Dislodging Event #1: Congress could metaphorically "nuke" today's federal student-aid program, and turn the experts loose to craft a system that supports participation, invests in motivation, and rewards institutions that use aid money effectively. Such a system would link what happens in schools more directly to what happens in colleges, involve better incentives for family savings, and get students—perhaps as early as sixth grade—actively engaged in planning and saving for college.

Jonathan Grayer, a former chairman and CEO of Kaplan Inc., has proposed, in fact, giving every sixth-grader in the nation a $10,000 stake in a 529 plan—a federally guaranteed college-savings account whose value would grow as that of the federally monitored stock accounts increased over time. The impact would cascade across higher education. Colleges would have both the opportunity and the rationale to work early with school students in their neighborhoods. As a result, they might be committed to grooming and not just recruiting their students. Faculty members might also be more focused on understanding how their would-be students learn as well as determining what they know.

Federally funded 529 plans could even help spark a broad-based consumer movement in which students and their families learn early on to ask tough questions about the nature and quality of the higher education they are purchasing. The administrative side of colleges would have to rethink how prices are set, what services are provided, and what kinds of information would have to be routinely made available.

Dislodging Event #2: Institutions with big endowments have become like hedge funds: They use their accumulated capital to make money through the shrewd buying and selling of capital assets. It is not hard to imagine Congress passing legislation requiring college endowments to pay the same taxes on their earnings from their investments that other, similarly constituted hedge funds are required to pay.

A simple rule could differentiate the strictly commercial from the educational: All dividends, interest, rents, and realized capital gains would be taxed at current rates, but the money owed the IRS would be reduced by the amount of cash an institution withdrew from its endowment to support educational and research programs. In years when the money spent exceeded the growth in the value of the endowment, a credit would be awarded to offset future taxes.

Such a proposal would have little immediate effect on institutions with small endowments. But the megabillion-dollar endowments that often earn annual returns in excess of 15 percent would have to significantly increase their expenditures on education and research or pay substantial federal taxes.

Ultimately this dislodging event would have mixed consequences. Institutions with large endowments that appreciably raised their spending would flourish, and their students would benefit. The rest of higher education, however, could find itself increasingly disadvantaged. One result could be a drastic consolidation of the industry.

Or, if many institutions chose to pay taxes instead of spending more, an unintended consequence might be a renewed scrutiny of academe as a source of tax revenue for cash-strapped states and localities. The resulting fracas would draw state legislatures, and perhaps the public, into an examination of just when a college is an eleemosynary institution or is not.

Dislodging Event #3: What would happen if a Bologna-like process concluded that the standard undergraduate degree in the United States, as in Europe, should be a three-year baccalaureate? With more Americans pursuing advanced degrees, it makes sense to look for ways to shorten the undergraduate portion of their postsecondary education. For many college-ready students, the senior year in high school is something of a waste. More of that year's curriculum could be devoted to acquiring advanced college-ready skills in a foreign language, composition, and mathematics. What's more, an undergraduate education would then cost 25 percent less.

In many ways, the second-order effects of a shift to a three-year baccalaureate curriculum make the proposal attractive and establish its bona fides as a truly dislodging event. Suddenly all the questions about teaching and learning would be on the table as faculty members everywhere would have to wrestle with questions of how to teach what. To judge whether their shorter degree programs were achieving the same learning outcomes as their four-year programs had promised, they would find themselves in need of the performance measures they had hitherto eschewed. Technology might become a handmaiden of change rather than an educational add-on, while the balance between general and specialized education would have to be restruck.

Those are just a few examples of dislodging events. I am not offering a list of solutions but rather am recommending a fundamental change in how people inside and outside of higher education generally conceive of the reform process. To overcome the gridlock that, for most of the last half-century, has held reform captive, we must create conditions that foster change—even change for change's sake—such that those of us in higher education will own the results

Robert Zemsky is chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, based at the University of Pennsylvania. This essay is adapted from Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, to be published next month by Rutgers University Press.


1. 11167997 - August 03, 2009 at 07:42 am

It's not a "dislodging event," but the closest we are coming to significant change is through the currently expanding study and knowledge of what the Bologna Process hath wrought across 46 national higher education systems and at least 23 major languages. And it's not the Bologna repackaging of the old long degrees into 3-year bachelor's and 2-year master's (actually, it's neither that simple nor uniform) that is drawing interest, rather the process of setting clear public standards for the award of degrees in terms of student learning outcomes (and not 120 credits and a 2.75 GPA---which is a meaningless criterion) and the development of templates of reference points for student learning in the disciplines known as "Tuning." We have a Lumina Foundation supporting "Tuning USA" project in three state systems (Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah) with a total of six disciplines that will conclude by the end of the year whether the process should be expanded. And Lumina just held the first of what will likely become an expanding set of conversations on the feasibility and potential form of a national degree qualifications framework in the U.S. We're doing all this not because the Euros did it, but because we are learning something from them that is long overdue in our own system. And no one involved is so naive to think that this won't take at least a decade of hard work. Participation will grow, and as Keats said of poetry, it had better happen naturally (without "dislodging events") or not at all.---Cliff Adelman, Institute for Higher Education Policy

2. 22284881 - August 03, 2009 at 08:05 am

This presents a rather monolithic view of higher education. Are we talking about a common problem across the landscape of U.S. postsecondary education or those at: Harvard and Penn? Miami Dade and Johnson County? University of Wisconsin-Stillwater and Geneseo? Strayer and Kaplan? And which problems are we talking about: Access and affordability? research innovation? student learning? performance gaps by racial/ethnic group? graduation rates? There are many problems in higher education as in K-12 education, as in the banking industry, and so on. Reform is constant and yet some "institutions" maintain status quo and dominate the thinking of what constitutes higher education well beyond usefulness for public debate and policy formulation. There are many great examples of innovation and reform, especially at institutions that are not the usual centers of attention. Maybe progress is more about where and to whom we look for examples than about macro-level proclamations about the need for reform without even suggesting what it is we need to reform (about which there may not be a strong consensus).

3. 11191774 - August 03, 2009 at 08:23 am

It seems that one of the key factors driving confusion and mistrust of higher education is on the front end: Admissions and financial aid. If every student were required to apply through a central clearing house, we'd be able to track with some clarity the validity of the statistics college publish. After all, as silly as it seems, the profile of the freshman class drives a considerable part of reputation at most institutions, even major research universities for whom undergraduate enrollment is a sideline. More to the point, students would have a better opportunity to gauge their admissibility well in advance of their applications, and to see the extent to which legagy status, ethnicity, athletic recruitment, and the interest of the advancement office come into play. And in the end, everyone would have a chance to understand the role merit aid plays (or doesn't) in buying a class for the pursuit of profile. This would likely decrease applications at the most selective institutions, and increase them at less selective places, and may have some real effect on putting the academic product at the forefront of the discussion.

4. jhough1 - August 03, 2009 at 09:19 am

This seems very idealistic to me. It assumes a continuing flow of money. The likely change will come from continuing economic difficulties. If the state keeps cutting back money, the faculty will be forced to 4-course loads with large classes in all but a handful of research insttitutions, and they will do much of the teaching for other institutions on line. We may not like it, but education, like health, takes way too much of society's money at the cost of real suffering for the middle and lower middle class. As we go to European rates of taxation and income distribution, there will be consequences.

5. 11239961 - August 03, 2009 at 09:56 am

Ah yes, the apostles of legibility are certainly on the march. If it is not Hayek's "quantity adjusters" on the neo-con right (e.g., the Spellings report of 2006) it will be the new leftists (the new Stalinists) who will intervene further in the market through "dislodging events" in order to centralize and deliver to us a resolution to the elusive individual-collective problem of social choice: obligation beyond consent. Absent a dislodging event, "nudge" is the operative word in the new lexicon. Yes, of course, let's bring all levels of American education into a complete and tight alignment; let's standardize the whole damn thing. If a little standardization is a good thing, let's not pussy foot around and just let the clever commissars bring us more "progress." Brilliant. Let our betters, our social engineers squeeze out all of the cost generating differentiation, variation, and diversity located in what's left of a relatively free higher education market. Let's do to higher education, and its professoriate, what we did to K-12 education: kill it by transforming the professional teacher (the largest cost factor in production) into an interchangeable unit of production. Kill off the faculty (only .25 are tenured/tenure line) and you'll have any change you desire. We might wonder aloud why there are seemingly so many academics today who are either apathetic about or entirely willing to trade off relative freedom in one of the few truly competitive markets now left in American society? Professional isomophism? Perhaps. Collectivism? Maybe. A lot of fear does exist. Follow the incentives for doing so and we may have our answer. Steven Loomis Wheaton College

6. vkwchron - August 03, 2009 at 01:06 pm

I don't know if the headline "Will Higher Education Ever Change as It Should?" is the work of the editor or the author. Nevertheless, instead of focusing on processes that might trigger higher education to change as it should, shouldn't the primary question be simply "How Should Higher Education Change?" Maybe I slept through the debate of how higher ed should change, but I don't recall even what the spectrum of probable answers might be. Why consider possible processes to get us there when we haven't clearly articulated where we should go? If we don't know what changes we should make, any dislodging process will do.

7. _perplexed_ - August 03, 2009 at 01:36 pm

Dislodging Event #4: States cease to fund higher education...(as per the new California way). This will certainly create change. Desirable change? The taxpayers will think so.

8. slothers - August 03, 2009 at 02:42 pm


9. intered - August 03, 2009 at 02:52 pm


10. intered - August 03, 2009 at 02:52 pm

While I congratulate him and admire his persistence, I considered most of Robert Zemsky's suggested tactics to reform higher education, and more, deciding finally that my death would precede material change under any of them. I settled on a simpler, more organic strategy: create effective competition that will incrementally take market share from the slothful, self-serving institutions of which Zemsky speaks. Is it working? It is. Progress is slower than I would have hoped but roughly five percent of the higher education providers have progressed to the point that they can be said to be precision managed, consumer-focused, and a contributor to rather than a drain on state and federal budgets. Several boards with which I have close relationships have actually determined that it would be a breach of fiduciary responsibility to create an endowment or leave funds in an existing one when the same investment in marketing, sales, and program development attuned to the market will deliver 10 times the ROI, with additional downstream leverage. The colleges and universities that make up this five percent are growing three to five times faster than the remaining 95%. They are taking business from the slothful. Much work remains but I am seeing more results from this approach than I could ever hope to see waiting for, or trying to engineer, a dislodging cataclysm. Robert W Tucker, President, InterEd, Inc.

11. gavinmoodie - August 03, 2009 at 07:37 pm

Zemsky hasn't got the analogy with the Bologna process quite right. As the Bologna declaration mentions in its preamble, the foundations for it were set the previous year by the Sorbonne joint declaration on the 'harmonisation of the architecture of the European higher education system' by the ministers responsible for higher education in France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. This would be like the Governors of California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas agreeing on a program of reform which was subsequently joined by most but not all the governors of the other US states, by most Canadian provinces and Mexican states and by several states of central and southern America.

12. jspscout - August 03, 2009 at 07:38 pm

Another dislodging event: scrap regional accreditation. I'm not saying scrap accreditation, but get rid of its dated regional aspect. Instead of giving the oldest and most established accreditors an effective monopoly over a region, instead require all accreditation through the U.S. Department of Education to be national in scope, thereby requiring the oldest accreditors to compete on the actual value that they add to their member institutions. If there is something particularly important about "local knowledge" in the accreditation process then allow an exception for state higher education agencies to accredit for Title IV purposes (subject to all the federal requirements). Currently we have an oligopoly controlling access to a subsidy. Time to bust this trust.

13. dlmurphey - August 03, 2009 at 09:13 pm

Accreditation is Politics--where does accreditation have any value in achieving a level of integrity and honor amongst institutions? Tenure is laudable when inducting professors of merit. Trouble is, the merit has come to be gauged on appearances and external qualifications instead of internal realization [scholarship] and morality. Tenure has therefore become a liability of hangers-on who soak the assets of an institution and deliver substandard instruction as they ply the "gravy train" and dismiss the qualified and substantial outsiders who can actually deliver inspired instruction as "troublemakers" and "reformers". Tenure has become the brahminical tether that is choking the aspirations for excellence and any possibility for reform in US education. Change and Reform must come from a true reformer--from the top echelons--a John Kennedy or Martin Luther King willing to sacrifice all for that precipice--not haggling speculators trying to gain another honor for their worthless honey-coated theories and countlessly re-assessing their self proclaimed status quo. Indeed, God Help Us.

14. saranuryildiz - August 04, 2009 at 09:41 am

Readers be aware: Robert Zemsky, the author of this article vaguely calling for (he doesn't actually take a clear stand) educational reform in the USA along the lines of the Bologna Process, has a lot at stake (including his own bank account, one can imagine) in the commercialization/marketing of education. This can be seen in his promotion of e-learning/online education with his directorship of the University of Pennsylvania/Thomson Corporation Weatherstone Project, a project concerned with mapping the market for e-learning. In fact, Zemsky is indirectly arguing for a for-profit educational system, with educational institutions (actually, companies) taxed like any other profit-making enterprise. ["Or, if many institutions chose to pay taxes instead of spending more, an unintended consequence might be a renewed scrutiny of academe as a source of tax revenue for cash-strapped states and localities. The resulting fracas would draw state legislatures, and perhaps the public, into an examination of just when a college is an eleemosynary institution or is not"] Dr. Zemsky, why don't you clearly state your position, instead of hiding behind a pseudo-argument for reform?

15. raymonparker - August 05, 2009 at 11:25 am

A few points: *A significant strength of American higher education is the wide variety of institutions and programs. *Items needing to change vary with each institution. *The process for change varies with each institution. *The current accreditation processes are the most appropriate and powerful tool for creating change. *American higher education is pretty darn good.

16. mikal405 - August 09, 2009 at 09:07 pm

i am not as long winded as some. revolution is coming. I wish it could be peaceful, I fear it wont be. every one of your ideas to "nuke" the system is well thought out. I support each of them.

17. danryan - August 16, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Bravo/a jspscout. Regional accreditation monopolies represent a much bigger "accountability" problem than any story about universities and colleges could ever be spun into. They are accountable to nobody, staffed by legacy and politics rather than merit, make no effort to assess their own effectiveness, provide junkets for their personnel and few useful services to their clients.

We wouldn't even have to abolish them to create a dislodging event -- just allow them to compete. It's market 101 that the value of certification cannot rest in monopolization by geography.

18. diehl - September 19, 2009 at 05:42 pm

Thanks raymonparker. I agree:
A few points: *A significant strength of American higher education is the wide variety of institutions and programs. *Items needing to change vary with each institution. *The process for change varies with each institution. *The current accreditation processes are the most appropriate and powerful tool for creating change. *American higher education is pretty darn good.

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