Higher Education Needs More than “Perestroika”

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the rigid Soviet system gave way to glasnost (openness and freedom of discussion) and perestroika (restructuring of the system).  Well-intentioned people proposed lots of changes to transform the nation’s inefficient economy. They wanted to make better use of technology. They wanted more accountability for enterprise managers. They wanted to make the system work better.

What they didn’t want, however, was to scrap central planning in favor of unrestricted free enterprise. A few economists understood that trying to “fix” the central planning model was a waste of time because the model itself was the core of the problem—but challenging it was beyond the pale.

The reformers’ ideas were well intentioned, but they could make very little difference. They didn’t strike at the root of the problem.

University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Zemsky, who served on the Spellings Commission and has been called “higher education’s best critical friend,” has written a book that reminds me of the reformers under glasnost and perestroika. His book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education makes an earnest plea for serious change in higher education. Unfortunately, his ideas only amount to tinkering around the edges.

The big changes he wants to see are better student learning outcomes, higher educational “attainment” (i.e., more people completing degrees, especially minority students), and a solution to the “money crisis” that “threatens the continued success” of American higher education.

And how are we going to achieve those objectives? Zemsky relies on the political system, with the president and the secretary of education playing catalyzing roles. The trouble is that our higher education system works poorly precisely because it has become heavily politicized. Looking to the political system to fix it is futile.

Let’s examine the main problems Zemsky sees, the ones that make his case for “transformation.”

Learning. The reason for having schools is to help students learn, but, Zemsky writes, “There is simply not nearly enough (I am almost tempted to write no) data telling us how or what today’s college students are learning.” He wrote that before the publication of Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa, which provides some good data telling us that many students learn very little. In any case, Zemsky is among those who concede that we have a learning problem—akin to the Russian economists who conceded that their factories produced a lot of low-quality goods.

What can we do about it? Zemsky is very enthusiastic about research by Professor James Zull of Case Western Reserve University, who has found that when people learn, their brains are physically changed. (Zull’s book is entitled The Art of Changing the Brain.) Zemsky hopes to see a transformation in the way professors teach—“fundamentally recasting how American colleges and universities provide an undergraduate education”—stemming from the application of Zull’s insights.

Let’s assume that Zull is absolutely correct. His advances in the science of learning might be the equivalent of a revolutionary lubricant that will make all the Soviet machinery operate more efficiently, to continue my analogy. That would be good, but doesn’t get at something more fundamental: our incentive problem.

Some American college students learn a great amount from their coursework because they are engaged with it. Whether their professors use methods extolled by Zull and Zemsky or not, students who really want to learn succeed in doing so. Many others, however, are just going through the motions. They are disengaged from learning and want their degrees handed to them in return for minimal effort. Students who have their minds on last night’s basketball game or tomorrow night’s wild party aren’t going to learn much no matter how brilliantly the professor teaches the course.

Although some learning improvement might occur if the professoriate were to embrace Zull’s research, the learning problem is inherent in a system in which great numbers of students enter college with an aversion to serious academic work and a mindset that they’re entitled to pass their courses and get their degrees.

Attainment. Zemsky is worried that our higher education system is falling behind other countries, reciting well-known statistics: “By 2003, however, the United States had slipped to seventh place among developed countries in terms of the proportion of young people aged twenty-five to thirty-four with a college degree—just 39 percent.”

In my Soviet economy analogy, this is the equivalent of saying, “The problem is that we are not meeting our quotas any more.”

Why should we worry about these percentages? A crucial fact Zemsky doesn’t acknowledge is that large numbers of young Americans who have college credentials spill over into the competition for “high-school jobs” once they enter the labor market, as this study shows. Why is it a problem if some students who began working towards a degree decide that the benefits of completing it aren’t worth the costs?

Rather than worrying about whether our system is cranking out more degrees than the systems in other nations are, we should look at this from the market perspective. Higher education is almost universally available in the U.S. and those individuals who are willing and able to continue formal education after high school can do so. We don’t need to concern ourselves over aggregate statistics as long as individuals are free to decide what kind and duration of education is best.

What bothers Zemsky even more than the overall “sliding” is that success in college is unequally distributed by groups. He writes, “who attains a college degree remains too much a function of the ethnicity and socioeconomic status of the student.”

It is true that higher percentages of white and Asian students earn college degrees than do black and Hispanic students, but it’s inaccurate to say that these differences are a “function” of being in this or that group. Black, Hispanic or other minority students can and do succeed; some white (and probably a few Asian) students don’t. Again, it is a matter of individual accomplishment rather than group designation.

At least Zemsky understands that this “achievement gap” is a reflection of different levels of academic preparation. Minority students are much more likely to have attended schools where standards and expectations are low. “Higher education,” he writes, “bears significant responsibility for the state of America’s middle and secondary schools. Higher education sets the standards, trains the teachers, and determines how K-12 education aligns with postsecondary education.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t further elaborate on that point, which would lead to an indictment of the malign influence of “progressive” theories taught in most of our schools of education. Nevertheless, it’s valuable to have this “best critical friend” pointing a finger at the ed schools.

Money. Finally, Zemsky contends that higher education faces a money crisis. In years gone by, America provided “a stable financial environment” for its colleges, but not any more. To deal with the money crisis, Zemsky calls for higher education to “collectively reorder its economic practices and policies.”

More perestroika talk. We don’t need collective reordering. What we need is for education to embrace the free market and sell its services to consumers who think they’re worth the asking price.

For some radical thinking on how to make higher education more useful and less costly to students, I recommend Anya Kamenetz’s book DIY U. She understands that for many students, high-quality and affordable education will only be available if they can get outside of the system.

Here’s another way of looking at this. The U.S. does not have a “foreign language system.” What we have is a market in which individuals who want to learn a foreign language can search for instruction. They could take college courses. Or look for a language tutor on Craigslist. Or buy a Rosetta Stone course. Or go to the library for a language instruction book. Other options also exist.

Cost? Within the range of everyone. Incentives? They vary with the individual. I’m reminded of a Rosetta Stone ad showing a young man in work clothes and a cap. It reads: “He’s a farm boy. She’s an Italian super-model. He has five weeks to learn the language.”

Higher education could work like that, but to bring about such a transformation, we need to escape from the box of perestroika thinking.