Guest Editorial

Robert Maas

The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s proposals for the reform of postsecondary education are proclaimed by their advocates as changing the face of higher education to meet the ever-changing needs of the modern “knowledge” economy.
They wish to make all measurable data known to the public at large via a database containing all relevant information for deciding which colleges and universities prospective students should take into account, including relations between academic success and workplace success.
Furthermore, academic success would be measured by at least one, and perhaps a number of standardized tests. And on top of the creation of a huge, sprawling bureaucratic mess to ensure that college students throughout America do what they should be doing in college anyway, they will also work to reduce the tuition payments of college students by increasing Pell and other student grants, especially need-based aid.
These reforms, as currently advertised, will almost certainly be bad for colleges as a whole.
The creation of the database itself will create a large new bureaucracy within the federal government, and a great deal more work in the back offices of colleges and universities. Suddenly, much more data will need to be tracked by colleges in order to report them to the federal government.
Tracking the data takes resources – namely money and time – which cannot be used elsewhere, such as improving the quality of education, investments in new structures, infrastructure and student groups, hiring and keeping professors, and other such requirements.
If the information requirements are anything akin to those of the No Child Left Behind, almost all colleges will need to hire new back office staff or else pay all their current staff overtime.
All this requires money to be paid to the people doing the actual work, and despite protests to the contrary, at a time when the budget deficit is large, the national debt is growing, and tax cuts are the political order of the day, it would be foolish to expect any increase in government funding to make up the difference until such funding has been signed into law.
Thus, most of the funding will come from students, either out of pocket or in the form of new student loans.
Furthermore, the introduction of the exam itself will reduce the amount of time available for classes, as some amount of time will now need to be set aside for taking the exam, which will require an expansion of the academic year, or else a commensurate shrinking of the time students will spend studying their majors at college.
The gravest danger, however, is twofold: an increasing uniformity across diverse colleges and universities within the United States, and a drive to turn education into a synonym for job training.
Whether they turn to a single standardized exam, or several different exams, it is nearly certain that lower performing colleges will make efforts to copy those features that the better performing colleges have, regardless of whether they will work for the institutional setting of the other college.
Likewise, because the database connects workplace performance and academic performance, the places most likely to do well are those that specialize in whatever employment field requires the most workers at the time one looks up the list, rather than those colleges which provide people to learn their jobs well once they are on the job.
Also, workplaces are likely to prefer someone who can do one job immediately, rather than those who can do any job well after a weeks or months of training, because it costs employers less. It’s another cost of business that corporations can externalize.
Therefore, it is likely that narrow, concentrated fields which are no more than job training courses would feature the best employability at one stage or another. Thus, many colleges will work hard to make themselves over as vehicles for employment in certain sectors and fields, rather than a broad ranging, mind enlarging experiences that will serve them well regardless of which field they go into.
Instead of a place where a person can learn to learn and love to learn, colleges will increasingly become technical schools where people learn to do the job of the present in the future, no love necessary.
This is not to say that some reforms, especially bringing down the cost of college, are not necessary. However, the Bush Administration’s proposed reforms will increase the cost of broad liberal education, and lead American education to narrower and narrower paths. It is a road best left untraveled.