Trustees | Costs

Costly higher ed system not working

ST. PETERSBURG TIMES   |  September 19, 2011 by Anne D. Neal

Higher ed may be a bastion of learning, but it still has a few lessons of its own to figure out. It appears Efficiency 101 and Intro to Accountability aren’t required classes when it comes to college and university leaders around the country. But if Gov. Rick Scott has his way, the education leaders of Florida will be enrolled very soon.

It’s about time someone questioned the status quo.

The problems facing colleges and universities nationwide are daunting: Tuition costs are skyrocketing at twice the rate of inflation; teaching is often taking a back seat to costly and obscure research; school buildings lie virtually empty while new buildings rise; meanwhile employers are increasingly unhappy with the skills of college graduates.

In other words, higher ed is facing some major challenges, while taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill.

These are serious problems. They require sustained and thoughtful discussion from policymakers, administrators, educators and taxpayers. Gov. Rick Perry and the regents in Texas started to tackle the question, and Scott is now joining in. While one can—and should—argue about appropriate metrics and measures, there is one thing that merits no debate: The current costly system is not working for students or taxpayers in Florida and around the country.

In survey after survey, employers are finding basic skills—such as writing and critical thinking—of college graduates deficient. According to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, almost 90 percent of employers nationwide believe that colleges and universities need to increase student achievement for America to remain competitive in the global market. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills found that less than a quarter of employers deemed the entry-level skills of four-year college graduates excellent; more than a quarter called their writing deficient.

Florida now has the sixth-highest unemployment rate in the country at 10.7 percent. And among the nearly 1 million unemployed Floridians are recent college graduates who are finding out the hard way that their degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

A study released in August by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (of which I am president) highlights more problems. At colleges across the country, students are being allowed to graduate with major gaps in their knowledge and skills. Only 5 percent of more than 1,000 colleges and universities surveyed require students to take economics. Slightly less than 20 percent require U.S. government or history. Barely 15 percent require intermediate-level foreign language.

Of the 11 Florida state institutions surveyed, not one requires students to take more than four of the seven common core subjects the organization identified—composition, literature, mathematics, science, economics, foreign language and U.S. government/history. Not one of the public institutions expects foreign language proficiency at an intermediate level; not one requires even a basic economics course of all students; and only one requires students to study U.S. government or history. New College of Florida has none of these requirements at all. Meanwhile, less than 50 percent of the first-time, full-time students that enroll are graduating in six years at more than half of the public colleges surveyed. Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars?

Taxpayers shouldn’t be surprised that the study of college seniors found that less than a third could correctly identify the term “Reconstruction,” less than a quarter could identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution,” and a paltry 22 percent could identify the Gettysburg Address as the source of the phrase “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” And that’s from college seniors!

If we want our students to remain competitive in the global marketplace, we have to give our students top-notch educations.

The Texas plan that Scott is currently considering uses a model that evaluates the faculty based on class size and student evaluations to incentivize productivity. While it is by no means perfect—indeed, student evaluations are not good proxies for teacher excellence and can lead to grade inflation—it is a place to start. The Florida State University president and board of trustees have already created a thoughtful and provocative response, “Florida can do better than Texas.”

The time has come to find ways to reduce the cost of higher education while ensuring taxpayer dollars are effectively allocated between research and teaching.

Scott has taken the right first step; he’s got folks talking. Now it’s time to scrutinize the current system and Texas’ model, bring fresh perspectives and innovative ideas to the table, and come up with a solution that works for Florida’s students.

Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent, nonprofit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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