By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the demise of the US system of higher education. Albeit a tad premature, my point was and remains that our system of higher education has significant ailments that, if left untreated, will lead to decades of ill-health and a painful death. In the real world, of course, the US system will never asphyxiate. It’s too large and too strong, and more importantly, it isn’t a “system,” per se. It is but an amalgam of public, private, non-profit, and for-profit organizations that work autonomously within the constraints of certain state and federal regulations. Even within those regulations and “red tape,” we’ve been able to create an incredibly diverse system of higher education.
In fact, I argue that our system is bloated and overgrown; in need of a significant trim job. The GI Bill helped propel us into the modern era of higher education. I believe Chuck Kerr, former President of the UC system, would have called it the massification era of higher education. We are saddled today with a system that is inequitable to a degree, outmoded to a larger degree, is too expensive (cost vs. price) to operate, and has suspect and uneven quality.
Regardless, the last two Democrat Presidents have pushed for broader higher education. Clinton pushed for two years, buoyed by the Lifelong Learning and Hope Scholarship tax credits, and Obama has stated one year, although we don’t know how he will push for this yet, and what the point is of only one year of postsecondary study.
Although an advocate of college access and equity, I don’t necessarily believe in compulsory higher education beyond grade 12, especially if government supported. But higher education is clearly an important feature in the development of society and the economy. And the future of the United States will depend on how well we engage our citizens and prepare them for a diverse, volatile, and competitive world.
The current system of higher education, as it presently exists, must dramatically change in order to fully serve our societal needs. It needs to be more connected to our business and industrial needs, while also ensuring that we continue to create the thinkers, as it has historically done, who can lead our democracy. It also needs to become more cost effective and remain (hardly) affordable for the masses. Not the few—the masses.
And we also have to ensure that the quality of US higher education is high. I didn’t say “remains high,” because we have no measure to suggest that our system is any better than anyone else’s. Our best are the best. But we have thousands of other institutions that are “less best,” and we should be concerned about the potential, if not actual, erosion of quality in higher education.
As a policy analyst, it is relatively easy to point out problems. I believe that many of us suffer from being too critical too often. This stated, let’s focus on what we need to do to resurrect our system, or at least reconstitute it so that it can help navigate the difficult waters of the 21st century. At the heart of this is the development of a new oversight board for higher education in the United States.
Creating a Truly National System of Higher Education
Many people think we have a national system of higher education, but, at best, we have a diverse set of 50 systems of higher education, complicated by private versus public, two- versus four-year, and on. The only real gel we have is something called Title IV, the section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that offers federal financial aid and support programs (e.g., GEAR UP) to students, via the institutions. By law, the federal government mandates that institutions do certain things to be Title IV eligible. A secondary gel is the accreditation bodies, but that is relatively meaningless because there is no interaction between institutions. States have “systems,” and some states do a fine job of ensuring these systems work together, with California being the best example (thanks again to Kerr). But nationally…. We have nothing. We leave it up to the states to decide what is in the best national interest, which isn’t their interest at all. The state is the focus at the state level, and the legislators of Maine don’t necessarily agree that their mandate for public and private higher education is the same as New Mexico’s.
I think it’s time to create a national council for higher education to help coordinate and think of higher education from a macro perspective. I’m calling it the National Education Council, whose sole purpose is to make sure everyone and every state works off the same playbook. The closest thing we have is SHEEO, which is a great organization, but whose focus is more limited than what I am suggesting. The NEC would provide leadership on higher education expansion and contraction, alignment with business and industry, costs and financing, and other delectable pieces of the higher education puzzle. They would serve in an oversight role to ensure that we all steer education correctly, without a true federal mandate from the government. And yes, it would cover K-12, too, because higher education is only an extension of our compulsory school system.
Other countries have units like this. And no, it isn’t socialism.
What would the National Education Council do?
The NEC could do many things. For starters, it could review our accreditation system and make sure all the various accreditation groups are worthwhile. In fact, it could “be” the accreditation body. Australia has the AQUA (Australian Universities Quality Agency) to ensure standards and quality. We do it through accreditation agencies, but I don’t think we do it very well. Out of 4,000+ or so accredited institutions, do you ever hear of an institution losing accreditation? A handful over the past decade. How is that possible, mathematically? Unless it really isn’t accreditation that’s going on. That’s a separate discussion.
The NEC could act as a board for reviewing curricula and creating articulation crosswalks for universities. It is ridiculous that we have no true articulation processes at the national level; there are states that don’t have articulation agreements. But in this day and age, shouldn’t we be able to certify courses at all universities and then they can all “articulate?” At least it would start a structure for standards and practices at institutions. We aren’t even close to that dialogue. The NEC could push that envelope. To provide an example, I currently have an intern from a large, public land-grant university (let’s call it the University of Michigan for fun) who has to extend her education by one semester in order to take one course and finish her undergraduate degree. The university isn’t very flexible; they won’t allow her to take it elsewhere or asynchronously. That’s insane, but welcome to our system.
The NEC could also review standards in concert with accreditation and articulation, to ensure that we have some modicum of quality. Quality is the forgotten topic in higher education. We expect it; we think it exists. But we have no idea. “Harvard” must be good. Why? It’s Harvard. That type of discussion isn’t fruitful, let alone accurate. I do know of very poor professors at Harvard. It isn’t all good. But we’ve let the reputation of many institutions color our view and represent quality in our minds. Insane. I want standards of content and behavior. That’s what we should be classifying institutions of higher education on, not a Carnegie system of Research I or II. Leave that for the NCAA.
The NEC could also ensure that public information about higher education is made readily available to students and parents. Right now that is done in part by the US Department of Education and state governments. I’m not arguing that they don’t do a good job; I think they do. But an NGO would be better suited to do this; one that is autonomous from the government. Any government.
The NEC would also integrate business, industry, and community partners so we can have a continual discussion about the relationship of higher education and those areas. Only this way can we ensure that higher education is meeting the needs of society. Right now, we do this very poorly. We “do” higher education because we think it is the right thing to do, with little thought about what society requires and in what form. The NEC could fulfill that role.
One important issue in higher education that the NHEC couldn’t legislate or mandate is the size and role of higher education. But it could frame the discussion. Do we really need 2,000 four-year institutions? And 1,500 two-year institutions? Really? We have created so much duplication in our communities. We need to have a conversation about the size and quantity of our system. Critics would say that reducing the size of our system would lead to rationing. No. Rationing is another issue altogether, but one that we may have to discuss at some point if we want to keep higher education solvent and productive.
Such an organization would only work if certain conditions applied. First, states would be members in a voluntary fashion. A state could opt out. But the hope is that peer pressure would keep them in. This is to make education better and stronger, not worse and weaker. It would need to be an NGO, or non-government organization. It may be populated by representatives of government at the state levels, but it is an NGO to ensure third-party status. It can’t be a membership organization, per se, because membership organizations take care of their members. We don’t need another membership organization. We don’t need another ACE. We need a Council that makes decisions on the way things need to be.
Finally, the NEC would need to have significant clout. Otherwise, it has no real meeting. Perhaps the NEC would have certifications or other status levers that parents and students and taxpayers could see as indicators of quality and contract at education institutions across the country. However it would be done, there would need to be some buy-in to the findings and recommendations of the NEC by state and federal governments, and ultimately institutions of higher education and K-12 schools and districts.