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Feb 13, 2009

On the future of higher education

There are at least three paradoxes inherent in the current higher education system:

  1. Professors give grades to students, and grades are the main way of evaluating students work. However, if you give everyone poor grades, it reflects badly on your own teaching. Therefore, professors evaluate themselves, and this is a conflict of interest. In the K-12 world, state tests at least partially address this issue; nothing like this exists in higher education. Let's call this the paradox of the fox guarding the chicken coop.
  2. Most universities outside of Ivy League depend on enrollments to maintain their budgets. They also are supposed to be selective and maintain high academic standards. Most reconcile this conflict by admitting a lot of unprepared freshmen, and then either helping them to achieve, or making them drop after the first year. Nevertheless, it is a conflict of interest. If you charge someone money, and that someone can take one's money elsewhere, you will eventually lower your demands. This is the race to the bottom paradox.
  3. Universities charge students per seat time (per credit), so students pay for out attempts to teach, not for actual help with learning we are able to provide. It is very difficult to demonstrate that there is a direct relation between seat time and competency. Students have no say in how much help and what kind of help they need from us (see a related blog "Till When?"). But because higher education consists of relatively independent courses, bundling them makes very little sense. More teaching does not mean better learning, because learning depends on the level of effort by students. And what we have is a system that encourages a lot of teaching, and not enough learning. Unlike any other industry in the world, colleges brag about low student-professor ratios. Just imagine a company advertising that their bicycles are better, because it uses twice as many people to put them together. So, there is a perverse incentive for universities to become less and less efficient. It is the boutique paradox: a boutique store can charge more than Wal-Mart, but it can never become larger than Wal-Mart. Many middle-rank universities are trying to catch up with harvards of the realm, not realizing how self-defeating such a strategy is. In the meanwhile, the bottom-feeders whose names I will not name, flooded the market with cheap diplomas of suspicious quality.

In my mind, the reform of higher education can be sketched out. First, we need to develop an impartial assessment system which does not rely on instructors. Bar exams in medicine and law are probably the best available models for now. I don't see why something like that cannot be implemented in all other fields. Universities should also measure the level of incoming freshmen, and then report to the public on the value added, not on the final results. In other words, it is important to see how much your students have grown, not how you are able to attract the best high school graduates. The value-added measures can be clearly laid out with respect to the cost of tuition, so people can make rational choices about which university to attend. This will put an end to the practice of selling the brand, where people pay hundreds of thousands of extra dollars just to have a big name on their diploma. I would also legally ban employers from asking what university an applicant has graduated from. This is none of their business; they should not discriminate on the grounds that have nothing to do with competency.

Second, we should control the cost of higher education by charging students more if they require more help, and charge less if they can do more of learning on their own. Students should be able to determine what kind of help they need: a semester-long class, a shorter overview, individual tutoring, or none at all. This would create an incentive for every student to work harder, and for universities to stop wasteful teaching. Of course, for this to work, assessment should be divorced from instruction: you cannot have the same people teaching and evaluating the results of teaching. The State of Colorado made a feeble attempt to implement something like that, by requiring colleges to allow students to test out of courses. I still know of no student that did, and it is mostly because there is no fee per test a university can charge, and because you would take the exam with the same professor whose class you claim not to need at all.

Third, the nation's faculty should put a stop to the racket of publishing houses. Most textbooks contain little original research or even original ideas. They can be created by volunteers (like Wikipedia or Wiki Books) and cost nothing to students. We just need to organize; and perhaps AAUP can lead the effort.

These are ideas that maybe a little too radical for most people to accept or even to consider. And I am certainly not saying we should start some crazy experiment next month. If I learned something on my job, it is that the bigger the change, the more careful you must be while implementing it. It would take years of experimenting and discussion. However, we must realize, time is not on our side. In the long-term perspective, we will not move forward without addressing these paradoxes. As the cost of higher education is rising, and competition is getting stronger, something's got to give. Not today, not within next 10 years, but eventually the higher education system will have to reinvent itself.

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