Friday, September 20, 2013

Three Radical Ideas for Improving (not Reforming) Higher Education

While watching the annual Gates Postsecondary Education Convening from afar via twitter, I am struck by the apparent absence of discussion about several core underlying issues keeping more students from succeeding in earning college degrees.

We cannot increase the success of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds without ensuring that they are safe, healthy, and ready to learn. Food insecurity is a growing problem in higher education, as revealed by institutional surveys, and hopefully soon tracked by national data (I'm working on it).

Idea #1:  Institute a free/reduced price breakfast and lunch program at all public colleges and universities where at least 1 in 3 students receives a Pell Grant. 

Far too many of today's faculty are ill-equipped to teach the students of tomorrow.  The focus on research has trumped the emphasis on high-quality teaching even at institutions with no research mission.

Idea #2: Make teaching a priority in public higher education. 

a. Require that all new hires have teaching experience of some kind.

b. Require a pedagogical talk in the hiring process.

c. Require bi-annual professional development credits.

There is a well-known and very basic resource problem in higher education. The fewest dollars flow to the neediest students.  Per student spending of about $6000 in community colleges is a travesty.

Idea #3: Focus funding where it can do the most good. Require that all states receiving any Title IV financial aid maintain adequate per-student spending at their community colleges.  Based this on appropriate adequacy funding studies done by state.

None of these answers involve technology, I know. None speak to "quality" because I do not think the evidence on declining quality is solid-- the demographic changes in higher education have collided with the redefining process, and thus it is far from clear that reformers are saying anything more than "these students" aren't as good as yesterday's.

Without three these reforms in place, I don't think the technological solutions constitute anything more than tinkering towards utopia, and any efforts to cut costs could do more harm than good.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Unintended Consequences of Ending Shared Governance

As I wrote in my last post, efficiency-minded legislators are raising questions about the role faculty play in decision-making on campuses across the University of Wisconsin System, and whether shared governance represents an expensive and wasteful practice.

I understand where these folks are coming from. Involving more people in decision-making is costly, in terms of time in particular.   But attending only to those costs without considering the benefits is short-sighted and will generate unintended consequences.  This is because economic evidence indicates that the costly process of shared governance generates cost-savings as well.  It seems that without the cost-savings generated by shared governance, college would be even more expensive for Wisconsin families.

Professor emeritus Robert Martin of Centre College explains this counter-intuitive process in a set of papers written over the last 15 years, and most recently summarizes his conclusions in a paper written for the American Enterprise Institute, titled "Higher education governance: a barrier to cost containment." That paper examines the hypothesis that former student Regent and current Representative Robin Vos expressed at the recent Regents meeting: that "facets of the governance structure push higher education toward higher costs, minimal transparency about outcomes, and a low level of quality control."

Martin finds that Vos is right in one sense-- the governance structure matters for college costs.  But his evidence points to the opposite conclusion that Vos and his colleagues reached-- the answer is increasing the faculty role in governance, not decreasing it. He describes this finding using clear and accessible prose in a piece authored for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "College costs too much because faculty lack power."  In it, he explains that "it is not the "shared" part of "shared governance" that has failed; quite the opposite. The fault lies in the withering away of the shared part. Reason and data alike suggest that the largest part of the problem is that it is administrators and members of governing boards who have too much influence over how resources are used."

In a recent email to me, Martin provided an analysis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the trends mirror those described in his national work. In his words,

 I attach a Word file that contains a summary statistical table for University of Wisconsin-Madison (see below) that corresponds to Table 1 in my SSRN article with Carter Hill on "Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities." There are several things to note. 

1) The dramatic increase in reported spending for instruction, research, and public service after 2008 [which supposedly] came out of overhead and into academics. See my SSRN article on "management" of financial reporting in higher education -- that article will be published this month in Challenge. [Note to readers: this paper concludes that while this apparent resource reallocation might be legitimate, they may also be indicative of a new "management" of financial reporting that simply reclassifies expenses, as frequently done by corporations.]

2) If you look at the pre- and post-2008 staffing patterns for academics versus administrative staffing you will see reductions in academic staffing and increases in administrative staffing after 2008. So, it is hard to explain where the supposed increases in academic spending and reductions in overhead spending could have come from.

3) Throughout the 1987 to 2008 period the university economized on the use of tenure track faculty while rapidly expanding the number of nonacademic professional employees.  If tenure track faculty are the primary cause of higher cost, it is clear they are not very good at looking after their own interest.  Clearly, tenure track faculty would want more of their own and fewer contract and part time faculty and would not prefer more administrative staff.


While I appreciate Robin Vos's attention to college costs, on behalf of Wisconsin families I do hope he will take this information into account when deciding how to work on lowering them.  Relying on instinct rather than evidence could have disastrous consequences for the state's future workforce.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Wisconsin Republicans Rethinking Shared Governance in University of Wisconsin System

At a meeting of the Regents today, Representative Robin Vos suggested that the Wisconsin Legislature Republican caucus is rethinking the faculty's role in governance on UW System campuses, out of a sense that they are keeping the System from being "nimble."  I am concerned that Representative Vos may be unaware of economic research that indicates that faculty involvement in decision-making through shared governance appears to contribute to the containment of college costs.  Reducing faculty power in favor of increasing the administration's relative power could make college less affordable for Wisconsin students.  These unintended consequences of Vos's short-sighted idea deserve close examination, and I urge him to attend to these before pursuing it further.

Here is the document from the Republican working group.

Here is the video from the conference.  Vos begins speaking at the 1:17 minute mark on the first video, and these comments come just after the 1:18 minute mark.