Three Continuing Challenges: Costs, Quality and Connections to the Public Agenda
Taken together, with the possible exception of becoming a major beneficiary of a new tax cut, these new realities amount to a sobering environment for colleges and universities as they prepare to enter a new century. In the boom years of the 1960s, there was really only one issue: how to provide access. The access agenda is still with us. But access has now been joined by three other major problems that confront higher education today—problems that I believe we should address through our new higher education program.
The first is the problem of rising costs. Caught in a closing vise between new demands for enrollment and declining rates of revenue growth, colleges and universities must figure out a way to do more with less. In the next chapter, I take up this problem. I argue that to contain costs, and make use of the new technologies to help contain costs, requires a fundamental shift in thinking. Rather than focus on how to provide more effective and efficient teaching, colleges and universities must focus on how to produce more effective and efficient student learning.
The second is the problem of quality. In Chapter IV, I take up the question of whether or not there is, indeed, a quality problem and, if so, how serious it is. I conclude that America has not held higher education up to high enough standards; and that, measured against high standards, there is, indeed, a quality problem. In Chapter V, I argue that one of the sources of the quality problem is inadequate incentives in the larger system in which college administrators and faculty operate for paying attention to continuous quality improvement.
The third problem is the one identified by Derek Bok: the fact that higher education is no longer seen as a central actor in America's effort to address its most important problems. I take up this problem in Chapter VI and argue that there is one particular area where the Trusts should help higher education reconnect to the public: the reform of schools.
My proposed agenda for our work in higher education flows directly from this analysis. In Chapter VII, I argue that our first goal should be to set new aspirations for undergraduate education through a fourfold strategy of encouraging institutions to take learning seriously, encouraging faculty to take pedagogy seriously, demonstrating that technology can be used to reduce costs as well as to enhance learning and developing new incentives for continuous quality improvement. Our second goal should be to encourage colleges and universities to engage the public's agenda, especially the reform of schools. As a third goal, I propose that we encourage ideals, policies and practices that will develop an academic profession capable and interested in working toward these ends.
Chapter III—The Challenge of Costs
Concern about the rising costs of higher education continues to build. In last fall's annual college issue of U.S. News and World Report, editor Mel Elfin wrote a biting editorial essay on "The High Cost of Higher Education." Last March, Time focused on the University of Pennsylvania for a "special investigation" of rising costs. And in June, escalating things still further, Congress created a new commission to study college costs. The 11-member panel will meet for four months and report on whether or not colleges are trying to control costs, and whether or not the federal government should take steps to slow rising tuitions.
For many Americans, what is at stake is nothing less than the continued viability of the American dream. The stakes are high for higher education as well. The analogy with the situation faced earlier by the health care industry is very clear. Unless higher education can demonstrate that it can manage its own affairs, others will step in to manage them.
So what are colleges and universities doing? What further steps need to be taken? And what role can technology—the favorite solution of many who look at industries with high labor costs—play in this process?
One response from the higher education community has been to argue that the problem of rising costs is not as great as the press makes it out to be. This is true. Media coverage of rising tuition has tended to focus on the most highly selective, visible and expensive institutions in the country—the Time story on the University of Pennsylvania being a case in point. As the head of government relations for the American Council on Education pointed out, this is like writing a story on the high cost of cars while limiting the analysis to only three makes of cars: Mercedes, Lexus and Jaguar.
Focus groups have revealed that ordinary citizens believe the average tuition bill at a public university to be more than twice what it really is. In reality, in l993 (the last year these particular data were available), 60 percent of all college students—9 million students in all—faced an annual tuition bill of less than $3,000. Only 8 percent of all enrolled students paid more than $12,000.
But college and university leaders are under no illusion that the problem can simply be explained away. There is today a new recognition that tuition increases can no longer be used as a safety valve to avoid dealing with the underlying issues of why costs increase so much and what can be done to contain them. For example, institutions are stepping forth to assure students and their parents that tuition increases will no longer greatly exceed the rate of inflation. Michigan State has publicly announced the "MSU tuition guarantee," promising freshman that tuition will rise no higher than the rate of inflation. Other institutions have offered tuition discounts. Still others have cut tuition outright (Muskeegum College by 29 percent and North Carolina Wesleyan by 23 percent). Others have announced discounts to targeted cohorts of students, such as alumni and in-state students. Still others—Indiana University at Bloomington, for example—are offering guarantees that students will be able to finish their degrees in four years or take the fifth year free of charge. Clearly, the climate has changed.
With large tuition increases no longer an acceptable option, campuses have begun the hard work of cost containment. Administrators typically assume that they will have little credibility asking faculty to control costs unless the rising costs of administration and services are attended to first. Also, administrative costs have been the area where the largest expenditure growth has been. So almost universally, cost containment has begun with efforts to put the administrative side of the house in order.
Once credible efforts have been made on the administrative side of things, campus leaders have then turned their attention to the faculty and related academic support areas—the largest expense category in most budgets. Many campuses have already traveled well beyond "across-the-board" measures into the more difficult territory of setting priorities and dealing in various ways with programs that fall outside these priorities. A number of campuses have announced policies of "selective excellence." Some—such as Syracuse, Tulane and a number of campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) system—have discontinued programs on the margin. Others, such as Portland State, have simplified and streamlined their curricula so that the faculty teaching effort will be directed at the highest priority tasks.
Campuses have mounted still other strategies to address the unit costs of instruction. Unit costs per student are essentially a product of two things: the average salaries of the faculty who do the teaching, and the number and size of classes they teach. By hedging on tenure commitments, introducing early retirement schemes and a variety of other measures, campuses have substituted lower-cost, younger and part-time faculty for more expensive senior faculty. Of the nearly 900,000 faculty employed in higher education in the fall of l992, nearly one-third were part-time—a huge jump from earlier eras. And of the cohort of full-time faculty who had fewer than seven years of teaching experience, fully one-third were not on tenure-track appointments. Both teaching loads and class sizes have increased.
And yet, even with all this, campuses still find that the underlying pressures to increase costs are still very much present. After sharpening priorities, sometimes making tough choices in light of these priorities, and asking everyone—administrators and faculty alike—to work harder, campuses are still groping for ways to wrestle costs under control.
Shifting the Question from Teaching to Learning
All the strategies I mentioned earlier are conventional in that they seek to lower the costs of instruction per student by asking faculty to work harder, not smarter. None of these conventional approaches challenges the fundamental assumption of the current instructional model: that faculty members meeting with groups of students at regularly scheduled times and places is essential in order to achieve effective student learning.
Recently, this challenge has been issued. Three years ago, Antioch chancellor Alan Guskin published a widely quoted article, arguing that asking faculty to teach more courses to more students would never produce the gains in productivity that institutions need to achieve. The real issue, Guskin argued, was not how many courses faculty teach, but how much students learn. Faculty are only one of many resources that are important to student learning. Would it not be possible, Guskin asked, to increase learning while also reducing faculty effort?
At about the same time, former SUNY chancellor Bruce Johnstone initiated an ongoing, informal conversation among a network of colleagues on the topic of "learning productivity." The conventional paradigm for teaching and learning, Johnstone noted, takes students enrolled in courses and classes, defined in terms of blocks of time (terms, quarters and semesters), as the principal generator of costs. Once we make this assumption, the only way to increase productivity is to lower the cost per course or per credit unit. But what if unit costs were measured not in terms of costs per unit of instruction but costs per unit of student learning? From the perspective of learning productivity, "cost" is driven not only by faculty salaries, course loads and average class size, but also by factors that contribute to or distract from student learning. Thus, strategies to enhance learning productivity include such things as instructional approaches that maximize learning with minimal faculty input, advanced placement and other strategies that reduce redundant teaching, and strategies that reduce aimless drifting and course taking that leads nowhere.
Ideas such as these have now prompted a new round of thinking about what it means to control costs from a learning productivity perspective. The issues are complex, and the conversation is not very far along. But I think it is fair to say that influential leaders in higher education are now asking the right set of questions. Driven by the imperatives of containing costs, leaders in higher education are thinking harder about student learning.
From my own perspective, once the focus shifts from teaching to learning, and from time to results, the conversation is headed in a direction that raises questions about the academic assembly line that came into existence at the birth of the modern university. I noted that, in Chapter I, by introducing the idea of elective courses into the Harvard curriculum, president Charles Eliot transformed Harvard College into Harvard University. But by doing this, he also did something else. He became the Henry Ford of American higher education.
In the colonial college, before Eliot's time, the idea of a "course" referred to a course of study (as in "freshman studies" and "sophomore studies"), not a defined unit of instructional time. But with Eliot's initiative, "course" became a defined unit of instructional time. The Harvard catalogue of l869 (I believe for the first time in history) carried a precise definition of a course:
The term course, as used throughout this work, means a unit of instruction in which the instructor meets his students for two or three hours a week for a lecture, recitation or discussion; assigns prescribed reading, laboratory or field work, or written work such as essays, reports or theses, or a combination of these; examines them at stated intervals on the subject of the lectures and assigned study; and finally assigns a grade. A full course extends throughout the college year; a half course through one of the two terms. Undergraduates must take not less than four nor more (than) six courses a year (counting two half courses as one course).
Note the use of the terms instructional time, hours per week, half year and full year in the definition of courses. In l871, electives became courses with Arabic numerals and were divorced from classes considered freshman and sophomore studies. In l872, Harvard students were informed for the first time who would give the course. Faculty began to assume that they "owned" their own courses. Courses were soon given values called "credits." Going to college became a matter of taking a certain number of courses and accumulating credits that added up to a degree. Managing a university became, in a fundamental sense, the management of courses.
A few decades later, searching for a way to standardize requirements for college admissions, the newly established North Central Accrediting Association insisted that schools submit evidence of student work in terms of courses that met a required number of hours per week and weeks per semester. So the course/credit hour system introduced by Eliot became the fundamental unit of instruction in America's schools as well. Still later, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was casting around for a unit of measurement with which to calculate pensions for college faculty, it landed on the course/credit hour as the best available standard. The "Carnegie unit" has existed as a standard of academic bookkeeping to this day.
This assembly line of courses and credits has served higher education well for over a century. But it is a system rooted in notions of time and place and faculty-student contact that should no longer be assumed as simply given. Which brings me to another development that is challenging our notions of instructional time and place: the impact of new information technologies.
The Uncertain Potential of New Technology
We are now in the midst of what might be called "the second coming" (or third or fourth) of the technology revolution. This is not the first time that technology has been heralded as a revolutionizing force in education. In times past, the trumpets have sounded, but little has actually happened. But this time, almost everyone agrees, things are going to be different. Indeed, they already are. But in what ways? And what role will technology play in the agenda we are discussing here, the effort to contain the per student costs of instruction?
The answer is, "it depends." Almost all the important questions about the impact of information technology have little to do with the technologies themselves. They have to do with what views about learning and teaching will inform and guide the way the technologies will be used.
There is no question that the new technologies can extend access to higher education to new populations of students at lower cost than traditional classroom instruction. Around the world there are now 11 "mega-universities" entirely devoted to technology-based distance teaching, each serving more than 100,000 students actively enrolled in degree-granting courses. Collectively, they enroll more than 2.8 million students at substantially less cost than do traditional institutions. The most prominent of these, the British Open University, is currently serving more than 150,000 students at about half the per-student cost of a traditional university. Such institutions have achieved a double breakthrough: a breakthrough in access, by reaching students in new ways at times and places convenient to the students; and a breakthrough in cost, by doing so at a lower cost than that of traditional instruction.
There is also no question that technology can significantly enhance the quality of student learning. For example, two critical ingredients affecting the quality of student learning are the extent of interaction between students and instructors, and the extent to which students have opportunities to apply concepts they are struggling to learn in a variety of situations and settings. Electronic mail, a relatively simple use of new computer technology, already is having an enormous impact on the interactions between students and faculty and on students' interactions with each other. In addition, in many fields software is becoming available that provides students with stunning capabilities to try out multiple ways of representing and applying ideas. Before computers and computer software, an art history student struggling to appreciate why Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa is so classic and compelling would simply look at a slide of the painting and talk about it to others. With computers and appropriate software, this same student can play with the composition, design a dozen different versions of Mona Lisa's famous smile, and thus come to a deep understanding of why da Vinci's version is so compelling.
So the real question before us is: Will higher education organize itself in ways that will take advantage of technology's potential to maximize all of its potential benefits—benefits in quality, benefits in access and benefits in cost?
The benefits in quality are happening before our eyes. All around the country, colleges and universities are connecting their campuses to the wonders of the Internet, and faculty and students are discovering exciting new ways of using technology to enhance the process of teaching and learning.
Technology's promise to extend access in new ways is also being exploited, though to a lesser degree. There are several different traditions of distance education. One—the "remote classroom model"—uses technology to provide instruction to groups of students at a fixed time and place (synchronous communication). Another—the "correspondence education" model—offers instruction to individual students who study at times and places of their own choosing (asynchronous communication). Throughout most of the rest of the world, distance education institutions are exploiting the flexibilities and advantages of the correspondence model. But here in America, many university-based continuing education programs have heavy investments in broadcast television facilities that bring professors to students in the tradition of the remote classroom. The newest technology, interactive computing, is a highly personal medium that can be used most flexibly and easily by institutions operating in the correspondence tradition. But many American universities heavily invested in current forms of distance education have been slow to take advantage of these possibilities.
By and large, colleges and universities have not yet even begun to grab hold of technology's promise to reduce the costs of instruction. On the contrary, for most colleges and universities, the new technologies represent a black hole of additional expense as students, parents and faculty alike demand access to each new generation of equipment and software. Most campuses have bolted on the new technology to a fixed plant, a fixed faculty and a fixed notion of classroom instruction. Under these circumstances, technology becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution of cost containment.
There are, fortunately, some notable exceptions. One of our Pew Leadership Awards last year went to Renasselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for its impressive initiative at curricular re-engineering. As part of this process, RPI redesigned its introductory courses in physics, chemistry and math, creating "studio courses" in which students spend about one-third less time in direct contact with faculty and proportionately more time using computers and working collaboratively with each other. In these courses, student learning has increased, and costs have decreased. Yet, at present, the story of the studio courses at RPI is one of the only such stories.
Costs + Technology = A New Emphasis on Learning
In sum, thinking about the new technologies takes us back to where we arrived in thinking about the challenges of controlling costs: the need to shift attention from teaching to learning and from time to results. Once learning becomes the central focus, the important question is how best to use all available resources--including faculty time and technology—to achieve certain learning objectives. Few colleges and universities are currently geared to think this way. The Trusts can help them do so.
Chapter IV—The Challenge of Quality
The national press has become increasingly critical of the quality of higher education. But how serious a problem is this? How real and how widespread are the deficiencies? Are we talking about a few things that need fixing in a basically healthy system, or are we talking about deeper and more serious flaws?
Concerned about the drumbeat of negative press stories, the American Council on Education (ACE) in l993 developed two reports for its board of directors on the state of public opinion about higher education. The first summarized the results of more than 30 opinion polls; the second was based on focus group interviews in four cities conducted between March and July l993. The ACE research found that all the negative press about colleges caving in to pressures to adopt politically correct curricula, professors more interested in research than in teaching, colleges padding their indirect cost budgets and the like had yet to register with the average American citizen.
Indeed, the Main Street view of higher education was quite positive. In each of the four focus groups, participants were asked to mention what came to mind when they thought of K-12 education. This question invariably evoked thoughts about poor academic achievement, lack of student discipline, drugs and weapons at school—a generalized sense that the nation's schools are in very bad shape. In contrast, when the focus group members were asked about colleges and universities, they mentioned images of park-like settings filled with attractive and healthy young people. In the surveys generally, respondents expressed pride in their local universities and noted that students from around the world come to study in America. College professors were seen as hard-working, ethical people; research was popular. What did concern the public was that higher education is becoming ever more necessary and ever less affordable. As seen from Main Street, there is only one big problem in higher education: how to get in.
The ACE report went on to point out that opinion leaders (such as business leaders, public officials and journalists) were a good deal more critical than the general public; and that higher education was, therefore, politically vulnerable, especially because the general public was not particularly engaged in issues of public policy that affected higher education. But, for our purposes, the fact that opinion leaders are out in front of the general public in their criticisms of higher education is obviously something we need to take into account. So where does this leave us? Should we conclude that quality is not a major issue for higher education? Or is it possible that the expectations of the public (and educators as well) are too low? Is it possible that quality should be a major problem but is not because we have not held ourselves up to a high enough standard of what college graduates should know and be able to do?
I believe this is precisely the case. Ordinary citizens bring to higher education—and many other arenas—a commonsense capacity to recognize obvious defects. When cars roll off the assembly line with doors that rattle, the public knows something is wrong. When colleges admit students who are obviously not qualified for college-level work, employ teaching assistants whose English is so poor they cannot be understood or promote athletes who cannot write—the public recognizes these situations as evidence that something is not right in the world of higher education. The standard of judgment is a minimum standard; quality is the absence of obvious defects.
I submit that there are, however, at least three other standards by which the quality of higher education should be judged. The first is the extent to which students who embark on a course of study actually finish their program and acquire a degree. The second is whether students learn whatever it is they are studying at a level of depth that we can call "understanding." The third is whether students are learning the literacies required for effective work and citizenship in our changing society. In the remainder of this chapter, I explain these standards and the extent to which they are presently being met.