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The Self-Absorbed Higher-Education System

American academics often like to talk about how the higher-education system in the United States is the best in the world. I’m not quite sure how this status is determined—especially given our declining position in the OECD rankings—but we seem to have adopted the belief that the problems in the U.S. education system reside in elementary and secondary schools, not on college campuses.

Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times in which we live. Modesty, it seems, is out of style. In a thought-provoking talk at the Washington Ideas Forum this week, the New York Times columnist David Brooks maintained that we live in an era of “expanded conception of self.” That attitude, he believes, results in the trends we have witnessed in recent years toward increased consumption, polarization, and risk.

“We have moved from a culture of self-effacement to one of self-expansion,” Brooks said.

In some ways, the Brooks lecture was a fitting endnote to a conversation earlier in the day at the forum where I gathered with a dozen education, business, and think-tank leaders for a spirited discussion of the state of the American higher-ed system.

After two hours of talking, there was no more agreement on how to improve the system than when we had walked into the room. Indeed, the diversity of constituencies represented in the room couldn’t even settle on what the system should be doing. (That was despite the best efforts of the moderator, Clive Crook, who as a Brit admitted at the outset how confusing and complex the U.S. higher-ed system is.)

Higher ed is feeling good about itself these days because it remains in demand. Why offer classes at more convenient times when you’re getting a record number of applicants? Why hold the line on rising costs when students are willing to take on more debt? Why collect better job-placement data to provide to prospective students when they’re still flocking to mediocre graduate programs?

As Brian Kelly, the editor of the much-maligned rankings at U.S. News & World Report, put it, “colleges seem immune to the pressures facing every other sector of the economy.”

If the current economic crisis is teaching us anything, it’s that we have a serious mismatch between the “traditional” student of today and what much of higher ed is offering. Too many colleges are chasing after a shrinking pool of 18-year-olds. The smart and even somewhat smart ones are enticed by generous financial-aid packages, and the rest are getting in despite not being ready for college. As a result, too many of the latter ones become the dropouts of tomorrow.

The group not being served, at least by the vast majority of colleges (except for two-year institutions and for-profits), are older students, many of them college dropouts or just high-school graduates. “Too many adults out there are ill equipped for the 21st-century economy,” said Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit research group based in Boulder, Colo.

By one estimate, a lack of skilled labor is keeping three million jobs unfilled. Indeed, the work-force needs that most worry high-tech companies are not the high-end jobs in engineering, design, and technology, but the manufacturing jobs that today require a specialized education. “We can secure all the grads we need from elite schools,” said Thomas Bowler, a senior vice president at United Technologies. “That’s not a challenge. It’s the other half of the work force that I worry about.” He sees a wave of retirements coming in manufacturing without a pipeline of highly skilled workers to replace them.

Of course, in the absence of any big ideas or leadership from within the higher-ed establishment to reform entire institutions and transform how colleges do business, policy makers try to dictate solutions, which then puts colleges on the defensive. “There’s a move to standardize outcomes, and that isn’t the way most of our colleges see their mission,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

Indeed, the debate over the purpose of college—career vs. intellectual development—is often a false one, forcing us to pick between them when in reality the answer depends on the student. And employers like United Technologies need both types of graduates—the designer from a liberal-arts college and the line worker with a certificate from a two-year institution.

In so many of the articles about the death of Steve Jobs this week, a famous quote from him was often repeated: “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Jobs revolutionized so many industries through his leadership of Apple because he tried to understand how technology could solve problems and then created the products to do what was needed. He was always at least one step ahead of the consumer.

The problem facing much of higher ed is that it’s unsure of the problems it’s trying to solve and unclear about who its customer is. Much of our conversation at the Ideas Forum round table this week focused on data. The belief by some was that if we just offered better information to students, they would make better choices and colleges would be forced to change because the market would shift. It is, of course, a big assumption that students will act on better information.

As Joanne Conroy, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, sat in the room listening to the debate, she was reminded of similar conversations medical colleges had a decade ago as they grappled with changes in their curriculum. “We came to the realization that the real customer of medical colleges is the patient, not the learner,” she said.

Maybe the customer of colleges is not the student, but the job market of today and the economy of the future. Maybe if higher ed was to think for a moment that it wasn’t the best in the world, it would focus less on how it’s doing and more on how well it’s serving American society.

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