by AndrewMc | 1/11/2009 04:21:00 PM
There have been a few musings of late regarding what kinds of bailout higher education needs—or if indeed higher education needs anything more than a re-ordering of its fiscal priorities. Some have suggested that a massive infusion of cash into American universities would help revitalize the economy by providing an educational infrastructure that would transform American education, and by extension America itself. In early December the Carnegie Corporation took out a two-page advertisement in the New York Times in which 36 university CEOs begged President-elect Obama not to forget higher education when it came time to spread around the bailout largesse. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wonders why we're bailing out out Wall Street but not public education.

The Wall Street Journal, predictably, has suggested that a little belt-tightening might be just the thing. One blogger at The (Washington D.C.) Examiner reacted to Carnegie’s advertisement by saying “having the federal government borrow money so that pampered professors and university administrators at prestigious institutions like UVA can continue to indulge their surf-and-turf appetites is as ludicrous as it is offensive.”

Set aside, for the moment, the misconception that some may have about what goes into funding higher education. The fact is that many universities overspend, or spend on the wrong things, in an effort to appear modern or to attract more donors. A prime example is college athletics. Big-time college athletics serves no educational purpose that cannot be fulfilled by intramural sports. Study after study—some by the NCAA itself—detail the ways that universities pour millions of dollars into football programs that provide no concrete returns. Yet despite budgets that have increased massively in the past few decades, higher education is chronically underfunded. As Carnegie pointed out, universities and colleges are the places that produce the solutions that will help fix and ultimately strengthen our economy.

Does Higher Ed need a bailout? Well, not in the sense that the Big 3 does. It doesn’t produce a product that nobody wants. Nobody is suggesting that college graduates don’t have the skills to succeed in 21st century America. It also doesn’t need a bailout for the reasons that Wall Street does. Higher Ed produces something of value (an educated citizenry) that always increases in value, and does it well.

No, if American Higher Ed needs a bailout it is because American Higher Ed isn’t capable of delivering its product to enough people. Let me say that in a different way. If Higher Ed needs a bailout, it is because not enough people can afford what it produces. If Higher Ed needs a bailout, it needs a bailout that will help it make its product accessible to more people.

That is, not enough people have what Higher Ed is selling. Fewer than a quarter of all Americans over 21 have college degrees. And it’s not for lack of desire. People want what Higher Ed can provide—better education, better access to jobs. Its just that for a variety of reasons, a large segment of the American population can’t access the product. That’s what any bailout has to address.

Let’s imagine, then, that American higher education was going to get a bailout. What would it look like? What should it look like? Are those two things different?

In terms of what would happen, well, it depends on the model. If it’s a Big 3-style bailout, then there’s a great deal of debate, the faculty and staff (but not the administrators) at higher ed institutions are blamed for the problem, a pot of cash is dangled, a bunch of strings are attached to the money, and institutions gratefully take it and have to account for the ways in which it is spent. If it’s a Wall Street model then there’s very little debate, the students get blamed for the mess, American higher education gets handed a bunch of cash, few or no strings attached, and college presidents are trusted to Do The Right Thing.

But let’s imagine that a bailout really is in the offing. We won’t quibble about how many millions or tens billions it might take. Instead let’s turn our heads to what should happen. For university presidents a “Big-3”-style bailout with the attendant oversight would be a disaster. Far better to have a Wall Street-style “here, take some money and keep being irresponsible” infusion of lucre. I’ll operate on two premises here: The first is that I’ll take the Carnegie advertisement at its word. If the purpose of an educational bailout is, as the authors suggest, to produce educated people who will be the foundation for economic stability, then any bailout must not only be geared specifically toward that end, but must also rework American education in a way that ensures that the production of broadly educated people is the sole purpose. The second is that in order to ensure the first premise, the quality of education must not suffer. That is, the point isn’t to produce more people with college diplomas. The point of any bailout for American universities is to produce more and better-educated people who can make a better future for this country.

Any bailout of American higher education must therefore begin with a bailout of primary and secondary education in this country that has as its goal producing more college-ready kids. Although test scores have improved in recent years, American primary and secondary education is still a mess. Too many kids still graduate unable to read, do anything but the simplest math, and needing intensive remedial education. This is not the fault of teachers, but certainly better-trained teachers will help. Start the bailout by providing funds for every middle- and high school teacher to gain an MA in their field of teaching, and then providing enough money to ensure salary increases at double the cost of living for the next ten years. Following the findings of numerous studies (Krieger 2002, Project STAR, etc) funds would be provided to ensure that every school district has enough money to be able to limit their class sizes to no more than 15 kids, with 12 kids per classroom being the targeted ideal. Those are limits, not averages.

Each classroom would have one MA-level teacher, and one teacher’s aide with a Bachelor’s-level degree in a related field. For those grade levels and subjects that do not require Master’s-level knowledge (kindergarten, for example), teachers could choose to take an MA in any field that might help them in teaching. Each school in every district would have a fully-funded “resource room” that would serve as a place where kids could get remedial services. Teachers who do not want to get an MA would become teacher's aides in another school, and be replaced with MA-level teachers.

Every school would have one textbook for every student for every subject taught, and enough money to fund science labs, physical education, and enough computers with full Internet access so that no child would be without one. Every school district would also have, depending on its needs, enough money to fully fund “adult continuing education centers” where parents who are not able to meet minimum educational levels in reading, writing, and mathematics, could learn these basic skills. Legislation would have to be enacted to ensure, as the Carnegie letter points also argues, that state legislators do not use the federal bailout as an excuse for reducing their own fiscal commitment to primary and secondary education. Continued funding would depend not on test scores, but on improving the college admission rates of students, including admission to two-year, four-year, and trade colleges.

Will this solve the myriad problems with primary and secondary education in the United States? No, certainly not. A whole host of problems exist. But other problems require longer-term solutions and negotiations, and would more properly be solved on the state level. But, it’s a start.

What about the colleges and universities? My model would be closer to a Big-3 bailout than a Wall Street bailout. That is, any two- or four-year college or university wanting access to federal funds would have to submit to an outside audit of all its books, including funds in so-called “foundation” accounts that are traditionally used to pay college presidents, coaches, and others their off-books stipends. No open-accounting, no federal funds. Period. Likewise, states would have to continue to provide funding to higher ed, and would have to develop plans that lay out the ways that state-level funding of higher education would continue to grow in the same ways that it had in the past. Some kind of enforcement mechanism would have to be developed to show that the state weren’t substituting federal funding for their own, and that federal bailout money was “bailout money” and not a new source of continuing money.

Universities would have to develop budgets that justify educational spending, as opposed to athletics funding. Athletics must comprise no more than 1% of the university budget. University presidents would receive a salary equivalent to the average salary of a full Professor, plus whatever comes from foundation accounts. Then, every university desiring federal bailout money would have to develop a plan to prioritize spending federal bailout money along the following lines:

  1. Reducing class size to a ratio of not more than 20 students to each teacher. Not as an average, but as a limit.
  2. Funding scholarships for needs-based students and showing that the expansion in their enrollments is a function of the increased access to education by needs-based students.
  3. Creating a pool of funds to help students complete community-based learning projects that would benefit the community as a whole, while the students were still in school. Projects might include things like public history students funding the creation of museum displays, arts students funding community theater, engineering students coordinating Habitat-for-Humanity projects, etc. etc.
  4. Identifying “21st century skills” and preparing students, in whatever their given field, using those skills.
  5. Increase funding for research projects across the board.

Federal funds could not be used to replace already-existing funds, only to supplement, and could only be used for expenses directly related to education—not for buildings, maintenance, groundskeeping, or any other non-classroom expense. Those other expense are important, true. But if the purpose of a bailout is to create better-educated society then the bailout money ought to be spent on education.

This isn’t a perfect solution, to be sure. But I’d suggest that if higher education wants a bailout that they ought to be prepared to accept greater oversight and responsibility as part of it. And if the purpose of a bailout is to create a better-educated citizenry capable of solving America’s problems, then bringing that education to a much broader array of students must be part of any solution.

You thoughts, additions, modifications, or subtractions?

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Blogger AndrewMc on 1/11/2009 7:21 PM:

I think I'd add to this the idea that in order to determine what higher ed needs, a committee made up of a few faculty and the president from each university would sit down with the feds and determine how much it would cost to achieve their goals. Then they'd figure out how much they get form the states. The difference would be made up by the feds. Same process each year.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/12/2009 12:03 AM:

My initial reaction is to say "hell, yeah" and leave it at that, but I'm a deservedly notorious quibbler.

There's a contradition in your discussion, and it undermines nearly everything you're trying (and I'm trying, by the way) to accomplish. Early on you wrote
Nobody is suggesting that college graduates don’t have the skills to succeed in 21st century America.
but in your "to do list" at the end you say we need to be
Identifying “21st century skills” and preparing students, in whatever their given field, using those skills.
There are, in fact, at least a half dozen arguments I can think of (and which I've heard at some point or another) which say that our higher education system is fundamentally flawed -- impractical, political, ineffective, narrow, careerist, outdated, trendy, etc., etc., -- and just expanding the institution is not going to produce the results we want, or need. (except in our employment situation; that'll be good!)


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/12/2009 6:51 AM:

Damn you! Foiled again! ;)

I guess I'd say that in saying "Identify the skills" I'm not saying they haven't already been doing that. Just that that's where the money should go.

So, for training history students I;d say that a great deal of focus ought to be on creating digital projects. For other professions, the same.

But yes, I think you've hit a chink in the armor.


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/12/2009 6:55 AM:

As to the second--our educational system is fundamentally flawed. Can you elaborate? I can think of many ways that it is flawed, too. And one way that is flawed gets to the heart of the problem I see with my essay.

And that is that not everybody needs, or should, go on to a two- or four-year college.

Some people should go to trade schools, and those trade schools ought to be more "revved up" to provide high-tech training.

Case in point: a good friend graduated with a sociology degree. Two months out of college she took an 8-week course on becoming a systems administrator. She now makes about $150k/year doing that. She didn't really "need" college in any sense. But the system is kind of rigged like that.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/12/2009 1:29 PM:

Can I elaborate? How much time do you have?

My main point is that there is no consensus yet on what direction curricular reform (and that is really what we're talking about here) should go:

* More technical skills v. More fundamental skills
* More breadth v. More Depth
* More present-oriented v. More classical
* More activist v. More careerist

To some extent you've tilted the tables by talking about primary and secondary education reform, and an increase in vocational training would also suggest (force is probably more appropriate, but I want to be gentle) higher ed to pick certain paths (though how you're going to get universities to give up the lucrative job-training programs and how you're going to get liberal arts faculty to give up their gen-ed body counts, I don't know).
I wonder if those sysadmin courses run during the summer....


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/13/2009 8:29 AM:

How much time? Well, in some sense, my whole career.

I agree that there's no consensus on where reform should go. But I think that this should be up to universities. No 4-year school wants to be seen as a vo-tech, and that's fine. There are plenty of good vo-techs out there.

The problem, as always, is whether or not the curriculum should be focused on "practical" knowledge, as you point out.

I'd tend to stick with the GenEd thing, largely because I think a broadly educated citizenry is a more productive citizenry. But then again, I have this argument every year with the folks over in engineering,who think that their students ought to be exempted from the Western Civ requirement at out school.