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Resolving the crisis in higher education.

Allowing parents to deduct a portion of college expenses from their taxes and granting eligible students vouchers to use in qualified institutions can bring an end to inefficient bureaucracies of evolving megaversities.

THE PUBLICATION of A Nation at Risk in 1983 shocked most Americans into realizing that the US. faces a crisis in public lower education that is contributing greatly to the erosion of its standard of living and international competitive position. One consequence of that shock therapy was the diversion of attention from the crisis of public higher education, which enrolls 75% of American college students.

Since the U.S. spends roughly twice as much on public lower education as on public higher education, now nearly $200,000,000,000 a year, and since lower education affects all later learning, the public should be more concerned with the "primary crisis." Americans must recognize that our education crisis is systemic and that solutions will be found only by restructuring the system from top to bottom. Even if we managed to transform our high school graduates into the world's best educated, while our colleges continued to produce ever less real learning, we rapidly would fall behind Japan and Europe.

The limited media attention given to higher education usually is focused on the widespread politicization of course material; enforcement of "politically correct" dogmas that kill the very spirit of general education; epidemic spread of student cheating; raft of exposed cases of scientific fraud; corrupt "milking" of research grants through bloated indirect costs; proliferation of new "research" publications intended only to secure grants and tenure; use of quotas that waive standards and fairness; wholesale destruction of academic standards in many athletic programs; and growing alienation and conflict on many campuses. All contribute to the decline of learning in our colleges, but do not in themselves reveal how widespread the decline is, nor are they the most important underlying causes of the general decline.

The best evidence is the growing alarm expressed by the most experienced professors of all political persuasions and many disciplines. Long before E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and others began to measure the declining cultural literacy of students, professors knew from their classes that students' basic knowledge of history, literature, science, economics, politics, geography, current events, and much else was plummeting. Even worse, the drop in knowledge was accompanied by a decline in the basic skills of rational thought and expression. John Searle, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, the "star" of elite public universities, noted with alarm: "One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument."

Few academics were surprised in 1985 when the Association of American Colleges stated flatly that "evidence of decline and devaluation is everywhere." Few significant disagreements were published when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching reported in 1989 that 67% of their nationwide sample of professors agreed "there has been a widespread lowering of standards in American higher education"; a mere 18% disagreed.

Liberal academics, such as Harvard University president Derek Bok, scoffed at the explosion of conservative publications decrying the decay of standards, especially Allan Bloom's best seller, The Closing of the American Mind. None of those was as devastating or as sweeping as the indictment of the "elite" universities by Page Smith, a liberal historian and provost of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The very title of his book gives pause--Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. His evidence from inside the University of California and the other elite universities is stunning to outsiders.

David Glidden, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Riverside, summed up the growing faculty conviction that "the education of undergraduates at the University of California is failing.... Half the freshman class is deficient in English or in math. Once they make it through that first year of English composition, many UC students rarely write again, preferring multiple-choice exams to papers. There are all too many courses to oblige them with limited demands and little homework. Students graduating from the university are divided between a talented elite and those who never learned to study, read, or think with the kind of care necessary for the challenges of the coming century."

The most severe declines in the relative abilities of American students have been in the economically vital fields of engineering, technology, mathematics, and the natural sciences. The quality of American applicants to graduate programs in those fields has plummeted for about 20 years, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. More than half the advanced degrees awarded by US. universities in those fields now go to foreigners. Some professors in the natural sciences almost have despaired of American college students. Neville Kallenbach, chair of the chemistry department at New York University, told The New York Times: "We face the serious problem of becoming a know-nothing country." Only one of the 15 first-year graduate students in its department is an American.

Why the decline?

The "buck passers," especially administrators anxious to protect their institutions' public images and tax bases, insist that any problems in higher education are attributable to the fact that entering freshmen are less adequately prepared each year. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, believes that the buck must stop somewhere: "Right now, we make believe that 50% of our kids qualify for college. Then we make believe that spending four years getting what should have been their high school education gives them a college education. We've been able to fool ourselves in the past, but world competition won't let us do so much longer."

However, inadequate preparation is not the primary cause of the problems in U.S. colleges. The most important immediate one is the decline in the amount of work students do. American high school students always did work much less, and fewer days per year, than their Japanese and European counterparts, but they narrowed the accrued learning gap greatly by working harder in college. (Japanese students and many in Europe long have done much less work in college than in secondary school.) In recent years, though, American college students have worked less and less, thus learned less and less, and fallen ever further behind the Japanese and the hardest working Europeans.

The 1990 report of the Carnegie Foundation, Campus Life, revealed that 77% of full-time students in our four-year colleges reported studying less than 17 hours a week outside of class. The time devoted to studying was dramatically less than it had been just three years earlier. That finding is especially revealing in view of the growing percentage of students who are extending their courses of undergraduate study over five or more years. Today's students are, on average, just as intelligent as earlier ones, but they work much less, so they learn much less.

This largely occurs because they get higher grades for less work. At elite universities such as the University of California, the average grade has drifted from a "gentlemanly C" to a "lordly B," yet there are far more complaints about grades today. There also are far more "Mickey Mouse," "rap-session," and "MauMauing the bourgeoisie" courses; others with no papers or essay questions; take-home exams that can be done by teams of conspirators; counselors to help do papers; "laid-back" advisors who give "caring," rather than set an example of hard work; and more financial help to free students from the discipline of jobs. Those are the payoffs of the pseudoreforms, especially student evaluations, which many warned in the 1970s were eroding academic standards.

There also is the much resented negative role model of professors who hide from students and do little teaching for lots of money. In the state universities in California and many other states, teaching loads are about one-fifth to one-third less than they were 15 years ago. In Killing the Spirit, Smith notes that "one reason higher education is so outrageously expensive is that, the less teaching professors have done, the higher their salaries have risen. It is not unusual for a professor whose salary is in the $70,000-$80,000 range to teach only two or three courses a year." Each of those often requires only three class hours a week, and there are long vacations at Christmas and in the spring. Professors frequently can choose to teach their few courses over two quarters, leaving six months or more free to make more money consulting and doing research. The "invisible professors" are the most highly paid of all.

In addition, professors and administrators almost never try to determine what their students retain after "regurgitating" at exam time, and do almost nothing to stop the general erosion of learning they know is occurring. As Bok concludes in Higher Learning: "In fact, no one knows a great deal about how much students learn in colleges and universities, and it is very difficult to find out.... Colleges work hard to provide new facilities, activities, and services but devote remarkably little time to deliberate efforts aimed at improving student learning." Any system without valid feedback on its outcomes and corrections of its failures spirals out of control. It is astounding how many students do not remember what the readings for last quarter's courses were supposed to have been.

The rise of the megaversity

Finally, and most important, there is the all-encompassing factor of bureaucratic stagnation that affects every level of the US. system of education. State colleges and universities now are gigantic government bureaucracies--megaversities. Many individual campuses have more than 20,000 full-time enrollees, thousands of part-time and extension students, and thousands of faculty and staff. Those huge campuses are megalopolitan subsidiaries of gigantic state university systems, which in turn are parts of colossal general plans for state education, which in turn are subsumed under the amorphous gargantuan central plans of education of the Federal government.

The entire system operates without the benefit of direct market forces to motivate workers and constrain costs. Lifetime tenure at early ages and "old boy" and "old girl" networking at promotion time make union featherbedding and business oligopolies look robustly efficient. In many states, such as California, those bulwarks against competition are multiplied by the fact that, in personnel matters, the colossus works in deep secrecy behind walls of "legal exclusions" to prevent public or regulatory oversight. Like all large bureaucracies, especially monopolies operating with no significant outside regulation, the megaversities erode motivation and productivity even more severely than the Pentagon does because they do not face the ultimate military market test of "do or die."

Committees proliferate and also deliberate endlessly. Redundancy mushrooms. Everything except committee make-work, cocktail-partying, and jet-setting slows down and stagnates. Administrators, professors, and students all learn to ride the gravy train. It is no wonder that, as Smith says, even "the vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless.... It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale." Almost 30,000 new academic journals have been founded since 1979 to publish hundreds of thousands of articles, most of which rarely are consulted by anyone.

Many variations of the old "bureaucratic reforms" have been used to try to overcome stagnation in academe. Some of them have beneficial effects in the short run, but the bureaucracies all soon "decay to trend" and the drift into stagnation resumes. There is only one general reform that works--openness, decentralization, and debureaucratization. We already know, both from the entire history of economic experience and from the growing evidence in lower education, that there is one and only one simple prerequisite for general reform--freedom of choice for investors.

The remarkably simple solution to the present crisis in higher education is to allow parents to deduct a portion of college expenses from their taxes and to grant each eligible student a voucher for use in any qualified institution. The total costs can be restricted to the current direct expenses of higher education in any state. It will take time for creative young educators to start up new colleges, but we know from general experience with privatization that, once they do, we can expect the soaring efficiency of the new colleges to lead to much lower costs per unit of learning.

In lower education, tax deductions for private school costs already are in effect in Minnesota, and vouchers and home education programs are working very well in various parts of the nation. The results have been so good--especially in contrast to the continuing erosion of public school results--that even many liberal education experts, notably John Chubb and Terry Moe of the Brookings Institution, now support parental choice among public schools.

Tax deductions and vouchers will work even better at the college level than they do in lower education. Adult students, parents, and counselors are far more able to determine quality education at the college level. The students will be far more motivated to do so by their career aspirations.

Competency (results-based) testing of college students, while more specialized and complex than examining younger students, is more valid. Some states, notably Tennessee and Florida, have been using such tests for several years, and some small private schools, Alverno College, for example, have developed excellent methods for assessing and motivating student learning. Those tests are very similar to methods used by highly competitive businesses to assess and encourage employee productivity.

Nationwide teacher competency testing, which already is used widely in lower education, is directly comparable to college student competency testing. The schools being paid in tax deductions and vouchers can be held to required minimum standards of competency simply by auditing their average test scores, thereby eliminating the ingrown accreditation boards that hamstring efforts at creative education.

General education could be supported by requiring that some minimal amount, perhaps one-third, of tax moneys be spent on it. The rest could be used for more specialized learning. Employers, who already are increasing their involvement in and expenditures on specialized higher education rapidly, would have great incentives to do even more, including providing matching education funds for employees. They also would be able to use the many specialized student competency test results to hire people with the real learning they need, rather than rely on the present college "credentialism," which certifies nothing much beyond attendance and payment of tuition.

The new era of free choice in education will not be utopia. However, over a number of years, it will produce an explosion of creative and productive communities of learning that will be far better for students and professors--and for the future of the nation.
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Title Annotation:decline of learning in American colleges
Author:Douglas, Jack D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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