Philip Auerswald has a guest insight on the Washington Post‘s website discussing the challenges to the current higher education model posed by both economic reality (rising tuitions + fewer loan dollars = major constraints) and the challengers to the traditional model (i.e. University of Phoenix).  Overall, his assessment of the current landscape was reasonable.  But there were two things that worried me about this piece.

First, there is no discussion of how we got here (except for a mention of the credit crunch).  Yes, higher ed costs are skyrocketing, if you evaluate tuition bills.  But I am unclear on the change in the cost of education when a) adjusted for inflation over time and b) when one factors into the equation the massive withdrawal of state support for public universities in recent years.  In other words, rising tuition bills reflect both inflation (to some extent) and the transfer of cost from taxes to tuition.  So has anyone out there done the math to figure out how much the cost of education has really risen over the past few decades, versus how much tuition has risen in this endgame of a strategy to shift education from a public good to a private responsibility?  Why am I asking?  Because I know from experience that somewhere at or above 85% of most public universities’ operating costs are generated by salaries and benefits.  But I also know that my inflation-adjusted salary (which is reasonably good) is not really any higher than that of my senior colleagues at similar stages of their careers in the 1970s.  So where the hell is the supposed rising cost of education coming from?  Had I time and inclination, I would crack open a bunch of university budgets from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and now and look at the patterns of expense, and the inflation-adjusted amounts of expense, to figure out if costs are really rising.

Second, I found the following conclusion chilling:

New entrants in the market for collegiate education will be weakly branded relative to those of powerful incumbents…say those with teams that have played in the Final Four. As a consequence, the successful ones will focus on competencies rather than credentials. They’ll have data and evaluation to support their claims of quality.

When higher ed becomes mainly about competencies, critical thinking and analysis die – this is not, of course, what Auerswald is suggesting should happen.  I’m simply pointing out that we have seen this show before – it’s called No Child Left Behind, and I have watched the changes this godforsaken law and its associated obsession with evaluation, data and competencies has wrought upon the average undergrad.  The average score on a map quiz (memorization exercise) in my large classes has skyrocketed over the past decade, as the rote memorization skills that have become so important pre-college translate into the universities.  However, more and more often my students cannot think critically, and cannot link disparate bits of information unless it is done explicitly for them.  For example, I often teach my students that in many parts of Africa, the soils are not ideal for agriculture and therefore are not as naturally productive as in other parts of the world.  I also teach them that the majority of Africans draw their livelihoods from some form of agricultural activity.  The vast majority (typically in the 80-90% range) will answer questions about those two points correctly on a test.  However, if I ask them how the soil quality of Africa might impact African livelihoods, the correct response rate plunges into the 60%.  They can regurgitate.  But they can’t work with information anymore.

This is what a focus on data, competencies and evaluation will turn universities into – because there is no good evaluative tool for capturing critical thinking, and because this sort of thinking has become greatly undervalued by a lot of society.  But we are slowly killing our democracy by gutting this fundamental underpinning of what it means to be a citizen – the right to express oneself doesn’t mean much if you have nothing interesting or important to say.  The right to hear others speak, and to read nearly whatever author you might want, doesn’t mean much if you cannot sit down and parse out the messages conveyed and decide how best to evaluate and use them.  If this is where we are headed, we are in serious trouble.

Let’s figure out where the real changes in cost are coming from, assess their magnitude, and publicize both bits of information as much as possible.  Let’s make sure legislatures are forced to accept the blame for rising tuitions when those tuitions are rising to make up for lost state revenues – at the University of South Carolina, the bookstore is now a more important source of revenue than the state (really), yet the legislature gets away with blaming the university and some form of phantom costs for rising tuitions.  The public needs to understand that a public good is being turned into a private responsibility, and the very functioning of our society is at stake.