Why Is It Such a Struggle to Reform Our Colleges?

Former Harvard University president Derek Bok can’t stop thinking and writing about higher education. Ten years ago, he wrote Our Underachieving Colleges, in which he lamented that on the whole, American colleges and universities don’t do very well. Many students don’t graduate and among those who do, many seem to have gotten little intellectual benefit from their years of study.

Recently Bok completed another book, The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges. As you’d gather from the title, the new book picks up where the old one left off—our colleges are still underachieving and we are struggling to find ways to get them to perform better.

Here’s how he frames the big problem: “During the 1980s, Americans grew increasingly concerned about the nation’s ability to compete in global markets…Since economists identified the skills and knowledge of the labor force as important contributors to economic growth, policy-makers began to look more carefully at the performance of our educational institutions.”

And those institutions have been and continue to “underachieve,” Bok says. “America faces a shortage of highly educated workers and that problem will likely get worse if something is not done to increase the number of college graduates.” So we must reform higher education to “raise our level of attainment.” We need to enroll many more students and improve our graduation rates.

Bok’s view, in short, is like that of former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm who declared that higher education “is like jet fuel for the economy.” Pour in the fuel and the economy roars. The trouble is that this view is mistaken.

At no point does Bok mention that the nation already has large numbers of college graduates who are working in jobs that any reasonably smart high school student could learn. Nor does he see that due to the “positional” nature of educational credentials, the more we push “attainment,” the higher the degree level people need to set themselves apart—the credential inflation problem I have often written about. Finally, Bok barely acknowledges that many successful Americans acquired the knowledge they need without completing college, and in many cases never going at all.

Furthermore, Bok plays the “social benefits of college” card, making the tired claim that we will improve society by putting more people through college because good outcomes (such as civil engagement) correlate with college degrees. Thus, not only will the U.S. supposedly become more economically competitive by raising our educational attainment level, it also becomes healthier, more caring, and more engaging.

Bok knows that this argument has been attacked on the grounds that these correlations are not causal links—that merely putting people through college does not necessarily change their behavior. In a footnote, he lets the reader know that there is a dissenting view, but he claims that “most observers” attribute the social benefits to “additional education.” A scholar like Derek Bok should know that it isn’t good enough to mention research that arrives at an opposing conclusion and then brush it off by saying that “most observers” agree with him.

What makes this claim about how much college students supposedly learn quite bothersome is that Bok devotes numerous pages to the poor educational outcomes for many of them. Pointing to some of the evidence the Martin Center has been citing for years, Bok acknowledges that many students just coast through college. They have to take few, if any, demanding courses, and load up on easy electives. They don’t improve their writing and learn little about the basics of our governmental structure and economy.

For most students, Bok writes, “the academic demands appear modest” and at most colleges, “the curriculum is not well aligned with the basic aims that most faculty members, academic leaders, and employers consider essential.” Instead, it keeps students and professors happy.

Students don’t like to read and are devoting less and less time to their studies, Bok reports, and what time they do is often interrupted with multitasking. Yet grades are high, leading students to believe that they are making fine academic progress. After graduation, many realize and admit that they did not get good preparation for post-college life.

What is being done?

The fact that numerous college grads have weak skills is nothing new. One hopeful sign, according to Bok, is that most colleges (under pressure from their accreditors) now have “defined their learning outcomes.” That deserves a laugh. As Bok must certainly know, accrediting agencies are paper tigers and whatever “outcomes” a school sets are certain to be easily achieved. Colleges never lose accreditation over weak academic standards and poor learning outcomes.

Ill-prepared and disengaged students already swell the dropout numbers, so how can colleges succeed in graduating lots of still weaker and less academically engaged ones?

Bok gets back on solid ground when he notes that most colleges simply don’t see a need to get serious about change. At the root of the problem is the fact that “presidents today are preoccupied with other matters—raising money, balancing budgets, and dealing with trustees, alumni, government officials, community groups, and other interested constituencies.” And most presidents are inordinately focused on doing things that will bring the school more prestige and raise its U.S. News ranking.

As for the subordinate administrators, they’re “inclined to concentrate on keeping things running smoothly rather than start a major effort at academic reform.”

How about the faculty? They mostly think they’re doing a great job and don’t want to change anything.

All of those criticisms are right on the mark.

Bok does point out a few bright spots, schools including BYU-Idaho, Western Governors University, and Southern New Hampshire University, where leaders have figured out how to structure their institutions so that students acquire marketable competencies that they can demonstrate. The trouble is that there are few leaders who are willing to break out of the standard college mold; most don’t think they need to and/or don’t want to go to war with their faculties.

If we aren’t doing well with the students who currently enroll, how will we deal with the multitudes of new students needed to reach President Obama’s big goal of leading the world in the percentage of citizens with college educations? Bok agrees that we need to get there, but realizes that nearly all of the additional students will be ones with even weaker academic preparation than those who now struggle.

Ill-prepared and disengaged students already swell the dropout numbers, so how can colleges succeed in graduating lots of still weaker and less academically engaged ones? Rather lamely, Bok writes “high schools and colleges will have to discover better ways of preparing low-performing students to succeed in the classroom and graduate.”

Earnest school reformers have been looking in vain for that Holy Grail for many years.

They haven’t and won’t find it because, as Bok admits, the roots of academic underachievement are in broken families and a culture that puts little value on schooling. No amount of reform in our colleges can solve those deep problems.

He writes plaintively, “the principal reason for the weak response of so many colleges and universities is a pervasive lack of knowledge about how to proceed—how to remediate underprepared students successfully, how to keep students from dropping out, and how to inspire undergraduates to work harder and learn more.”

Liberals like Bok always look for top-down solutions to such problems—but the only hope of amelioration is to change the underlying social conditions so that people’s incentives will lead them to take education seriously, starting at the earliest years.

Colleges, and indeed our entire educational system, will change when more Americans demand education rather than mere schooling and credentialing.

Those who now demand education can find it in our sprawling educational marketplace, although what’s ideal for them is often not the standard college BA degree that Bok and many others treat as the gold standard. Their ideal level of “educational attainment” won’t help us meet Obama’s mistaken goal, but it does lead to more employment, productivity, and personal satisfaction.

Many others, however, from the inner-city dropout who can’t handle remedial English to the fun-loving suburban kids who spend their college years taking the easiest courses they can at party schools, don’t really want education. No reforms are going to keep colleges from taking their money and letting them waste their time. America’s low educational attainment isn’t so much the fault of our colleges as it’s the fault of our students. That’s the key point Bok misses.