How to Succeed in Report Writing Without Really Making Sense

The draft released by the federal commission on higher education fundamentally misunderstands the role -- frequently negative -- of consumer values, writes Sherman Dorn.

July 6, 2006

Now that the draft report of the Spellings Commission is available, all sorts of people are taking potshots at it. From Inside Higher Ed's coverage, the college administrators' lobbyists are more concerned with tone than substance. And there are some who will (rightly) score the draft for glossing over the ways that rising tuition reflects the long-term cost-shifting away from state governments and onto students (not faculty salary raises, which frequently struggle to meet inflation), the way that technology does not necessarily cut costs, and the ways in which administrators' attempts to cut costs have already led to a burgeoning population of contingent faculty.

Those criticisms are correct, but there's a larger story: The draft report is hopelessly inconsistent, failing to identify the fundamental tension in higher education. This tension is between the collective goals for education and the consumerist orientation of many students and parents.  In his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning, David Labaree claimed that the dominant ways people argue about the purpose of education tend to focus on democracy (what is needed for citizenship and how we can make education accessible to all citizens), social efficiency (preparing the labor force),  and individual social mobility (earning the paper credentials to get ahead). He argued that educational consumerism is the consequence of unchecked catering to the private purpose of individual social mobility.

As most professors are aware, this last goal has become the modern consumerist orientation of higher education. Students are "consumers," we must "market" our "services and products" to them and their parents, and the desired outcomes are what "the market demands." So grades inflate, administrators spend millions of taxpayer dollars on sumptuous student facilities, athletics and bacchanalia dominate student life, and selective private institutions advertise outrageous "list prices" as snob marketing.

The draft report identifies most of these problems, but it fails to see the underlying cause. Instead, it champions the cause of these problems as the solution to our higher-education woes.

In the draft report, the solution is to cater even more to student consumerism, to open up more of academe to the mechanisms of the market, to dilute ever more of our collective goals for education. Somehow, more and better data will eliminate the desire of students to acquire a useful credential without working too hard. In the illusion that consumerism will solve all, and in the ill-advised attempt to manufacture a crisis, the draft report conflates the social goal of economic competitiveness with the consequence of individual decisions.

The report says, for example: "Another cost-reduction strategy would simply be to strengthen relatively new competitors to traditional four-year institutions, notably community colleges and non-traditional providers.... This can be partially accomplished by reducing barriers to the transfer of credit between institutions, and reducing unnecessary accrediting constraints on new institutions."

That market-oriented strategy sounds quite appealing to American notions of choice, if you ignore the advice that Barnak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers has given several times: Transcripts are the educational equivalent of unaudited financial statements. Any commission members who think students won't try to earn dodgy credits should read a bit about University High School in Florida, where athletes used to go to buy (and claim they earned) a high school degree.

Then consider the assumption that better information is all that is required to make the market work. The draft states: "The Department of Education should create a searchable, consumer-friendly database that gives consumers access to institutional performance and student outcomes ... and make[s] it easy for consumers to get comparative information including cost, price, college completion rates and, eventually, learning outcomes."

Nowhere in this list are the issues that touch on non-academic consumer issues, such as institutional prestige or student social life. I suppose commission chair Charles Miller has never heard of college guides that focus more on social life than on academics: College Prowler, for example, or the Rolling Stone college guide, Schools That Rock. Maybe he's never heard of the phrase "party school" or worried about his child or his neighbor's children attending one. There is a reason why Ohio State University campus is filled with students and alumni on fall Saturdays, and that reason has nothing to do with Ohio State's faculty or library. Students and parents already seek information about colleges, and it's not always about academics.

As a parent, and as someone who attended school for 21 consecutive years, I certainly understand the value of student and parent perspectives. And colleges have become more attuned to student perspectives in the past 40 years. Poor teachers are less likely today to earn tenure, even in universities that emphasize research. And, more broadly, there is nothing wrong with the goal of social mobility, as long as there is a check on consumerism, to give our collective needs the bulk of control over higher education. The key word is check. Without some check on its power, consumerism is destructive.

Giving students what they all want would not leave us with a more prepared citizenry. Is that really what the commission is proposing? Giving every student what he or she wants would end in everyone graduating with a 4.0 GPA.  Already, too many students see every course as a hoop to earn a degree, not an opportunity to learn. A colleague of mine cynically quips that our job in many programs is to turn enrollees into students, seducing them into learning once they're in the door. The draft report would do nothing to help us with this seduction, nothing to stem the unfortunate consequences of higher-ed consumerism.

So it is time to return the word "education" to the debate over higher-education policy. Some of the draft report addresses our collective purposes for education -- the need to provide greater access to higher education, greater support for students to be prepared for and through undergraduate programs, and greater expectations in general. But the report cannot accomplish those worthy ends by championing consumerism and failing to acknowledge the fundamental tensions in higher education. Unchecked, consumerism will happily turn education into credentialism, devour the collective goals of college, and leave us with nothing but the shell of an education. Consumerism cannot eat the cake of higher education and then have it, too.


Sherman Dorn  is an associate professor at the University of South Florida, edits the Education Policy Analysis Archives, and blogs regularly on education policy and other matters.


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