Holding Universities Accountable

When I was a senior in college, I asked myself: "What if I had $200,000 - the price-tag of a degree at many elite universities - to spend on maximizing learning?" The possibilities I entertained - traveling the world, hiring brilliant professors as tutors, or even investing in my own business - were all feasible. This hypothetical question, so nagged at me in fact, that my final college paper was titled, "Why College is a Waste of Time and Money". I wrote about a higher education system that had lost its way, including professors paid primarily to publish research, not teach; universities competing to attract customers through campus beautification projects or building state of the art facilities - driving up costs; and too many students paying for a degree rather than a serious learning experience. Until universities are held accountable for providing students with a quality, affordable education, these trends are likely to persist. Fortunately, I believe there are a few clear-cut steps we can take to usher in this era of meaningful and constructive accountability.

It must be noted that college is, of course, not simply "a waste of time and money" - it has been and can be a springboard for upward mobility, a home for intellectual pursuits, and a force for maturation, job-preparedness, and skill-development. College graduates also make substantially more money than their peers with only a high school degree.

But, we've seen what a lack of accountability can bring, and the mandate for fundamental reform is clear. Financially, college tuition and fees have skyrocketed 1,120% since 1978, and student debt has ballooned to over a trillion dollars. Academically, the average college student spends 12-13 hours per week studying, half as much as the average student in the 1960's. And psychologically - as these trends have taken root - we've seen a sharp increase in rates of depression and anxiety on college campuses.

Our task is steep. How can we recreate a university system that is not only affordable and prepares our young adults for the jobs of the 21st century, but that cultivates informed citizenry and expands students' moral imaginations? A system that isn't only for the rich and those willing to incur debt.

We must hold universities accountable. Currently, universities are considered reputable (and therefore often expensive and selective) thanks to relatively meaningless measures - like the percentage of students they accept. We know very little about how much learning actually takes place. The Obama administration has taken a few steps in the right direction - advocating for policies that redefine the metrics for holding universities accountable. They've proposed that federal college aid dollars are shifted away from states that don't finance higher education and universities who can't keep their costs down. A "college scorecard" was also introduced, which aims to empower students and families through transparency - providing them information on costs, loan default and graduation rates, and employment prospects for every degree-granting institution in the country. And most recently, they've gone so far as to propose two years of free community college, funding only those universities that prioritize retention. These measures, if implemented well, have great promise.

We need to up the ante. A university's reputation must also be earned through its students' demonstrated educational outcomes.

What if we mandated that all "liberal arts" students took a test, as entering freshmen and then again as graduating seniors, which we would actually want professors to "teach to"? A test that measured complex reasoning, critical thinking and analytic skills - cognitive functions that these universities trumpet, but that could only be fostered through serious, deep learning. (In fact, this kind of test was widely administered, and 45% of university students showed zero statistical gains over their first two years of college.) There would be myriad challenges in its implementation, as many test-averse folks will be quick to point out. But, would students, parents, and employers not be better off knowing which schools fared best or worst? Would schools not begin to prioritize real learning?

What if we tied public funding for community colleges and technical schools to their job-placement rates? Instead of simply requiring a certain amount of completed credits to graduate, these schools would inevitably streamline the process - linking coursework to the development of practical skills and promising mastery of content, rather than just "degree-attainment". Wouldn't a hopeful teacher, health worker or IT technician benefit from a university that was incentivized to produce competency?

If universities were held accountable for these measures we might observe a different form of competition for status, not one in which universities seek to build the nicest facilities or attract the best researching professors, but rather, to innovate and test ideas for how to best communicate knowledge, harness technology to drive down costs, and prepare their students for the working world. Let's turn the incentive structure on its head, and unleash the potential of our great thinkers and universities to clear a path forward.