Policymakers | Costs

Why Harvard Is Not a Model for Responsible College Curriculum

THE DAILY SIGNAL   |  December 9, 2015 by Eric Bledsoe

If the price of milk increased at the same rate as public university tuition, today a gallon would cost $14.72. To put this into perspective, the cost of public higher education rose an astounding 538 percent between 1985 and 2013 while health care costs rose 286 percent.

If milk actually reached this price, parents would take to the streets protesting the price-gauging causing the calcium deficiencies in their children. Until recently, when higher educational costs swelled at alarming rates, few voices cried foul. It’s time for a hard look at cost and quality in an effort to repair the brittle bones of college curricula.

One of the significant, but little-noted cost drivers is the lax curricular standards of many higher educational institutions across the country. The Cost of Chaos in the Curriculum, a new report by Elizabeth D. Capaldi Phillips, a psychology professor and former provost of Arizona State University, and Michael B. Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, exposes this relationship.

There are ways universities can cut costs effectively while at the same time improving curricular standards. Arizona State University, for instance, merged departments into larger interdisciplinary units, curtailing the wasteful academic turf wars of squabbling departments.

Overall, this allowed the university to save over $13 million recurring by cutting administrative costs. All the more impressive was that ASU did it without eliminating a single faculty position.

Furthermore, as The Cost of Chaos shows, if universities judiciously eliminate under enrolled general education courses, then they could cut costs by as much as 10 percent. They could save even more by reducing the many elective courses that undergraduates take on top of their general education and major courses. Since most public universities have an instructional budget that is approximately 50 percent of the total operating budget, the savings would be significant. The opportunity for providing a sounder undergraduate education at a lower cost is self-evident.

What curricular reform there is in higher education typically ignores the deficit in cost and quality in favor of the latest pedagogical trends. Harvard University recently proposed a new general education program seeking to improve a curriculum that is “simply a set of distribution requirements,” as described by the Harvard Crimson.

In other words, it is at present a cafeteria-line of choices. Yet so far, the committee charged with reforming the university’s curriculum has simply proposed a restructured curriculum with the same spirit of distribution requirements.

What Harvard ? and so many other colleges and universities, public and private ? needs is a thoroughly re-envisioned curriculum.

If “the mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society,” then the committee ought to think seriously about lowering its high operating costs while simultaneously ensuring undergraduates take the foundational courses necessary to foster engaged and informed citizenship. Global citizens need foreign language proficiency: Harvard only requires elementary-level study. Effective citizens in our democratic republic need a grounding in economics and the workings of our government. Harvard requires neither, and there are no signs that the new curriculum will do any better. This pattern is all too common throughout American higher education.

Capaldi Phillips and Poliakoff point to two public universities that respectively offer over 2,400 and 3,000 courses in their general education programs, a.k.a., “core curricula.” Entrenched in the campus culture of universities like these, academic departments compete for the highest enrollment numbers to gain reputational laurels and a bigger share of the institution’s funding.

Also damning is the finding of former UNC president Robert Dickeson, quoted in the report, that 80 percent of students fulfill their general education requirements with only 20 percent of the courses offered, showing that universities and their departments sacrifice intellectual coherence in pursuit of a few more enrollments, all for the sake of status and a zero-sum pursuit of funding. None of this benefits undergraduate general education.

The inevitable consequence is that operating costs skyrocket, students find no connections between their narrowly specialized “general education” courses, and they miss the opportunity to build the core collegiate skills on which workplace success and engaged citizenship depend.

A recent survey by the Committee for Economic Development shows that employers rate quantitative ability, critical thinking, and writing as the top skills in the shortest supply from job applicants. Not surprisingly, employers increasingly express their disappointment in the preparation of the graduates they hire. When paired with the fact that nearly one in three college graduates could not identify the Bill of Rights in a recent survey, it becomes clear that American universities are also failing to produce an engaged citizenry.

Ultimately, a quality college education and an affordable price are not mutually exclusive. Boards of trustees, taxpayers, and policymakers need to put the pressure on their universities to do right by students and replace the chaos with a liberal education that leaves graduates prepared for career, citizenship, and service to their communities.


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