It is my view that most of us engaged in education at our nation’s leading research universities focus our attention upon the wrong issues. These universities are wondrously complex institutions that defy easy analysis or understanding. We therefore tend to concentrate upon their most visible components, such as scientific research, star professors, state-of-the-art facilities and technology, economic development, international impact, and football and basketball teams.
It has become a cliché that American universities are the best in the world. This claim, while valid in important dimensions, can lead to complacency and neglect of serious problems.
Much of our international reputation is based upon two outstanding features of American universities: unrelenting commitment to an atmosphere of free and open inquiry, and excellence in scientific research. These twin advantages attract the best talent from around the world to American universities, not only to our graduate programs but increasingly to our undergraduate colleges as well.
In other aspects of our enterprise, however, we find ourselves hard-pressed. Our funding model, first of all, is under severe duress. States have repeatedly reduced their support of public universities, most severely in the past five years, a disinvestment that now threatens to erode their quality and competitiveness.
Some public universities have understandably attempted to make up the deficit in state support by raising undergraduate tuition aggressively and increasing the proportion of out-of-state students. But this strategy undermines the public mission of providing access, creates anger in the state, meets resistance in the legislature, and has now attracted the attention of the White House. As states have shifted the burden of paying for college from their general funds to students and their families, the perception has grown that higher education, once seen as a public good, has become a private interest. And these coping mechanisms, if continued, will lead to general deterioration in the quality of undergraduate education, the very part of our universities that depends most upon state support.
At private universities, tuition and fees plus room and board have, in some cases, reached $55,000 per year. Although most students do not pay that full cost, and though generous financial aid policies and endowment spending have actually brought down the real costs for the average student over the past five years, a degree carrying a price tag of well over $200,000 creates automatic sticker shock in the public. It also raises real questions about whether we have been paying enough attention to holding down expenses.
The airwaves are rife with predictions of disruptive change coming to the economic model of higher education. It is no wonder that parents paying and borrowing for a college education steer their children toward practical majors that seem to promise instant employment, and discourage them from studying the liberal arts and sciences in pursuit of a well-balanced education. A private interest in education today means a purely economic one.
From this inversion of values flows our second problem: a redefinition of the purpose of undergraduate education. Fifty years ago, when I started college, there was a widely shared view in America that the purpose of a college education was to prepare students to become educated citizens capable of contributing to society. College was in the public interest because it gave graduates an understanding of the world and developed their critical faculties.
Today, many Americans believe that the sole purpose of going to college is to get a job -- any job. The governors of Texas and Florida are quite clear on this point, and draw the corollaries that college should be cheap and vocational, even when delivered at major research universities like the Universities of Texas and Florida. A university education is more than ever seen as strictly utilitarian. The reasons are clear: a) as more students and families pay a large share of the costs, they naturally want a ready return on their investment; b) the most desirable jobs in this highly competitive job market require a college degree; and c) the gap in lifetime earnings between college and high school degree holders is huge.
Today, as many Americans hold a purely instrumentalist view of undergraduate education, they want a detailed accounting of its value. Hence our third problem: close public scrutiny and political accountability. Parents want to know, what did my daughter learn, and how does it contribute to her career? State legislatures want to know: what is the graduation rate at our university? How many undergraduate students do faculty members teach? And much more.
These questions put us in an uncomfortable position, because in some cases we do not know the answers, and in others we know them but do not like them. Many of us have eschewed the use of instruments assessing the value of general education, particularly at our major universities. We have, often for good reason, lacked confidence that such instruments are reliable measures of the value of a research university education, particularly if they are based on a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, given the level of scrutiny and skepticism in the public and in state houses, research universities need to take this issue seriously.
The professionalization of the professoriate has been crucially beneficial for research and graduate training at many institutions, but at most large universities, it has been problematic for undergraduate education. Several recent studies, some flawed but still indicative, have revealed that a significant percentage of students do not improve their critical thinking and writing much at all in the first two years of college. This should come as no surprise, given the dearth of small classes requiring active participation and intellectual interaction.
Too many students are adrift in a sea of courses having little to do with one another. Many courses, even at the upper division level, have no prerequisites, and many require no debate or public speaking or the writing of papers that receive close attention and correction. A student’s curriculum is a mélange of courses drawn almost haphazardly from dozens of discrete academic departments. And there is substantial evidence that students are fleeing demanding majors in favor of easier ones that have the added lure of appearing to promise immediate access to jobs.
The combination of drastic state disinvestment in public universities, student careerism, and pedagogical failings of our own has serious consequences for the country. To take one significant example, we now know that more than 50 percent of the students starting college with a stated desire to major in science or engineering drop out of those majors before graduating.
We can no longer blame this problem entirely on the nation’s high schools. A substantial body of research demonstrates conclusively that the problem is frequently caused by poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years. Students are consigned to large lecture courses that offer almost no engagement, no monitoring, and little support and personal attention. The combination of poor high school preparation and uninspiring freshman and sophomore pedagogy has produced a stunning dearth of science and engineering majors in the U.S. Our country now falls well behind countries like China and India in turning out graduates with strong quantitative skills.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. in 2009 ranked 27th among developed nations (ahead of only Brazil) in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering. As a result, American students are a dwindling proportion of our graduate enrollments in science and engineering. An administration report not only states that foreign students are earning more than half of U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering, physics, computer sciences, and economics but also estimates that the United States, under current assumptions, will in the next decade under produce college graduates in STEM fields by one million.
I fear the practical as well as intellectual consequences of these trends. However, I am not a pessimist; I am a realist. In this, the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act, I think we can do something to reverse these trends, if we muster our collective will to do so. The anticipated report of the National Research Council on the state of our research universities will, I hope, focus national attention on the problems and opportunities confronting these vital institutions.
But over time, the renewed public investment in higher education that our country needs is unlikely if we do not acknowledge our own shortcomings and begin to address them. First, we need to say loudly and clearly that improving undergraduate education will receive our closest attention and best efforts. We need to alter faculty incentives by making undergraduate teaching at least equal to research and graduate teaching in prestige, evaluation, and reward. And we need to do research-based teaching that takes account and advantage of the latest findings of cognitive science, which are extensive, on how students learn. In brief, they learn by doing, not by just listening to someone else; they learn by solving problems, not by passively absorbing concepts; they learn best in groups of peers working things out together.
Fortunately, some of our best universities are leading the way. Initiatives at such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Stony Brook University, the University of Michigan,Stanford, Yale, and others offer great encouragement. The remarkable thing about them is the acknowledgment by faculty that we need to focus much more attention on undergraduate education, and that we need to deliver it more effectively than we have been doing. I find these examples exhilarating and promising.
At the Association of American Universities, we hope to disseminate the findings of such research across our universities, both public and private, and thus to stimulate more students to persist in their study of math and science and engineering. We have embarked on a five-year project led by top scientists and experts in science pedagogy designed to help science departments implement these new teaching methods. One of my hopes for the future of research universities is that student learning will be at the center of faculty concern, research will inform teaching, undergraduate classrooms will be places of engaged, participatory learning, and a university education will be not just a means to an entry-level job, but an invitation to a lifetime of learning.
I am well aware of the difficulty of changing those cultures. It will take a broad and deep effort to realize serious and sustainable gains. The stakes are high, not just for our universities but for the country. In the global knowledge economy, an educated public is essential not just to economic competitiveness but to national well-being.
Hunter Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on February 28, 2012, at the De Lange Conference at Rice University.
A former adviser to the University of Texas Board of Regents who is aligned with controversial reforms that have been touted by conservative groups and Governor Rick Perry issued a report Tuesday identifying what he called a “faculty productivity gap” at the two chief research institutions in the state.
Unfortunately, some of us are old enough to have passed through various incarnations of the accountability movement in higher education. Periodically university people or their critics rediscover the notion of accountability, as if the notion of being accountable to students, parents, legislators, donors, federal agencies, and other institutional constituencies were something new and unrecognized by our colleagues. We appear to have entered another cycle, signaled by the publication last month of a call to action by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, with support from the Ford Foundation, called "Accountability for Better Results."
The SHEEO report has the virtue of recognizing many of the reasons why state-level accountability systems fail, and focuses its attention primarily on the issue of access and graduation rates. While this is a currently popular and important topic, the SHEEO report illustrates why the notion of "accountability" by itself has little meaning. Universities and colleges have many constituencies, consumers, funding groups, interested parties, and friends. Every group expects the university to do things in ways that satisfy their goals and objectives, and seek "accountability" from the institution to ensure that their priorities drive the university’s performance. While each of these widely differentiated accountability goals may be appropriate for each group, the sum of these goals do not approach anything like "institutional accountability."
Accountability has special meaning in public universities where it usually signifies a response to the concerns of state legislators and other public constituencies that a campus is actually producing what the state wants with the money the state provides. This is the most common form of accountability, and often leads to accountability systems or projects that attempt to put all institutions of higher education into a common framework to ensure the wise expenditure of state money on the delivery of higher education products to the people.
In this form, accountability is usually a great time sink with no particular value, although it has the virtue of keeping everyone occupied generating volumes of data of dubious value in complex ways that will exhaust the participants before having any useful impact. The SHEEO report is particularly clear on this point.
This form of accountability has almost no practical utility because state agencies cannot accurately distinguish one institution of higher education from the other for the purposes of providing differential funding. If the state accountability system does not provide differential funding for differential performance, then the exercise is more in the nature of an intense conversation about what good things the higher education system should be doing rather than a process for creating a system that could actually hold institutions accountable for their performance.
Public agencies rarely hold institutions accountable because to do so requires that they punish the poor performers or at least reward the good performers. No institution wants a designation as a poor performer. An institution with problematic performance characteristics as measured by some system will mobilize every political agent at its disposal (local legislators, powerful alumni and friends, student advocates, parents) to modify the accountability criteria to include sufficient indicators on which they can perform well.
In response to this political pressure, and to accommodate the many different kinds, types and characteristics of institutions, the accountability system usually ends up with 20, 30 or more accountability measures. No institution will do well on all of them, and every institution will do well on many of them, so in the end, all institutions will qualify as reasonably effective to very effective, and all will remain funded more or less as before.
The lifecycle of this process is quite long and provides considerable opportunity for impassioned rhetoric about how well individual institutions serve their students and communities, how effective the research programs are in enhancing economic development, how valuable the public service activities enhance the state, and so on. At the end, when most participants have exhausted their energy and rhetoric, and when the accountability system has achieved stasis, everyone will declare a victory and the accountability impulse will go dormant for several years until rediscovered again.
Often, state accountability systems offer systematic data reporting schemes with goals and targets defined in terms of improvement, but without incentives or sanctions. These systems assume that the value of measuring alone will motivate institutions to improve to avoid being marked as ineffective. This kind of system has value in identifying the goals and objectives of the state for its institutions, but often relegates the notion of accountability to the reporting of data rather than the allocation of money, where it could make a significant difference.
If an institution, state, or other entity wants to insist on improved performance from universities, they must specify the performance they seek and then adjust state appropriations to reward those who meet or exceed the established standard. Reductions in state budgets for institutions that fail to perform are rare for obvious political reasons, but the least effective system is one that allocates funds to poorly performing institutions with the expectation that the reward for poor performance will motivate improvement. One key to effective performance improvement, reinforced in the SHEEO report, is strictly limiting the number of key indicators for measuring improvement. If the number of indicators exceeds 10, the exercise is likely to find all institutions performing well on some indicator and therefore all deserving of continued support.
Often the skepticism that surrounds state accountability systems stems from a mismatch between the goals of the state (with an investment of perhaps 30 percent or less of the institutional budget) and those of the institutions. Campuses may seek nationally competitive performance in research, teaching, outreach, and other activities. States may seek improvement in access and student graduation rates as the primary determinants of accountability. Institutions may see the state’s efforts as detracting from the institution’s drive toward national reputation and success. Such mismatches in goals and objectives often weaken the effectiveness of state accountability programs.
Universities are very complex and serve many constituencies with many different expectations about the institutions’ activities. Improvement comes from focusing carefully on particular aspects of an institution’s performance, identifying reliable and preferably nationally referenced indicators, and then investing in success. While the selection of improvement goals and the development of good measures are essential, the most important element in all improvement programs is the ability to move money to reward success.
If an accountability system only measures improvement and celebrates success, it will produce a warm glow of short duration. Performance improvement is hard work and takes time, while campus budgets change every year. Effective measurement is often time consuming and sometimes difficult, and campus units will not participate effectively unless there is a reward. The reward that all higher education institutions and their constituent units understand is money. This is not necessarily money reflected in salary increases, although that is surely effective in some contexts.
Primarily what motivates university improvement, however, is the opportunity to enhance the capacity of a campus. If a campus teaches more students, and as a result earns the opportunity to recruit additional faculty members, this financial reward is of major significance and will motivate continued improvement. At the same time, the campus that seeks improvement cannot reward failure. If enrollment declines, the campus should not receive compensatory funding in hopes of future improvement. Instead, a poorly performing campus should work harder to get better so it too can earn additional support.
In public institutions, the small proportion of state funding within the total budget limits the ability of state systems to influence campus behavior by reallocating funding. In particular, in many states, most of the public money pays for salaries, and reallocating funds proves difficult. Nonetheless, most public systems and legislatures can identify some funds to allocate as a reward for improved performance. Even relatively small budget increases represent a significant reward for campus achievements.
Accountability, as the SHEEO report highlights, is a word with no meaning until we define the measures and the purpose. If we mean accountability to satisfy public expectations for multiple institutions on many variables, we can expect that the exercise will be time consuming and of little practical impact. If we mean accountability to improve the institution’s performance in specific ways, then we know we need to develop a few key measures and move at least some money to reward improvement.
John V. Lombardi
John V. Lombardi, chancellor and professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes Reality Check every two weeks. Scott McLemee's column, Intellectual Affairs, will return Thursday.
Our younger child just finished the college admissions sweepstakes. He got into one of his top choice schools, but he says he feels more unburdened than proud. Now he can get on with his life, enjoying the things he loves to do. He no longer has to worry about marketing his “admissions package,” as if he were the latest toothpaste or laundry detergent.
Our family last went through the admissions experience eight years ago when our older child applied to college. Although he ended up at one of the “hot” Ivy League universities, we sadly concluded that the selective college admissions process had no redeeming social value. You just lived through it, hoped your child survived unscathed, and prepared to hand over your bank account.
Unfortunately, it has gotten worse since then. More than ever, higher education seems like a commodity, as selective colleges market themselves shamelessly, increase applicant demand, and manage enrollments as if they were commercial enterprises. And, in response, an industry of expensive services and consultants to teach applicants how to game the admissions system is booming. Uncalculated is the toll on students, integrity and fundamental fairness.
This time around, college planning started just before ninth grade, when the college counselor at our son’s school met with parents and students to advise on the importance of course selection over the next four years. The message was to take diverse and challenging courses if you hope to get into a selective college -- loosely defined as the top 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. News & World Report annual survey. No big deal: Anyone who is interested in a rigorous liberal arts education for their child would probably take this advice anyway.
Then came 10th grade’s pre-pre-college admissions testing regimen: the PSAT, given by the College Board, and the PLAN, from ACT Inc. This was to get students ready to take the same tests again in 11th grade, to get them ready to take the tests that count big time in college admissions, the SAT and ACT. Although originally devised as alternatives, counselors now tell students to take both the SAT and the ACT and submit the score of the one they do best on. These tests are in addition to at least three SAT II “achievement” tests and, of course, a battery of Advanced Placement exams for those rigorous courses they are counseled to take. Pile on top of these the now de rigueur SAT and ACT review courses -- at, not incidentally, anywhere from $700 to $3,000 a pop.
Our son, a motivated student with top grades and a challenging academic program, is a very good, but not spectacular, standardized test-taker. Friends with children at other schools told us that kids had to have 1500 SAT’s to be in the admissions hunt at top-echelon colleges. Looking at the median test scores published by colleges and information services all over the Internet, this notion did not seem completely off-base. But even if it meant going to a lesser member of the “nifty 50” group of colleges, our son eschewed review courses on the grounds that he already had a heavy schedule and would rather read some good books than spend hours taking boring SAT or ACT prep classes. Obviously, we had done something right in his education, but we were definitely out of the mainstream.
He opted not to take the SAT at all, and ended up scoring in the 99th percentile on the ACT after doing some test prep at home on his own. This he was proud of, because, as he said, he isn’t a wiz at standardized tests, and he didn’t take an expensive prep course. I suppose it was a kind of reverse snobbery (“anyone can do well if they take a prep course, but I did it on my own”) and a real sign of the times in the selective college admissions world.
Fate was cruel to him in other ways. The night before the first AP exam in his junior year, he developed golf-ball-sized lymph nodes all over his neck and groin that looked suspiciously like lymphoma. It took four days to determine that he had mono, not cancer. This scare did put the whole college admissions lunacy in perspective for us.
On the other hand, our son endured AP and SAT II exams while suffering from mono. Now he had a new dilemma. Does he tell colleges he took the exams while sick? Does he take tests over in the fall? No matter how well he did, would he have done better if he had not had mono? In the end, he decided to accept fate. He did reasonably well on the tests, there were limits to how much of his life he was prepared to devote to getting into the “perfect” college, and he did not like making excuses, even good ones.
Our son’s college application experience was tame compared to children of a lot of upwardly mobile, well-educated, Baby Boom parents. For starters, the popularity of private “college consultants,” notwithstanding their ludicrous fees, took us by surprise. One family we know had a consultant on retainer from the time the child was in seventh grade. This was in addition to the cost of SAT prep courses and the professional editor for the college essay. The total bill for these services was more than $30,000.
An acquaintance we bumped into at a wedding last summer informed us she had just opened a private college consulting business, having recently retired from her position as a highly successful college counselor at an elite prep school. She offers a four-year package for about $15,000, or the college-application-only option for the all-important senior year for about $5,000. Her phone was ringing off the hook. Could this possibly be worth the extraordinary expense?
More important, what message does it send to children about their worth and competence when we act as if the only way they can make it into a selective college is to hire high-priced help to package and market them? Is the admissions prize worth this psychological price? As bad, are we raising a generation of young cynics?
Looking for Help
A quick Internet search revealed no shortage of expensive, fear-mongering consultants to guide students and their families through what they imply is the mine field of selective college admissions. After reading these sites, we wondered if a mere mortal could possibly fill out an application for an elite college, never mind actually get in. I went to Amazon.com and did a search for books on college admissions. The first book that turned up was A is for Admission; the Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Warner Books, 1999), the controversial, tell-all exposé of selective college admissions by Michelle A. Hernandez. Hernandez is a former Ivy League admissions officer who now has -- you guessed it -- a college consulting business. I ordered the book and read it cover to cover.
She confirmed what our older son had learned from an admissions office friend at his Ivy League university: You are lucky if an admissions reader devotes 15 minutes to the application your child labored over for months. It might even be more like 10 minutes. Hernandez also explained how, by calculating a so-called “academic index,” the selective college admissions office will reduce your child’s entire high school career to one number, weighted heavily in favor of standardized tests. The book had the ring of truth, not the least because it confirmed my by-now-cynical view of the selective college admissions process.
Hernandez also instructed how to play the admissions game, with specific coaching like: play down economic advantages; play up work experience, especially hard manual labor; show long-term passion about a few things; choose teachers for recommendations who you know can write with style; and most importantly (was this tongue-in-cheek?) be yourself. Her follow-on volume, Acing the College Application: How to Maximize Your Chances for Admission to the College of Your Choice, was prescriptive about how to fill out an application, including how to do the “brag sheet,” the list of activities and interests that is required in the Common Application now used by most colleges.
Of course, her example of a brag sheet, taken from one of her clients, made the applicant sound like a combination of Albert Schweitzer and Steven Spielberg. If this was the competition, it was very discouraging. Her advice on college interviews was sensible and contained a list of common interview questions. (Spot on, according to our son, after having gone through six interviews.) You can retain Ms. Hernandez for what is undoubtedly thousands of dollars, or you can buy the books for a total of about $25. We chose the cheap alternative.
One of the great eye-openers in the college admissions experience was the amount of disingenuousness involved in writing the college essay. Our son’s school spends a few weeks in English class early in the senior year working on crafting personal essays in order to prepare for college applications, so we naively assumed that students wrote their own college essays.
Not necessarily. As we spoke to parents in other places who had lived through the senior year with their children, we personally came to know of a father who wrote his daughter’s college essay, a father who had his son’s college essay written by an employee of the father’s business, and parents who hired professional editors or writers to “help” with the college essay. The worst part is that in every case, these children got into their first choice schools.
We live in a small town in upstate New York and thought we were immune to what we viewed as these metro-area ethical challenges. Wrong again. The summer before our son’s senior year, we received a glossy brochure from a professional writer in our town. He has gone into the business of helping students to “find their voices” in the “all important” college essay, a service for which he charges the mere pittance of $1,500. Isn’t your child’s future worth it? There seems to be so much deception in college essay writing, I have come to the conclusion that essays should be eliminated from applications in favor of a personal essay question administered in a controlled environment by the College Board or ACT and forwarded by them to colleges. Ironically, I never imagined I would find myself advocating for yet another college admissions test.
The same family that spent more than $30,000 on college consultants claimed that the college counseling staff at their well-regarded country day school advised that if the family was of a charitable bent, the application year would be a good time to make a significant donation to their child’s first-choice college. The family said they pledged half a million. An old friend who has been on the faculty of an elite liberal arts college in New England for a quarter century confirmed that over the past five years it has become well known that a contribution of $500,000 to $1 million to a selective college can secure a spot in the class for a student who is academically qualified.
Since 90 percent of applicants to such colleges are academically qualified and most of them are not admitted, the wealthy who are prepared to be generous at the right time appear to be able to buy admission for their children. Off the record, some selective college administrators we know demur that you have to pledge to rebuild the library in order to influence an admissions decision. Whatever the price, the dirty little secret seems to be that admission is for sale in what sounds like a pretty straight-forward, if expensive, transaction.
Toward the end of our son’s wait to hear from colleges, he had a nightmare that notification finally came but merely said, “No conclusion.” Did it mean he was consigned to college admissions purgatory forever? This was a fate worse than death. Happily, he awoke and was eventually admitted. Just as happily, we will never have to live through this experience again.
But we cannot help wondering if the selective college admissions process is losing integrity with every passing year. Reading thousands of applications at ten or fifteen minutes apiece, can admissions officers really see through anything but the most obvious and overblown applicant marketing? How can we believe their universal representation that each application is carefully reviewed? And what happens to families whose children go to schools with under-staffed and overburdened guidance offices and who cannot afford private college consultants, clever essay editors, test prep courses and mammoth charitable contributions?
These questions raise issues of fairness that go far beyond the current debates about affirmative action. Let’s hope the colleges are trying to answer them.
Deirdre Henderson is a mother and lawyer who lives in upstate New York.
The details of accreditation are so arcane and complex that the entire topic is confusing and controversial throughout all of education. When we're immersed in the details of accreditation, it's often exceedingly difficult to see the forest for all the trees. But at the core, accreditation is a very simple concept: Accreditation is a process of self-regulation that exists solely to serve the public interest.
When I say "public interest" I mean the interests of three overlapping but identifiably distinct groups:
The interests of members of the general public in their own personal health, safety, and economic well-being.
The interests of government and elected officials at all levels in assuring wise and effective use of taxpayer dollars.
The consumer interests of students and their families in "getting what they pay for" -- certifications in their chosen fields that genuinely qualify them for employment and for practicing their professions competently and honestly.
Saying that a particular program or degree or institution is "accredited" should and must convey to these publics strong assurance that it meets acceptable minimum standards of quality and integrity.
Aside from the public interest, what other interests are there? Well, there are the interests of the accredited institutions, the interests of existing professional practitioners and their industry groups, and the interests of the accrediting organizations themselves. There is no automatic assurance that these latter interests are always and everywhere consistent with the public interest, so self-regulation (accreditation) necessarily involves consistent and vigilant management of this inherent conflict of interest. It is an inherent conflict because the general public, the government, and the students do not have the technical expertise to set curricular and other educational standards and monitor compliance.
I assume it is generally agreed that it is inconceivable to have anyone other than medical professionals defining the necessary elements and performance standards of medical education. Does the American Medical Association do a good job of protecting the public from fraud and incompetence? Yes, for the most part. But you don't need to talk to very many people to hear cynicism. It is the worst behaviors and the lowest standards of professional competence that create this cynicism, and that taints all doctors as well as the AMA. That is why our standards at the bottom or threshold level are so very important. I submit to that the bedrock principle and the highest priority for everyone involved in higher education (the institutions, the professional groups, the accrediting organizations, and those who recognize or certify the accreditors) should be and must be to manage these conflicts of interest in ways that are transparent, and that place the public interest ahead of our own several self-interests.
If I could draw an analogy: Think about why the names Enron and WorldCom are so familiar. Publicly owned corporations must open their books to independent accounting firms that are expected to examine them and issue reports assuring the public that acceptable financial reporting and business practices are being followed, and warning the public when they are not. But there is an inherent conflict of interest in this process: The companies being audited are the customers of the accounting firms. This presents an apparent disincentive to look too closely or report too diligently lest the accounting firms lose clients to other firms who are more willing to apply loose standards. Obviously, this conflict was not well-managed by the accounting industry and, as a result, one of the world's largest and previously most respected accounting firms no longer exists, and all U.S. corporations (honest and otherwise) are saddled with an extraordinarily complex and expensive set of new government regulations.
If we don't manage our conflicts well, rest assured one or more of our publics -- the students, the government, or the public at large - will rise up and take care of it for us in ways that will be expensive, burdensome, poorly designed, and counterproductive. That would be in no one's best interest - ironically, not even in the public's best interest.
I must acknowledge that our current system of self-regulation is, by and large, working very well, just as most accounting firms and most companies are, and always have been, honest. Some of us, especially in the public sector of higher education, wonder how much more accountability we could possibly stand, and what, if any, value-added there could possibly be if more were imposed on us. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, we offer 409 differently named degrees -- 136 majors at the bachelor's level, 156 at the master's level, 109 at the Ph.D. level, and 8 professional degrees, 7 of which carry the term "doctor," a point I will return to later.
By Board of Regents policy, every one of our degree programs gets a thorough review at least every 10 years, so we are conducting about 40 program reviews every year, and one full cycle of reviews involves just about every academic official on campus. These internal reviews carry negligible out-of-pocket cost, but conservatively consume about 20 FTE of people's time annually. We are also required by the legislature to report annually on a long list of performance indicators that includes things like time-to-degree, access and affordability, and graduation rates, among many other things. In addition, about 100 of our degree programs are accredited by 32 different special accreditors and, of course, the entire university is accredited by the North Central Association. One complete cycle of these accreditations costs about $5,000,000 and the equivalent of 35 FTE of year-round effort. (Annualized, it is about $850,000 and 6 FTE).
I mention the costs, not to complain about these reviews as expensive burdens, but to emphasize that we put a great deal of real money and real effort into self-examination and accountability. Far from being a burden, accreditation and self-study reviews form the central core of our institutional strategic planning and quality improvement programs. The major two-year-long self-study we do for our North Central accreditation, in particular, forms the entire basis for the campus strategic plan, priorities, goals, and quality improvements we adopt for the next 10-year period. As such, it is the most important and valuable exercise we undertake in any 10-year period, and we honestly and sincerely attribute most of the improvements we've made in recent decades to things learned in these intensive self-studies. I think all public universities and established private universities could give similar testimony. Having said all this, let me turn, now, to some of the reasons for the growing public cries for better accountability, and some of the problems I think we need to address in our system of self-regulation:
1. Even in the best-performing universities, there is still considerable room for improvement. To mention one high-visibility area, I think it is nothing short of scandalous that, in 2006, the average six-year graduation rate is only around 50 percent nationwide. Either we are doing a disservice to under-prepared or unqualified students by admitting them in the first place, or we are failing perfectly capable students by not giving them the advising and other help they need to graduate. Either way, we are wasting money and human capital inexcusably. Even at universities like mine, where the graduation rate is now 80 percent, if there are peer institutions doing better (and there are), then 80 percent should be considered unacceptably low.
Now, if we were pressured to increase that number quickly to 85 percent or 90 percent and threatened with severe sanctions for failing to do so, we could meet any established goal by lowering our graduation standards, or by fudging our numbers in plausibly defensible ways, or by doing any number of other things that would satisfy our self-interest but fail the public-interest test. Who's to stop us? Well, I submit these are exactly the sorts of conflicts of interest the accrediting organizations should be expected to monitor and resolve in the public interest. The public interest is in a better-educated public, not in superficial compliance with some particular standard. The public relies on accreditors to keep their eye on the right ball. More generally, accrediting organizations are in an excellent -- maybe even unique -- position to identify best practices and transfer them from one colleges to another, improving our entire system of higher education.
2. A second set of problems involves accreditation of substandard or even fraudulent schools and programs. Newspapers have been full of reports of such institutions, many of them operating for years, without necessarily providing a good education to their students. For years, I have listened to the complaints of our deans of education, business, allied health, and some other areas, that "fly-by-night" schools or "motel schools" were competing unfairly with them or giving absurd amounts of credit for impossibly small amounts of work or academic content.
I must admit that I usually dismissed these complaints lightly, telling them they should pay more attention to the quality and value of their own programs, and let free enterprise and competition drive out the low value products. I felt they (our deans) had a conflict of interest, and they wanted someone to enforce a monopoly for them. More recently I have concluded that our deans were, in fact, the only ones paying attention to the public interest. Our schools of education (not the motel schools) are the ones being held responsible for the quality of our K-12 teachers, and they are tired of being told they are turning out an inferior product when shabby but accredited programs are an increasingly large part of the problem. The public school teachers, themselves, have a conflict of interest: They are required to earn continuing education credits from accredited programs, and it is in their interest to satisfy this requirement at the lowest possible cost to themselves. So the quality of the cheapest or quickest credit is of great importance in the public interest, and the only safeguard for that public interest is the vigilance of the accrediting organizations. I lay this problem squarely at the feet of the U.S. Department of Education, the state departments of public instruction, and the education accreditors. They all need to clean up their acts in the public interest.
3. Cost of education. There is currently lots of hand-wringing on the topic of the "cost of education." What is really meant by the hand-wringers is not the cost of education, but the price of education to the students and their families: the fact that tuition rates are inflating at a far faster rate than the CPI. I've made a very important distinction here: the distinction between cost and price. If education were a manufactured product sold to a homogeneous class of customers in a competitive market with multiple providers, then it would be reasonable to assume there is a simple cause-and-effect relationship between cost and price. But that is not the case.
Very few students pay tuition that covers the actual cost of their education. Most students pay far less than the true cost, and some pay far more. In aggregate, the difference is made up by donors (endowment income) at private colleges, and by state taxpayers at public institutions. Since public colleges enroll more than 75 percent of all students, the overall picture -- the price of higher education to students and their parents -- is heavily influenced by what's going on in the public sector, and the picture is not pretty.
In virtually every state in the country, governors and legislators are providing a smaller share of operating funds for higher education than they used to, and partially offsetting the decrease by super-inflationary increases in tuition. They tell themselves this is not hurting higher education because, after all, the resulting tuitions are still much lower than the advertised tuitions at comparable private colleges, so their public institutions are still a "bargain." This view represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the "private model." Private institutions do not substitute high tuition for state support. They substitute gifts and endowment income for state support, and discount their tuitions to the tune of nearly 50 percent on the average.
There is a very good reason why there are so few large private universities: It is because very few schools can amass the endowments required to make the private model work. Of the 100 largest postsecondary schools in the country, 92 are public, and ALL of the 25 largest institutions are public. There is no way the private model can be scaled up to educate a significant fraction of all the high school graduates in the country. Substituting privately financed endowments for public taxpayer support nationwide would require aggregate endowments totaling $1.3 trillion, or about six times more than the total of all current endowments of public and private colleges and universities in the country. This simply is not going to happen.
So, to the extent that states are pursuing an impossible dream, they are endangering the health and future of our entire system of higher education. Whose responsibility is it to red-flag this situation? Who is responsible for looking out for the overall health of a large, decentralized, diverse public/private system of higher education? When public (or, for that matter, private) colleges point out the hazards of our current trends, they are vulnerable to charges of self-interest. We are accused of waste and inefficiency, and told that we simply need to tighten our belts and become more businesslike.
I don't know of a single university president who wouldn't welcome additional suggestions for genuinely useful efficiencies that have not already been implemented. Is there a legitimate role here for the U.S. Department of Education and the accrediting organizations? To the extent that accrediting organizations take this seriously and use their vast databases of practices and indicators to disseminate best practices nationwide, we would all be better off. Accreditors should be applauding institutions that are on the leading edge of efficiency, and helping, warning, and eventually penalizing waste and inefficiency, all in the spirit of protecting the public interest. Instead, I'm afraid many accreditors are pushing us in entirely different directions.
4. Another category of problem area is what I will call "protectionism." I have already said there is an inherent conflict of interest in that professional experts must be relied upon to define and control access to the professions. This means that the special accreditors have a special burden to demonstrate that their accreditation standards serve the best interests of the public, and not just the interests of the accredited programs or the profession. Chancellors and provosts get more complaints and see more abuses in this area of accreditation than any other. I will start with a hypothetical and then mention only a small sampling of examples.
In Wisconsin, we are under public and legislative pressure to produce more college-educated citizens -- more bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Suppose the University of Wisconsin announced next week that any students who completed our 60 credits, or two years, of general education would be awarded a bachelor's degree; that completing two more years in a major would result in a master's degree; and that one year of graduate school would produce a degree entitling the graduate to be called "doctor."
I hope and assume this would be met with outrage. I hope and assume it would result in an uproar among alumni who felt their degrees had been cheapened. I hope and assume it would result in legislative intervention. I even hope and assume it would result in loss of all our accreditations.
That's an extreme example, and most of what I hope and assume would probably happen. But we are already seeing this very phenomenon of degree inflation, and it is being caused by the professions themselves! This is particularly problematic in the health professions, where, it seems, everyone wants to be called "doctor." I have no problem whatsoever with the professional societies and their accreditors telling us what a graduate must know to practice safely and professionally. I have a big problem, though, when they hand us what amounts to a master's-level curriculum and tell us the resulting degree must be called a "doctor of X." This is a transparently self-interested ploy by the profession, and I see no conceivable argument that it is in the public interest. All it does is further confuse an already confusing array of degree names and titles, to no useful purpose.
I asked some of my fellow presidents and chancellors to send me their favorite examples, and I got far too many to include here. Interestingly, and tellingly, most people begged me to hide their institutional identity if I used their examples. I'll let you decide why they might fear being identified. Here are a few:
A business accreditor insisting that no other business-related courses may be offered by any other school or college on campus.
An allied health program at the bachelor's level (offered at a branch campus of an integrated system) that had to be discontinued because the accreditors decreed they could only offer programs at the bachelor's level if they also offered programs at the master's level at the same campus.
An architecture program that was praised for the strength and quality of its curriculum, its graduates, and its placements, and then had its accreditation period halved for a number of trivial resource items such as the sizes of their brand-new drafting tables that had been selected by their star faculty;
Some years ago, the American Bar Association was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Justice for using accreditation in repeated attempts to drive up faculty salaries in law schools.
The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago) publishes a brochure suggesting reasonable standards for special accreditation. The suggested standards are common-sense things that any reasonable person would agree protect the public interest while not unreasonably constraining the institution or holding accredited status hostage for increased resources or status when the existing resources and status are clearly adequate. They focus on results rather than inputs or pathways to those results. Similar guidelines have been adopted by other associations of universities.
So, when I was provost, I routinely handed copies of that brochure to site-visit teams when they started their reviews, saying "Please don't tell me this program needs more faculty, more space, higher salaries, or a different reporting line. Just tell me whether or not they are doing a good job and producing exemplary graduates." Inevitably, or at least more often than not, at the exit interview, I heard "This program has a decades-long record of outstanding performance and exemplary graduates, but their continued accreditation is endangered unless they get (some combination of) more faculty, higher salaries, a higher S&E budget, larger offices, more space in general, greater independence, a different reporting line, their own library, a very specific degree for the chair or director, tenure for (whomever), ... etc." Often, the program was put on some form of notice such as interim review with a return visit to check for such improvements.
Aside: It is perfectly natural for the faculty members of site-visit teams to feel a special bond with the colleagues whose program they are evaluating. It is natural for the evaluators to want to "help" these colleagues in what they perceive as the zero-sum resource struggles that occur everywhere. It is also natural for them to want to enhance the status of programs associated with their field. But, resource considerations should be irrelevant to accreditation status unless the resources being provided are demonstrably below the minimum needed to deliver high-quality education and outcomes. Similarly, "status" considerations are out of place unless the current status or reporting line demonstrably harms the students or the public interest. It is the responsibility of the professional staffs of accrediting organizations to provide faculty evaluators with warnings about conflict of interest and guidelines on ethical conduct of the evaluation.
Let me end with one of the most egregious examples I have yet encountered, and a current one from the University of Wisconsin. Our medical school spent more than a year in serious introspection and strategic planning, with special attention on its role in addressing the national crisis in health care costs. What topic could be more front-and-center in the public interest? The medical school faculty and administration concluded (among other things) that it is in the public interest for medical schools to pay more attention to public health and prevention, and try to reduce the need for acute and expensive interventions after preventable illnesses have occurred. To signal this changed emphasis, they voted to change the name of the school from "The School of Medicine" to "The School of Medicine and Public Health." They simultaneously developed a formal public health track for their M.D. curriculum.
I am told that we cannot have this school accredited as a school of public health because the accreditation organization insists that schools of public health must be headed by deans who are distinct from, and at the same organizational level as, deans of medicine. In particular, deans of public health may not be subordinate to, nor the same as, deans of medicine. This, despite the fact that the whole future of medicine may evolve in the direction of public health emphasis, and this may well be in the best interests of the country. Ironically, to the best of my knowledge, our current dean of medicine is the only M.D. on our faculty who holds a commission as an officer in the Public Health Service.
I have used some extreme examples and maybe some extreme characterizations intentionally. Often, important points of principle are best illuminated by extreme cases and examples. If there are any readers who are not offended by anything here, then I have failed. I hope everyone was offended by at least one thing. I also hope I am provably wrong about some things I've said. But, most of all, I hope to stimulate a vigorous debate on this vitally important topic.
John D. Wiley
John D. Wiley is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This essay is a revised version of a talk Wiley gave at the annual meeting of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.