Creating Incentives for Quality

Last week’s Clarion Call was devoted to what turned out to be the main issue of our “Right-Left Convergence” event, namely the indifference at most colleges over good teaching. I am going to take up that subject again today.

What is it going to take to restore high quality in college teaching?

Abolishing tenure would help, a point I discussed last week. While professors are on the quest for tenure, they’re too busy to put much effort into teaching and once they have it, they can relax. (Not all do, though.)

Moreover, there are colleges without tenure, but some professors still take the easy-going approach either because they know that hard work isn’t necessary to keep their jobs, or because they fear that demanding much of the students could lead to losing them. In Generation X Goes to College, Peter Sacks wrote about his “sandbox experiment” in making the students happy after receiving so many bad evaluations on his first semester of teaching. He had to sacrifice quality to keep the kids happy.

So tenure contributes to the problem of bad teaching, but getting rid of it isn’t a panacea.

How about stronger accreditation? If colleges and universities allow professors to coast along with watered-down courses, low expectations, and inflated grades, shouldn’t the accrediting agencies crack down and require them to demand rigor?

The education establishment is promising to get serious. Former UNC president Molly Corbett Broad, now president of the American Council on Education recently created a “National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation,” and told Inside Higher Education that it “is the only logical way to attack a problem as complex and important as trying to fix accreditation.”

Sorry, but there is no reason to take this idea seriously. Even if the task force weren’t comprised of the insiders who have been asleep at the switch (college presidents and accrediting agency heads) while teaching quality has taken a nosedive, it would still be an exercise in futility. I say that because the very concept of accreditation as a guarantor of quality is fantasy. Producers (whether of education or any other good or service) don’t create quality because of some vague standards that are revisited every ten years.

Accreditation is a “top-down” oversight mechanism that has never done anything to stop the slide in college quality. It’s like the quality control system in the old Soviet Union: rules stipulating that goods must be of acceptable quality, but no direct incentives or disincentives. Soviet appliances weren’t supposed to short out and start fires—but they often did. Similarly, colleges that are accredited often allow (or even encourage) the sort of lackadaisical attitude among faculty and students that leads to years of courses but little or no learning, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found to be the case in Academically Adrift.

Enough on what won’t work. Let’s talk about what will: incentives and disincentives.

Some workers give outstanding performance without them, driven by their inner compass. I think that’s why American higher education functioned very well for a long time without much money involved or much oversight. There used to be a tradition that people who wanted to become professors did so because they had a deep love of teaching. They looked forward to presenting the knowledge that was important to them to their students. They held themselves to high standards and expected the same of students.

We still have professors like that, but not nearly enough. Many others have weighed the incentives for working hard with students and concluded that there is nothing to be gained from excellent teaching and nothing to be lost from slovenly teaching.

The profs don’t care about quality teaching because the administrators don’t care. And administrators don’t care because few students and parents care. Or even if students and parents care, they have little information upon which to judge whether they’ll get good quality or not. Finally, even if they had that information (“Professor A teaches a superb course on American literature, but Professor B is a slacker”) they face the bundling problem—enrolling in any college almost inevitably means that you might not get the professors you want and you probably will get quite a few you don’t.

Let’s go over that paragraph point by point.

Most college administrators don’t care if classes are taught brilliantly or badly. That’s because brilliant teaching brings in very few additional students and bad teaching causes very few students to go elsewhere. Sure, administrators pay lip service to academic excellence, but that’s usually all. Lousy English courses hurt them no more than lousy televisions hurt those Soviet factory managers. Fighting with the faculty to get better teaching just isn’t worth it.

In turn, it’s not worth confronting the faculty because few education consumers care much about teaching quality. It’s sad but true: until recently at least, most students and their parents made college decisions based on such considerations as school prestige, affordability, sports, and so on. It’s as if car buyers made their decisions simply based on how nice a vehicle looks, without investigating its efficiency and reliability.

That, however, seems to be changing. Whereas students and parents used to be content simply to get that degree, there is now a growing realization that in a job market glutted with people who have college credentials, learning matters. Some of them will turn away from schools where the faculty can get away with simply showing up most of the time and pretending to teach. They’re looking for schools that provide teaching, not just an “experience.”

College leaders who want to capture those quality-conscious students will have to create the right incentives. That will require writing contracts with faculty members stipulating exactly what their teaching obligations are, then monitoring professors’ performance. Neither side is going to like it. Administrators are used to letting the faculty have its way and the faculty is used to having free rein. But colleges that can solve the quality problem–and convince consumers that they have–will enjoy a competitive advantage in the future.

Some small schools have been marketing their academic seriousness for years—St. John’s College, is a good example. So is the Webb Institute for Naval Architecture. Students who choose those institutions know they won’t be wasting their time and money. They know they’ll get an education, not just a degree.

The difficulty is that educational quality control is hard to manage on a large scale. Can Ohio State’s president Gordon Gee impose a quality teaching regime on his school’s 5,500+ faculty members? The monitoring problem is insurmountable.

Ah, but suppose that students could pick and choose among the best professors OSU has to offer? Better yet, the best professors anywhere. Suppose that professors could market their courses on their own? That would go a long way toward solving the incentive problem. As Adam Smith observed about Scottish universities more than two centuries ago, professors who were paid by their students did a far better job than those who were paid by the school.

Those who sell their services directly—whether we’re talking about professors, tennis pros, portrait artists, or others—have a powerful incentive to provide high quality. Establishing a reputation for quality is an enormous benefit, but even a bit of slacking can badly tarnish that reputation. Couldn’t motivated students cut out the middleman (the college) and learn directly from professors who are known to be good? (In this recent Pope Center piece, Troy Camplin suggested that prospect.)

We already have lots of college courses available on-line or through various media. For instance, The Teaching Company offers hundreds of wonderfully clear and enlightening courses presented by “superstar” teachers. MIT has offered free access to its course materials—its OpenCourseWare project—since 2001. There’s much, much more to choose from. Serious students can learn from top professors any time they want to, and at low (or even no) cost.

What is missing, however, is some means for them to prove that they have learned. Reading many people’s minds, The Teaching Company states that it does not offer credit for its Great Courses. You can assiduously study and perhaps master MIT courses, but if you want other people (prospective employers, perhaps) to know that you have, MIT can’t help you.

We need innovation to bridge this gap between student learning and evidence of that learning. One possibility is that an entrepreneur will devise a set of reliable exams that will show an individual’s capabilities and knowledge better than merely having passed enough college courses to get a degree. Then, if employers would drop the bad habit of insisting that nearly all job applicants must have college degrees, we’d get over the credentialitis disease and focus on what a person knows rather than where he studied.

Change is bound to come once Americans stop thinking that just having graduated from college is enough. That will trigger a powerful movement that rewards good teaching and drives out bad teaching.