Students & Parents | Costs

On the Brink: Standing of U.S. Education Threatened by Spiraling Costs and Sliding Standards

WASHINGTON POST   |  October 1, 2008 by Sean P. Johnson with Anne Neal

Anne Neal may be just the person to dispense a cold dose of reality to scores of trusting tuition-paying parents.

When sons and daughters enroll at one of this country’s colleges or universities, the promise of a world-class education and employable skills seems more than enough reason to keep writing checks for ever-escalating tuition and fees.

Yet, the promise is in danger of being an empty one, Neal said, due in part because of an academic culture that has parents, and the public as a whole, increasingly worried something has gone terribly wrong.

“Are current writing programs effective? Nobody knows,” Neal told a group of educators and business leaders in Oshkosh, Wisc. “Do graduates have computational skills? Nobody knows….Fortunately, there is a nascent movement by institutions to provide this data, …but it comes little and late. Meanwhile, employers say they hire college graduates who cannot write, compute or think critically.”

That may come as a shock to many. It has been accepted that the American higher education system is the envy of the world.

Why wouldn’t it be?

There are more than 4,200 degree granting institutions in the United States, and the industry—including public, private and for-profit—reaches 16 million students. Higher education has always enjoyed a vaunted place in American society. From the creation of the land grant colleges to the G.I. Bill to the Higher Education Act, higher education has enjoyed unparalleled support.

Overall, higher education is a $250 billion industry, receiving billions in federal and state aid, tax exemptions and other appropriations.

Despite all of that, there is a growing chorus of voices contending that its status as the best education system in the world is in jeopardy, said Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that seeks to promote high academic standards, strong curricula and the free exchange of ideas.

Already, other nations are educating more citizens to higher levels than the United States, she said. Meanwhile, the six-year graduation rate in the United States is around 66 percent. The Department of Education does not even keep four-year statistics anymore.

That’s not the message parents writing tuition checks, or those inside the industry, want to hear, Neal said. But it’s one that needs to be repeated until corrective actions are taken. “Outside of the for-profit universe, there is relatively little solid evidence available to determine how much or how little students learn at competing institutions,” she said.

Those who argue that accreditation proves that schools are teaching students the necessary skills and knowledge students need would be sadly mistaken, Neal said.

“It is virtually meaningless,” said Neal, whose organization has issued several studies on the role of accreditation, highlighting many of its weaknesses. “Peer review has rarely shut down a school for educational reasons, although it has been effective in keeping new entrants out of the marketplace by a labyrinth of regulations that focus on inputs rather than results.”

Former University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Chancellor John Kerrigan questioned how to ensure accreditation didn’t undermine institutional autonomy, while still providing a vehicle to make sure schools are teaching what they say they are.

One of the major problems with the effectiveness of accreditation is that it is now linked to financial aid, Neal said. With billions at stake, there is little incentive to find fault with an existing school, Neal said. Higher education would be better served if that link were broken.

If that link were broken, schools and accreditors would be free to critically discuss curriculum and other matters without endangering financial aid dollars with negative findings.

So it begs the question: Is the American higher education system living up to its reputation? Or is it, as the Spellings Commission has suggested, “resting on its laurels, suffering from unwarranted complacency and taking its postsecondary superiority for granted?”

For Neal and others, the Commission has a point: rightly focusing on the need for significant reform in higher education before global competition passes it by.

In her work with ACTA, Neal has found that many of the greatest hurdles to improving higher education come from within the higher education community itself. In many instances, those within higher education believe those on the outside should pay, but not have a say.

From ACTA’s perspective, outside input can be valuable in raising questions about lower standards, weak curricula and attacks on free speech and thought.

“Our goal is to help parents, taxpayers and policymakers understand what is going on and what they can do about it,” she said.

To remain the envy of the world, Neal argues there are five key challenges higher education must address:

1. Colleges are not preparing informed citizens.

2. Preaching is replacing teaching.

3. Grades are increasingly meaningless.

4. Tuition and fees have risen at twice the rate of inflation.

5. There is a lack of confidence that schools are using public funds responsibly.

In her explanation of the challenges facing American higher education, Neal noted that many problems are interconnected. One culprit at the root of many of these challenges is the proliferation of narrowly tailored courses that veer away from the idea of a coherent and common educational foundation.

While it’s great to have breadth and choice, she said, breadth and choice have now become goals in and of themselves. With thousands of choices, students can take courses that never teach the skills and learning they will need when they graduate.

“College requirements have so many loopholes that students can now graduate without exposure to key subjects such as math, science, composition, literature, economics, American history or government,” Neal said.

That myriad of courses also helps to drive up the costs of education; net tuition at public colleges has risen by 8.8 percent a year while consumer prices have risen at a rate of less than three percent.

Even more distressing to Neal are ACTA’s findings about what is going on in the classroom and on campus when it comes to the free exchange of ideas, a concept that is considered the cornerstone of American higher education.

A 2004 ACTA study reported that 49 percent of students said professors injected political comments into their courses, even if they were not relevant to the subject matter. Though many schools publicly promote the idea of diversity, research by several groups show there is a lack of intellectual diversity.

About 20 percent of colleges in the United States have adopted speech codes or sensitivity codes, which restrict freedom of speech.

“Academic freedom does not mean anything goes (in the classroom),” Neal said. “Academic freedom is a right and a responsibility to teach according to accepted scholarly standards and to provide an open atmosphere in the classroom.”

When it comes to grades, the news is grim. Neal said studies have shown that while grades are rising steadily, students are reporting less meaningful feedback and employers receive no reliable information on which they can base hiring decisions.

All of this has combined to create a climate where the public is questioning whether colleges and universities deserve the lavish public support they receive, Neal said.

Government—by which Neal means the taxpayer—provides nearly $100 billion in student loans each year to schools. It signifies just how much the public believes in higher education. But it also underscores the need for the academy to prove responsibility, Neal said.

“Is American higher education still the finest in the world,” Neal said. “I would submit to you yes, still, but its pre-eminence is threatened and it must get better.”

Neal challenged her audience to get involved to help that happen. The simple advice: “Pay attention, get involved and speak up.”

Actions parents, the public and donors can take to keep American higher education the envy of the world include:

— Fight speech codes.

— Demand meaningful curriculum reform.

— Inform campus chancellors and leaders of your concerns.

— Form an alumni group.

— Target financial gifts thoughtfully.

— Write to the governor.

“With this kind of involvement, the answer to our question will be easy: Yes, American higher education will continue to be the envy of the world.”


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