A Higher Ed Report Card

Introducing a new blog.

October 17, 2018

Today we introduce a new blog, Leadership in Higher Education, devoted to leadership and reform in higher education. John Kroger, the author, served as president of Reed College from 2012 to 2018.  He is currently the Hauser Leader in Residence at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, and a fellow of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics. Kroger previously worked as a U.S. Marine, federal prosecutor, advisor to President Clinton, and attorney general of Oregon. 

A Higher Education Report Card

Americans spend countless hours creating, reading, and analyzing college and university report cards and ranking systems, but almost no time assessing how the higher education system is performing as a whole. The reason for this is simple: students only attend one institution at a time, and so their concern (and those of parents, if they are involved in the process) before and after enrollment is focused on a small number of schools they are considering attending or to which they might transfer. Because consumer choice drives our system, everyone, including the U.S. Department of Education, is focused on “product comparison,” and not on how the system works as a whole. This has dire consequences. 

If we were to create a higher education report card for the entire higher education system, what elements would we grade? That depends, of course, on what you think the purpose of higher education is in our country. For discussion’s sake, let me suggest that there are three core and unequivocal roles our system must perform.  First, we must conduct research that advances knowledge. Second, we must provide accessible, high quality undergraduate education, with good learning, development, and employment outcomes, to a large percentage of our population.  And third, we need to run high quality graduate and professional degree programs that meet the specialized needs of our society. 

If you had to give a grade for how we are doing in each area, what grade would you assign?  Here’s my take:

Research: A-

American university research remains the international gold standard, making major contributions to the global economy, U.S. national security, and the advancement of knowledge in fundamental areas like health. The most significant issue that concerns me is funding. Demand for research is growing, while government research budgets remain relatively flat. Currently, expanding private sector funding is making up the difference, with the government’s share of overall research funding in decline. Long-term, this may have significant negative consequences as businesses apply financial pressure to move universities from basic to applied research in areas of demonstrable potential profit, or move research programs from universities to private sector facilities.  Indeed, many believe this process is already underway. The U.S. government needs to make increased research funding a priority, not just to advance knowledge and maintain educational excellence, but to protect U.S. national security and economic competitiveness.  Unfortunately, that is unlikely, given current antagonism to higher education in the Trump administration and Congress. The United States needs a comprehensive long term university research funding strategy.

Undergraduate Education: A/F

Undergraduate education in America is incredibly uneven. At its best, it offers an education of a quality unsurpassed anywhere in the world, though increasingly, this education is priced beyond the means of a large percentage of the population. At its worst, our system exploits vulnerable students, taking their money and casting them adrift with high debt and worthless credentials.  Outcomes are mixed. Many students are getting great educations and moving on to lives of meaning and purpose, but others learn little, fail to graduate, and are stuck with massive debt. Positive average outcomes mask a great deal of failure. Problems with quality, access, affordability, and outcomes are growing, and faith in undergraduate education appears to be declining, despite its clear importance to national well-being and to individual success. 

To address these problems, we are going to need more funding for public universities and a shift from loans to grants for low-income and middle class students. Funding increases might be linked to more serious efforts by institutions to control tuition increases and improve graduation rates.  We also need to tighten accreditation standards, so we can eliminate exploitative and under-performing institutions and shift existing funding from failing to successful programs. The need for reform is pressing and palpable.  Unfortunately, the current proposals for reauthorization of the Higher Education Authorization Act do almost nothing to address these concerns. 

Graduate and Professional Education: B

Graduate education in America seems adequate. Yes, we have issues.  Legal education has not changed much in the last one hundred years, and one might question whether that lack of evolution makes sense or not.  Medical schools are not producing enough general practitioners or meeting the demand for doctors in rural areas.  Graduate teacher education is uneven in quality. Perhaps most significantly, the Ph.D system seems broken, or at least in serious jeopardy, with time to degree, graduate student teaching compensation, and over-production of graduates all of deep concern.  We have things to work on.  But compared to the challenges in undergraduate education, these issues seem both more manageable and less pressing, from a systemic point of view.

What do you think are the core missions of higher education in America?  What grades would you assign in these areas?  I look forward to your thoughts. 



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