Why Reforming American Higher Education Matters
December 6, 2004
by Candace de Russy , Virginia M. Fichera
With the new Congressional session fast approaching, debates on education will soon be heard on Capitol Hill, primarily concerning K-12 and "No Child Left Behind" in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but also the delayed and contentious reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. As America attempts to meet formal challenges on so many academic frontiers, exactly what is the status of post-secondary education? Has it evolved throughout the past few decades to meet the exigencies of this new age of globalization, of the Internet, of expanding and integrative knowledge?
Similarly, is American higher education meeting the needs of students of all ages and of society itself as the demand for an educated citizenry imposes corresponding responsibilities on colleges and universities? Is higher education a truly high quality enterprise? Does it deliver, at reasonable cost, what it promises in its expensive advertising campaigns? Is it accountable to its many stakeholders? Or is it more and more unaffordable, inflated in value, deceptive in practice, and opaque to the scrutiny of those who support it through tuition and taxes?
It is becoming increasingly clear that American higher education must be reformed from the ground up, and that calls for change can no longer be ignored.
Traditionally, the university exists to seek the truth, to search for and profess knowledge, and to evaluate honestly the student's search for truth and knowledge. To achieve this, it must be a haven of free and open inquiry, rigorous research, and exemplary training in the major professions. Yet the ways in which our incorporated colleges and universities fall short of this ideal include: often indoctrinating rather than educating students; providing no relief from endless tuition raises (frequently imposed after little effort at reducing operating costs); no serious restraint in the compensation of top administrators and "superstar" faculty and sports coaches; no moderation in requests for state or philanthropic largesse; no external, objective arbiter of faculty, administrative, and student performance; and little meaningful transparency in fiscal, employment, teaching, or research practices (for which a quasi-cabalistic "need" for secrecy is sometimes invoked). Given these conditions, the public and its representatives in state and federal government are understandably losing patience with the increasingly burdensome and often self-serving demands of the higher education sector.
In an essay originally written in 1939 (also found in the 1977 collection of his essays entitled Reforming Education), Mortimer J. Adler declared: "Organized education is one of the largest rackets in this country…. To call education a racket is, of course, to speak metaphorically, but the comparison has point. Reforming education will have to use racket-busting techniques or it will not succeed." Almost thirty years later, with the bureaucracies of American colleges and universities more labyrinthine and secretive than ever, one may ask: Why are American colleges and universities so unresponsive to the needs of those they were founded to serve?
First of all, most are mini-cities within our cities - independent fiefdoms within states and the nation which, no matter how inscrutable their performance, lay claim to both tax exemption and ever-increasing tax subsidies. Through grants, subsidized student loans, valuable real estate often granted by government and held tax-free, and munificent corporate and philanthropic funding, they have created fortresses from which they resist demands for reform. Their appearance of vigorous competition among themselves is something of a charade, for they collude to undermine competitors by denigrating alternative online or for-profit institutions (excepting their own subsidiaries) and deploying clever, and sometimes abusive, early-admissions requirements. They even dominate the accreditation processes which perpetuate their quasi-monopoly on American higher education. They design their class schedules and degree requirements for their own convenience and in ways that seriously limit educational opportunities for the "non-traditional" student.
Throughout all of this, institutions of higher education remain largely unaccountable even to their boards. Many trustees are complicit in sustaining the myth of impenetrability, extraordinary complexity, and inevitable fiscal and physical expansion; others are "managed" by administrators who employ guileful public relations campaigns to forestall any opposition and narrowly channel their oversight.
Best of all, from their standpoint, the "insiders" stand to benefit most from the academic racket. In addition to the administrators and their staff, which have ballooned in size, power, and salary yet clamor for disproportionate compensation increases, the tenured and frequently unionized professors depend upon it for their continued existence. Participants in assorted enterprises, with the trade unions that organize their workers, benefit from construction and other ongoing development projects. Investment bankers, financial advisors, and other finance-related parties oversee billions in endowment funds accumulated by institutions that regularly fail to invest in their campuses or students. And the list of beneficiaries is ever-expanding: those working in public and private-sector bureaucracies created to manage the distribution of funds and supervise other subsidy programs, and politicians rewarded by the insiders for refusing to challenge and, indeed, for enabling the academic racket. Conspicuously absent from this list of winners are students, their parents, and taxpayers.
Exactly who is hurt by the academic racket? Aside from tuition-paying students, their parents, and taxpayers, consider the philanthropies and corporations which fund higher education in good faith efforts to provide for a more educated citizenry and ensure a globally competitive workforce, but who increasingly voice disappointment with the results. The general public is done an injustice when it trusts that the professionals on whom it daily relies - doctors, lawyers, journalists, et al. - have been trained competently by the post-secondary sector, only to discover that the academic racket has compromised the quality of their performance.
The American university, often praised for its excellence in the research laboratory, is now regularly castigated for its neglect of the classroom and attendant grade inflation. Today, the research and teaching functions of higher education are marred by the increasingly common delegation of the faculty's academic work to a caste of lower-paid employees: adjunct part-time staff, graduate students, and even undergraduates, who receive pay or academic credit for research, teaching, and grading their peers. Beneath the radar of the National Labor Relations Board, these students have the "privilege" of paying tuition to become teaching assistants who relieve the faculty of their obligations to the individual students and are thus compromised into maintaining the large lecture class, with its uneven quality, as the premier "cash cow" of the university
More broadly, the entire nation is harmed. In his recent book, State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, Francis Fukuyama reminds us that "institutions matter" in the foundation and strengthening of democracies (cf. also John Fonte, "Solid States"). The institutions of higher education very much matter, for they are central to the operation of American democracy. Nearly every major profession looks to them for certification, as do the elementary and secondary education systems which bear the key responsibility for providing civic education. Indeed, the attainment of the goals of "No Child Left Behind" of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is entirely subject to the continued vagaries of American higher education, for it is the post-secondary sector which establishes the teacher-training curricula, monitors teacher certification, and delivers the courses for "professional development." So, if children and even adults in America cannot read, and if ordinary native-born citizens know far less about the history and structure of American government than the newly naturalized foreign-born, colleges and universities are ultimately responsible. Clearly, it is time to demand of higher education that "No Student (Be) Left Behind," for the academic racket has weakened American education and the American workforce, thereby eroding American democracy itself.
Yet busting this academic racket is no easy task. The interwoven constituencies are elusive, and placing the blame on any one of the groups or individuals is nearly impossible. Past efforts at reform that have focused on one or another of the problems have largely failed. Most higher education institutions in the nation today resemble a Russian matreshka doll, with layers of deeply-entrenched vested-interest groups nested one inside another. Thus, true reform, if it is to be effective, must be bold and systemic, not piecemeal. Further, reform must not only be grounded in the core values of ethics and the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and freedom which underlie the idea of the university, but also dedicated to ensuring quality, accessible, future-oriented higher education within American democracy.
The necessary first step is to develop greater public awareness of those structures, processes, policies, and practices of post-secondary institutions which, to varying degrees, squander both human and fiscal capital. The reader is invited to return to Hudson's website for a series of occasional essays detailing many of the entrenched problems of American higher education: the undermining of distinguished, unbiased, and unfettered teaching and learning; irregularities in the employment and deployment of faculty and staff; and the wasteful allocation and administration of finances.
Candace de Russy is an adjunct fellow of Hudson Institute.
Virginia M. Fichera is a Former Adjunct Fellow of Hudson Institute.
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