The primary responsibility of trustees is to evaluate the president of the university. In order to carry this out well, it is essential to employ a set of objective criteria; otherwise, the trustees are in danger of being continually snowed with happy talk from the university’s spin doctors.
The task of a university president can be stated in a nutshell: to produce measurably better results for more students at a lower cost. In practice, most presidents strive to do exactly the opposite. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so a swelling university budget satisfies all constituencies. In every other sector of our economy, technological improvements have dramatically improved productivity, resulting in lower real prices or in demonstrably better outcomes, or both. In contrast, in higher education, productivity has declined and costs have soared.
In this blog and its successor, I will lay out ten benchmarks that can easily be applied. Any university that made substantial progress on these ten points would revolutionize higher education, becoming instantly the recognized leader of reform and forcing other institutions to follow its lead.
Over the last twenty years, the cost of higher education has grown at an accelerating rate. As a result of the great recession and the oversupply of college graduates, students simply cannot earn enough to sustain the debt they are accumulating. According to one recent study, 31% of 2009 graduates moved back to live with their parents. Another national study, conducted by Pew, finds that 57% of prospective college students do not believe that the value of college is worth its cots; 75% see college as simply unaffordable
The University of Michigan’s Mark Perry has documented that tuition in the U. S. rose between 1997 and 2015 at an annual rate of 7.45%, far above the general inflation rate, even higher than health care costs (5.8%).
The first benchmark is simply this: a steady decline in tuition and required student fees. Instead of a 7-8% annual increase, universities should aim at a 2-3% annual decrease in costs. This can be achieved by cutting administration and non-instructional services to the bare essentials.
2. Administrative efficiency
There has instead been a huge expansion in numbers of administrators in the last fifty years, as colleges and universities have added hordes of vice-presidents, vice-provosts, associate and assistant deans: “deanlets” and “deanlings,” as Benjamin Ginsburg has labeled them in his recent The Fall of the Faculty. As Ginsburg documents in some detail, most of these academic middle managers act primarily to justify their own existence, engaging in an endless cycle of meeting to plan and planning to meet. From 1975 to 2000, the cost of a college education tripled, and much of this cost represents the support of administrators, whose numbers increased by 85% during this period, and whose total salaries skyrocketed 240%. According to a 2010 report by the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, inflation-adjusted administrative costs per student increased 61% from 1993 to 2007 at leading universities.
The entire level of deans and “college” administrators could be eliminated entirely, as I’ve argued elsewhere, resulting in savings of 10% in the university budgets. In place of deans, departments could be made autonomous, making their own decisions about budgeting (based on the grants and tuition generated by their courses), hiring, and promoting. The third benchmark: an immediate 50% reduction of administrative overhead.<;/strong><
<;strong>3. Graduation rates
Four-year graduation rates should improve steadily, approaching 90%, with measurable gains in learning. This can be accomplished quite simply by streamlining requirements. Politically correct obstacles, such as courses in multiculturalism and global awareness, should be eliminated immediately, along with niche requirements, like performing arts. At the same time, no major subject should be allowed to consume all of a student’s academic opportunities, as many (especially business and engineering) have a tendency to do. No major should be permitted to require more than 60 hours of semester-credits, and students should not be allowed to change majors in the final two years. Admission should be limited to students who have demonstrated the capacity to complete college-level courses.
Another overlooked secret to increasing graduation rates is to limit the choice of majors to a relatively few, well-managed and well-tested subjects, including the traditional arts and sciences (history, English, physics, economics, chemistry, political science) in place of a smorgasbord of niche “studies,” from urban studies to Scandinavian studies. Here’s a simple test: under the president’s tenure, how many majors have fewer than 10 completions per year?
4.High academic standards
According to Arthur Levine and Diane Dean in the Washington Post, college student grades in the United States have been rising steadily since the 1960s. In 1969, 7 percent of undergraduates had grades of A- or higher in contrast to 41 percent now. Similarly, grades of C or less have dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent.
In a 2011 book, Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that thirty-six percent of the students it surveyed show little or no increase in their ability for critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing after four years of college, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment test. The National Survey of Student Engagement revealed that 34% of college students studied less than 10 hours a week, 54% less than 15 hours.
A highly ranked president should institute a system of mandatory but low-stakes testing and assessment for all entering and graduating students, rewarding those teachers and programs with the highest measurable value added.
In my next post: grades 6 through 10.