How can we cure the gigantism that besets our higher education system? The key is to realize that there is no necessary connection between the size of our total student population and the size of each institution. Instead of a single University of Texas at Austin or Texas A&M University at College Station, we could have created dozens of smaller state colleges, each with fewer than 800 students. We could, for example, have followed the model of Oxford or Cambridge, with a central “university” limited to providing common services, like libraries and student health services, while having all undergraduate students attending small, self-governing, and multi-disciplinary “colleges” in close proximity to each other.
On the “Oxbridge” model, we can separate research and graduate education, on the one side, and undergraduate education, on the other. The University can be divided both into subject-specific departments (English, physics, business administration, etc.) for the purposes of post-graduate teaching and research, and simultaneously into region-specific, multi-disciplinary “colleges” for the sake of undergraduate education. Each college would have two or three full-time instructors for each of the popular undergraduate majors, as well as instructors responsible for each of the components of the core curriculum (American history, government, and so on). In this system, the responsibility for the success of students is clearly defined and not hopelessly diffuse. If an individual student fails, the responsibility lies with that student. If most of the students in the same major at the same college do poorly, that college’s instructors can be held accountable.
Gigantism frustrates accountability because it creates too many producers who are responsible for the final “product,” and too many consumers who must evaluate the quality of a university’s graduates. In addition, those consumers are scattered geographically and uncoordinated in their efforts. As a result, no one can effectively hold anyone accountable for anything. Imagine in place of this diffusion a system in which, for each geographical community in the state, there were two or three small state colleges (at Austin, College Station, and Lubbock, for instance), each with fewer than 200 graduates each year, and most of them returning to their hometowns. In such a system, it would be easy for hometown alumni and community leaders to take a direct and personal interest in the operation of their college, serving on hiring, promotion, and curriculum committees, for example, and these same leaders would both (1) know when the college was failing in its mission and (2) be able to demand necessary change immediately.
Such a system would be relatively easy to implement – it could be done with existing infrastructure and existing staff. Each regional college at UT-Austin, for example, would be required to take a certain percentage of its incoming freshman (say, 75%) from the top high school graduates in its assigned region. The regions could be defined in terms of school districts.