5 things American colleges and universities get right

On the whole, U.S. colleges and universities don’t get everything right. They’re overpriced, operationally hidebound, and ideologically stagnant. But American higher education does some things very well—well enough that students from around the world still choose to come to the United States to get advanced degrees.

In particular, higher education gets more things right than our monopolistic K-12 schools do. Markets do operate in higher education, and individual choices and actions often determine the outcome. Those parts of higher education explain why people are more satisfied with college than with K-12 education.

Here are five things that universities get (mostly) right:

1. Students learn at their own pace. When a student gets to college or university, he or she arrives with a cohort of other students. They’re mostly the same age, and they’ll probably all take English 101 within their first year on campus. But that’s where the class structure ends.

After English 101, students all go their own ways, taking classes to suit their particular talents and interests—unlike elementary school and middle school school, where students move en masse.

Entrance exams mean that students enroll in the math or foreign language courses commensurate with their skills. And if a student flunks differential equations or organic chemistry, he doesn’t have to be held back a whole year. He moves on with the rest of his courses while he retakes the one problem class. There are even classes like “economics for non-majors” that allow students to explore a subject without taking difficult prerequisites or learning complicated methodology.

2. Students and parents have skin in the game. While families do not pay the full cost of education, paying tuition affects parents’ and students’ behavior in two ways.

First, they shop around for the best deal—not necessarily the cheapest school, but the school at which they can get the most value.

Second, paying tuition motivates students to care about their educational success (or lack thereof). No one wants to see hard-earned dollars go down the drain—and scholars have confirmed that students are more careful with money spent on higher education as a student approaches graduation. Relying on loans, savings, and money earned from working is a better motivator for students to stay in school than scholarships or grants.

3. Professors are required to have degrees in their field. Community college and university departments only hire professors and lecturers with degrees in the content of the subjects they teach. Professors teaching Introduction to American Government at a state university can be expected to have a Ph.D. in political science—probably with a concentration in American politics. They also research in that same field, keeping abreast of the latest scholarship on their topic. Professors are experts in their own discipline when they enter a classroom to teach undergraduates. In contrast, many K-12 teachers find themselves teaching subjects that they barely studied.

4. Students can attend any school for which they’re qualified. Unlike K-12, college students aren’t geographically “zoned” for particular schools. Even public colleges and universities don’t limit applications to students from certain area codes, although they often cap out-of-state enrollment.

Every student who chooses to go to college must weigh the costs and benefits of each option and make a decision about where to apply and attend; there is no college “default option,’ as there is in elementary and secondary school. Because students can choose where to attend, colleges compete to offer students what they want: good graduation rates, tuition discounts, face time with professors, and opportunities for extracurricular activities. The importance of U.S. News and World Report’s yearly college rankings is a testament to the power of education consumers’ choices.

5. Professors are paid as individuals, not as a collective. University professors in demanding fields, especially those with options outside academia, are paid more. Thus, the mean salary for a professor of engineering is $117,911 annually, while a history professor earns, on average, $82,944.

While there can be debate about the merits of the “public-or-perish” criteria, pay differentials are based on individual merit, again unlike K-12 education. Instructors, who do no research, earn less pay than tenure-track professors, who are expected to publish. Moreover, professors are evaluated on their merits when they are up for tenure: How many journal articles have they published? How good (or bad) are their student evaluations? Have they performed any administrative, advising, or outreach work to the satisfaction of the committee? University teachers receive no credit for simply sticking around for a requisite amount of time.

Higher education is by no means perfect. And even these five examples have some serious caveats. But by allowing some market processes to work, colleges and universities provide valuable and efficient services for many students.

(Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in the Freeman Online in August. You can read it here.)