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Pursuing Needless Innovations

Why a college education that works, not unproven innovations, is what's needed
University Business, Feb 2010

In America, we lavish attention on our most talented fellow citizens—star athletes, film and television celebrities, brilliant scholars and scientists, and sometimes even college presidents—but we also insist that our celebrities not act like self-styled royalty. When members of America's elite are aloof and ignore the public's welfare—as many titans of Wall Street did, first ruining the economy, then paying themselves bonuses—Americans insist on retribution.

Something like this is happening in American higher education today, but not for the reasons you might think. A former president of the University of Wisconsin once observed that in an earlier era when dairy farmers dominated the state legislature, its attitude toward the world-class university down the street had been highly deferential, but as the rate of college-going increased and more graduates of UW were elected to the legislature, second-guessing of its president became common. Legislation sometimes appeared to be attempts to settle grievances from undergraduate days.

Most Americans today don't harbor resentments against their alma maters. Nor is the popular critique of higher education mainly a matter of outrage over high tuition. Rather, the public criticism of colleges is, to a surprising extent, aimed at the educational experience itself.

Discarding the baby with the bathwater, Zephyr Teachout's widely-circulated essay argues that the traditional classroom-based college will soon be replaced by online education, and that the differences in reputation among colleges will no longer matter. I don't know where Teachout went to college, but her view—especially that a college's prestige won't matter—seems more wishful than realistic.

Even President Obama, in his speech to Congress arguing for a "public option" alternative to for-profit health insurance, drew a false analogy between this choice and a student's choice between private and public colleges—apparently oblivious to the private colleges' nonprofit status, their superior graduation rates, and the lower average family income of their students. The President (and his speechwriters) received a first-rate education at private institutions, so one wonders how this view of private higher education found its way into the President's speech.

College-bashing is in the air. Just a few years ago, then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings spotlighted the University of Phoenix, a for-profit, largely online college with truly dismal attrition rates, as the model alternative to the shortcomings of traditional colleges. (Her own child enrolled at an excellent private, residential liberal arts college.) The governors of several states now advocate pie-in-the-sky, three-year degree programs as the way to meet the national goal of more college graduates. (Their states' flagship universities, meanwhile, have been unable to graduate even half their students in four years, as the book Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities [Princeton University Press, 2009] documents.)

The public criticism of colleges is, to a surprising extent, aimed at the educational experience itself.

And a frequent columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education recently castigated private colleges and universities as hypocrites for accepting federal funds while objecting to proposals for increased government interference. (He apparently believes that free speech is fine for journalists but not for academics.)

It's baffling why all well-educated, successful, and prominent Americans don't want to extend to others the opportunity for precisely the kind of education that they received, preferring instead to shunt today's students to new, unproven models of a college education. Despite personal success in life, why don't these prominent individuals express greater appreciation for the colleges that gave them so much?

Before we rush to abandon traditional colleges and universities, let's recall what long experience has demonstrated about the American college's formula for fostering the success of its graduates:

  • Being a college student demands full engagement. Part-time study is better than no study at all, but an ideal college education should challenge a student to balance several areas of learning at once. It's the intersections among what is learned in several courses that are most important in achieving the goals of a liberal arts education. Intense reflection is necessary.
  • Over four years of study, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. Studying subjects to which a student is not naturally drawn is part of the recipe for success. A willingness to trust the institution's requirements for what ought to be studied is essential. Knowledge is cumulative, as Jerome Bruner reminded us long ago in his classic work on pedagogy. An explicitly integrative experience, especially in the senior year, is highly desirable.
  • What happens outside the classroom contributes to the totality of the educational experience. Ample evidence exists—from the National Survey of Student Engagement, Richard Light's work, and other studies—that the most successful college experience includes more than formal coursework. The challenge should not be to excise these effective features of college because they cost money, but to find ways to pay for a complete college education so that all students can be fully engaged in campus life, not pulled away by other responsibilities.
  • This kind of college experience represents very good value for use of both tax dollars and personal savings. Before governors complain too loudly about the attrition rates of state universities (and they are worse than those at smaller private colleges), they should consider the recidivism rates of those who have been in prison. A year in prison costs more than a year in college and produces far fewer long-term beneficial results for the individual or society. Consider, also, the willingness of many Americans to spend upwards of $35,000 for a car—which loses value the moment it is driven off the dealer's lot. Many of the costs of college are paid for by someone other than the student or the state government—federal grants, college endowments, and money raised by colleges specifically for scholarships. At private colleges, institutional aid equals six times the amount of federal financial aid, so strong is the commitment of private colleges to insuring access for all people regardless of financial circumstances.
  • College is worth the investment, measured in both personal and societal terms. The differential in lifetime earnings between college graduates and nongraduates is huge and dwarfs the average indebtedness of new college graduates. A sense of proportion matters: the average indebtedness of a new college graduate, $26,000, is reasonable. Surveys of private college alumni show greater civic involvement and satisfaction in their lives than graduates of other types of colleges.

Almost every American now aspires to attend college. It's an admirable and appropriate achievement for our democracy. We have come a long way in increasing college access, but the national record of insuring timely graduation is not very good. It is the most traditional form of education—the residential liberal arts college—that has the best record. National policies and federal spending should encourage more people to have this experience if for no better reason than it is both more cost-effective and more effective pedagogically.

Some skeptics argue that the superior record of private institutions is derived from the affluence and better prior preparation of students before they arrive at college. Yet for every factor that makes a student "at risk"—low-income, first-generation, minority group member, working while going to college, high school GPA below "A"—small private colleges exhibit better retention and graduation records than comparable students at other kinds of colleges. It's the format of education, not affluence or better preparation, that accounts for small colleges' effectiveness.

Other skeptics counter that higher graduation rates result from small colleges being less demanding intellectually. This is also demonstrably not true: measures of cognitive growth by such assessment instruments as the Collegiate Learning Assessment make clear that the average amount of intellectual growth for students between freshman and senior years at small colleges is greater than at other types of institutions.

What happens outside the classroom contributes to the totality of the educational experience.

Undergraduates often view colleges as monoliths that cannot be changed and that they can rail against with impunity. Those who lead colleges know otherwise: a relatively small disturbance—a shortfall in enrollment, a bitter fight within the faculty, a scandal—can disturb the equilibrium for a long time. Smaller, private institutions may have advantages of resiliency and adaptability that often elude the larger universities, but large universities have the advantage of scale when coping with government demands for increased paperwork regulation.

Nearly all institutions of higher education now enroll very diverse student populations, and clashes of expectations will be more frequent than in the past. Alumni—especially successful alumni—need to consider the value of the education they've received before assuming that the system is fundamentally flawed.

Colleges can do better at increasing timely graduation and improving intellectual rigor, but changes should be built on the proven success of the traditional model, not aimed at its evisceration. And we must oppose wrong-headed individuals, however prominent, who predict doom for higher education as we know it and who lack the stamina for incremental change that builds on proven strength.

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges,