Over the next couple of days, I want to talk a bit about a new book called The End of College, written by the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey. It’s an important book not just because it’s been excerpted repeatedly in some major publications, or because the conclusions are correct (in my view: they’re not), but because it has an unerringly precise diagnosis of how higher education came to its present malaise, and the nature of the economic and institutional reasons that impede change in higher education.
Carey’s narrative starts by tracing the origins of universities’ current problems back to the 19the century, when America had three competing types of universities. First were the small liberal arts colleges devoted either to Cardinal Newman’s ideals, or training clergy, or both; second were the Land Grant institutions, created by the Morrill Act and devoted to the “practical arts”; and a third was a group that wanted to emulate German universities and become what we now call “research universities”. Faced with three different types of institutions from which to choose, America chose not choose at all – in effect, it asked universities to embody all three ideals at once.
On top of that, American universities made another fateful decision, which was to adopt what is known as the Elective model (I prefer the term “Smorgasbord model”, and wrote about it back here). Starting at Harvard under President Charles Eliot, this move did away with programs consisting of a standardized set of courses in a standard curriculum, and replaced it with professors teaching more or less what they felt like, and students getting to choose the courses they liked. This mix of specialization and scholarly freedom was one of the things that allowed institutions to accommodate both liberal and practical arts within the same faculties. In Carey’s words: “the American university emerged as an institution that was designed like a research university, charged with practical training and immersed in the spirit of liberal education”.
The problem is that this hybrid university simply didn’t work very well as far as teaching was concerned. The research end of the university began demanding PhDs – research degrees – as minimum criteria for hiring. So hiring came to center on research expertise even though this was no guarantee of either teaching quality or ability in practical arts. And over time, universities largely abandoned responsibility for teaching to those people who were experts in research but amateurs at teaching. No one checked up on teaching effectiveness or learning outcomes. Degrees came to be a function of time spent in seats rather than actual measures of competence, proficiency, or mastery of a subject.
Because no one could check up on actual outputs or outcomes – not only are our research-crazy institutions remarkably incurious about applying their talents to the actual process of learning, they actively resist outsiders attempts to measure, too (see: AHELO) – competition between universities was fought solely on prestige. Older universities had a head start on prestige; unless lavishly funded by the public (as the University of California was, for a time), the only way to complete with age was with money – often students’ money. Hence, George Washington University, New York University, the University of Southern California, and (to a lesser extent) Washington U St. Louis all rose in the rankings by charging students exorbitant fees and ploughing that money into the areas that bring prestige: research, ivy, nicer quads, etc. (Similarly, Canadian institutions devoted an unholy percentage of all the extra billions they got in tuition and government grants since the late 90s into becoming more research-intensive; in Australia, G-8 universities are shameless in saying that the proceeds of deregulated tuition are going to be ploughed into research.) The idea that all those student dollars might actually be used to – you know – improve instruction rarely gets much of a look-in.
Maybe if we were cruising along at full employment, no one would care much about all this. But the last six years have seen slow growth and (in the US at least) unprecedented declines in disposable middle-class incomes, as well as graduates’ post-school incomes. So now you’ve got a system that is increasingly expensive (again, more so in the US than Canada), doesn’t attempt to set outcomes standards or impose standards on its professors, or do much in terms of working out “what works”.
Carey – rightly, I think – sees this as unsustainable: something has to give. The question is, what? Tomorrow, I’ll discuss Carey’s views on the subject, and on Friday I’ll provide some thoughts of my own.