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Free speech on college campuses is important, don’t get me wrong. But amid all the noise and consternation around President Trump’s executive order, most college officials seem to have missed the part of it that is truly revolutionary.

Trump’s order joins with a broader bipartisan movement to move beyond completion as the gold standard for college reform by adding earnings data to be published for each program at every college.

Completion is important but, by itself, is also a reflexive and self-referential institutional standard. It raises the question: Completion for what? Moreover, it is becoming more and more apparent that both economic and noneconomic value is a characteristic of programs more than institutions.

The Trump order is one more step toward a widely supported movement to reorder higher education as we have known it. In a shift toward program-level outcomes, every college will be unbundled down to the program level -- its identity, traditions and structure will become less important. Instead, the outcomes of students in each particular major or field will be elevated in importance.

Imagine how the focus on program-level outcomes could realign existing colleges and universities.

  • The most significant effect would probably be the streamlining of public university systems. A public system could decide to offer a specific degree (let’s say English) at only one campus rather than at every campus, as most do now. That system could pool all of its resources and top talent in English at one campus and offer an outstanding degree instead of offering mediocre programs at its underresourced branch campuses.
  • A comprehensive research university with several programs from which students graduate with good earnings could choose to shut down programs that can’t compete with alternative providers. Or that university could transfer those programs to other institutions more willing and able to house and support them.
  • A new provider of an in-demand credential could enter a community and start offering the credential without having to be part of an existing college. The response to work-force needs would be pre-eminent, and the lack of overhead could keep costs low.

The American postsecondary system has been heading toward this kind of realignment and rationalization for a long time.

Congress has already signaled this trend toward program-level accountability. There is broad bipartisan support for the College Transparency Act and its move beyond completion to employment and earnings outcomes.

Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has called this year for program-level outcomes as part of the overhaul of the Higher Education Act. Representative Virginia Foxx, then chair of the House Education Committee, introduced amendments in 2017 that also called for program-level earnings.

The White House is simply jumping on board. While this initiative has primarily been backed by Republicans, they are amplifying and expanding what was originally an Obama administration idea: the College Scorecard and gainful-employment regulations. It is hard to imagine a future president or presidential candidate who is opposed to transparency and accountability, especially free-college advocates.

Not only are politicians moving toward transparency on employment outcomes, the modern diversified work force and the expanding postsecondary education and training system demand it. We now have about 840 different occupations with different skill profiles, compared with 270 in 1950. The number of postsecondary programs has quintupled since 1985, from 410 to about 2,260. It is all too overwhelming for most people to process -- they often go the school that marketed to them most effectively rather than the program that would give them the best education and career prospects.

Most students choose a college first and foremost for whether “it has my major.” Once students graduate, what matters most to their earnings is what they majored in, not the name of the building where they studied. Which raises several questions: Why should students have to choose a college at all? Why can’t they just choose a program?

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying earnings outcomes alone are the end-all and be-all of program quality. Far from it.

But they will trigger all sorts of questions about economic and noneconomic value of higher education. Transparency on earnings will lead to disruption driven by forces camped outside the ivory tower. And the higher education system is ripe for disruption. Ultimately the current focus on earnings and other outcomes will provide momentum for accountability on learning outcomes as well. Ultimately this would be the best outcome for students.

But sad to say along the way, this unbundling also could be brutally efficient for higher education. Industry change is almost always about what’s next, not what’s best for the workers and institutions directly affected. Just ask an auto worker.

The cost of college has been rising for decades at a rate that far exceeds inflation. Much of this increase is because of the expense of maintaining an entire university: residence halls, recreation centers, technology upgrades, maintenance. Universities have hired extraordinary numbers of new administrators to oversee all their functions and huge fund-raising staffs to help pay for it all. Academic programs sometimes continue from year to year on momentum alone, even if they lag behind their peers in reputation and enrollment.

We have all continued investing in this kind of system because the existing university system is the only one we know. But what if very little of it really matters to the students? This focus on programs rather than institutions could finally break the cost curve in higher education. By providing students what they need without all the extras, we could chip away at the waste, duplication and misplaced incentives that now animate higher education.

Of course, the events I am describing here are concerning on many levels. We would need an accreditation system that would be nimble enough to respond to the evolving marketplace and transparently assure quality. We would have to think of new models for assuring core liberal arts curricula that are essential to the well-rounded learning that students need.

The path from good to better is rarely straight in human affairs. There will be moral hazards and unintended consequences along the way, but we will end with a system that is more in touch with our students’ needs. Future American workers are facing an exciting yet withering journey to keep pace with change. The American higher education system is going to have to change far more than it has so far dared if it is an active helper to those workers, rather than a structural hindrance to them.

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