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Radical Reformer

A new book offers provocative ideas on how to change higher education.
University Business, Sep 2009

ROBERT ZEMSKY WANTS TO MAKE UP for a missed opportunity. Zemsky, chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, based at the University of Pennsylvania, was called to serve as a member of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education during the Bush administration and to participate in the national dialogue on finding solutions to higher education’s most vexing problems.

His new book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education (published this month by Rutgers University Press), in his words is “in a way, doing penance for the Spellings Commission.” The commission “had a whole bunch of really smart people, and it was convened at the right time,” Zemsky says, “but the people running it had no idea how to actually change higher ed.”

He’s thought about that a lot since and believes the only way change will occur is through a series of “dislodging events” that he outlines in the book. One of those is to make the standard undergraduate degree a three-year baccalaureate. Zemsky says the senior year of high school, which for many students is just passing time, could be put to better use as the equivalent of the freshman year of college, with students acquiring college-ready skills. As an added benefit, an undergraduate education would cost 25 percent less.

Another approach would be an overhaul of the federal financial aid system to support participation, invest in motivation, and reward institutions that use aid money effectively.

A third idea: Change the rules on tax-free endowments, which have become like hedge funds, by differentiating the commercial from the educational. That is, dividends, interest, capital gains, and so on would be taxed at current rates but could be offset by how endowed funds are used to support educational programs.

Zemsky recently spoke with University Business about the book’s overarching themes.

Right. You really have to be able to change the whole system simultaneously. You can’t just change a part of it, you can’t shout at it, you can’t shame it, you can’t embarrass it. You need a strategy that changes the whole thing simultaneously. I call those things dislodging events. What would essentially break the gridlock that now characterizes higher ed?

I’ve been a faculty member for 42 years now. There’s not a lot of pressure on me to change. There’s pressure on me to be productive, to be clever and all that, but not to fundamentally change what I do. We’ve got to figure out a way to get people like me positioned so we will, as a natural consequence of events, think about doing things differently—working differently, working smarter.

It seems we ask that every five years. Are they angry yet? The truth is, the public has this very funny idea about higher education: It doesn’t know what we do, and therefore it doesn’t know to be purposely angry. There’s this gray “glob” that seems to be important, but they have no idea how it actually works, and therefore they have no idea how to change it.

For all the polls in which people say they are angry over price, when you look at the purchase patterns, they uniformly choose the higher-priced option, not the lower-priced one. Their anger is a kind of rhetorical anger, but it is not a behavioral anger. They want to shout at us, but they still pay our prices and send their kids to the best institutions they can get into.

Part of that is clearly driven by the notorious ranking systems. Many schools concur on the futility of these rankings, yet they still go to great lengths to place high on the lists. It seems they are trapped in this nonsensical scheme with no way out without losing face.

I’ve argued for more than a decade now that this market is only going to change if we get good consumer data, something like Consumer Reports. I would have thought that someone would have figured out that there’s a big market there.

Apparently the people who look at it think that what the public wants is not consumer data but ranking data. There are lots of reasons for that. The rankings give the public some assurance at the top that they are spending their money on things that other people think are important—that’s the whole prestige thing.

No. I’m just not persuaded anymore that there is going to be a consumer movement that changes higher ed. The consumer with the biggest voice in higher education is the federal government, because it puts $100 billion into supporting it. One way they can change higher ed dramatically—and I don’t recommend this—is to cut funding from $100 billion to, say, $50 billion and give financial aid only to really poor kids. Instead they give more federal financial aid in the form of low market loan rates and all of that to middle- and upper-middle-class kids. If they were to cut that out, the institutions would behave differently. I’m not sure they would behave better, but they would behave differently. The government doesn’t have any idea what to do except to spend more money, and that doesn’t seem to me to be the answer.

I’m trying to make clear that we don’t really have an access problem—we actually pay unprepared youngsters to go to college. The gap is not in those who start but in those who finish. But once you shift the focus to finishing, you start down a slippery slope. You realize we need to have better remedial programs. Why do we need better remedial programs? Why don’t we just get the high schools to do their job? Eventually you end up with what educational researchers have known for a long time—the whole battle is won or lost in the middle schools.

I actually said in the Spellings Commission—to no response—let’s not put $75 billion in Pell, let’s put $75 billion in the middle schools. As a nation, if we were really worried about the quality of the workforce on the one hand and the social equity agenda on the other, the battleground is in the middle schools of America, not on the college campuses.

The battleground is in the middle schools of America, not on the college campuses.

No, but it’s interesting. I think that’s more about job training and skill training programs. It doesn’t really address the higher ed agenda. Where did he go to announce it? He went to a Michigan community college in one of the hardest hit middle-class areas, where the manufacturing workforce is losing all kinds of standing. It has to do with higher education in the sense that it is about community colleges, but it isn’t fundamental to the enterprise. It may be fundamental to the economy but not to the higher education enterprise.

You also take faculty to task by saying they “would not know if asked what exactly is expected of them when critics and pundits push the importance of critical thinking, analytic reasoning and problem solving.”

Well, part of it is that I’m sort of sticking it to fellow faculty members—that they haven’t really been paying attention to the learning discussion.

But more importantly, I’m saying define for me what is “critical thinking” or “problem solving”— These are “mush words” that have become slogans. So in the first place we have faculty that don’t understand learning, and now we’re confronting them with mush words that have no meaning.

One of the big problems is that we’ve gotten the idea that “it’s about the web.” It’s funny—there’s a whole lot of interesting technology on learning, but it’s not on the web. The really interesting stuff is on discs. The web just doesn’t work. We’ve adopted a distribution system that is like trying to run a race in a sack.

The web is very linear, and learning on the web is equally linear. You do the problem, it gives you the answer, and if you get the wrong answer it circles back, and so on. That’s not the way you are going to learn a foreign language, for example. You can use really interesting technology to learn a language. Just don’t do it on the web.

The second big problem, going back to what we discussed before, is that most people who are designing the technology don’t know how people learn. Almost none of us do. Most faculty stand in front of their class and say, “I want you to forget everything you know. I’m going to tell you the truth.” That’s just not possible. We never forget what we know; we have to replace what we know. But to replace it, you have to know what the student knew before. So a whole different style of technology learning would, for example, do a lot of diagnostics at the front end of any learning sequence so the program would know what the student knew and didn’t know to begin with.

Do you know any web learning that looks like that? I don’t. I don’t see any big future for e-learning or whatever you want to call it until that begins to happen.