If there is one clear meme concerning higher education coming out of America during this recession, it’s this: “higher education is too expensive and it’s delivering a sub-optimal product.”
Zeitgeist statements like this one have to be handled carefully. Even if you don’t agree with this meme, failure to engage with it can expose one to charges of being “defensive,” or “part of the problem”. So, for the moment, let’s accept this statement at face-value, and focus on how one might respond to it.
From a business perspective, there’s simply no question that in a quasi-monopolistic system like higher education, the choice between cheaper and better is obvious. Only a chump gives up the revenue. If consumers perceive that the quality – however that may be defined – isn’t there, that’s what needs to be fixed.
Given this, it’s absolutely astonishing to me how quickly the debate in America has focussed around cost. Everywhere, the mantra is about “bending the cost-curve” (tellingly, a phrase consciously borrowed from the health-care debate), and states like Florida, Texas, and California are all making serious moves to implement so-called $10,000 degrees (that’s not the price, it’s the cost). Faced with the proposition that, “higher education isn’t delivering the goods, and it costs too much”, the dominant reaction in America seems to be, “well, let’s make it cheaper, then”. Now, obviously, this response is being driven by political actors rather than educational ones, but it’s stunning nonetheless.
Canada hasn’t quite seen the same level of disillusionment with higher education, mainly because youth unemployment hasn’t spiked in anything like the way it has in the US (the irritating but inevitable fact: higher education will take blame, and credit, for preparing young people for jobs in direct relation to the amplitude of the economic cycle, over which it has zero influence). But the “cheaper-not-better” agenda could easily take root here, too; Lord knows, in Ontario, we’ve only recently escaped the clutches of a Minister who was in thrall to exactly that vision.
So, here’s a thought: let’s be proactive about this. Instead of waiting for the next crisis to pop-up, let’s get ahead of the curve by improving the value proposition of undergraduate education. As I’ve said before, what people really want are graduates who are effective, engaged, and innovative, so let’s find a way to deliver on that.
Put aside for awhile the pitches for more grad students and more research. Winning the battle for public trust in the system is going to depend first and foremost on how our system delivers on undergraduate education. Only by being better can the system avoid the call to be cheaper.