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.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    You consider “Western Governors University, and Southern New Hampshire University” a few of the bright spots? Have they really “figured out how to structure their institutions so that students acquire marketable competencies that they can demonstrate”? Or, what is more likely, have they simply figured out how to skirt minimum accreditation standards to maintain access to federal funds? Per the OIG on WGU:

  • mitchelllangbert

    Good piece. Higher education is a big business, like big tobacco and big oil, and it responds to political and economic incentives. The current system is largely due to the strategies of prominent foundations in the 20th century–the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board. From the beginning they planned a top-down system. The GEB’s Abraham Flexner called it “perpendicular development,” whereby hand-picked top institutions would serve as coercive models for the others. The others would conform or die through lack of funding, lack of media support (and make no mistake, the media was from the beginning highly supportive of the foundations’ strategies), and coercion from the elite institutions. That came about, for instance (as reported by Gleason) when Harvard Law refused to accept for admission graduates of leading Catholic institutions like Holy Cross, forcing conformity to the broader systemic dictates. This foundation-shaped, elitist system received further sustenance directly from the Democratic Party during the New Deal.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Well, I learned something (Flexner was at GEB), and agree about the influence of CFAT and GEB.

      Someone once pointed out that Carnegie’s power and influence made CFAT the first accreditation organization, as we now understand the term.
      Their work with pensions was responding to overseas influences and competition between countries. Reorganizing education and infrastructure were important for industrial development, and the old gentleman/scholar model which consigned so many to poverty in their older years would not work for the massive expansion and state intervention that was going to be part of higher education.

      So, yes, in this sense Pritchett and Flexner’s model was top-down and coercive. After all, Flexner’s 1910 study of medical education resulted in closing down of all but two “colored” medical schools; something the underprivileged never recovered from (although Paul Starr disagrees — argues that Flexner merely reflected the prevailing views about professionalization and standardization). Very coercive; even genocidal to my mind.

      Johns Hopkins was to be the exemplar medical school, combing German-style research with training. Vanderbilt’s James Kirkland was a close personal friend of Flexner and their families vacationed together at Ahmic Lake. No surprise, then, that Kirkland was behind the formation of the Southern Association for the “elevation of higher education.” So was Charles Eliot, and Nick Butler, right? This was, after all, the age of empire building.

  • Lou Sander

    Are you saying that a person can pursue and be granted Bachelors and Masters degrees, then complete the rigorous next step, and end up being a Doctor of Nothing? Hmmm.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    To answer Leef’s opening question, there can be any number of possible responses.

    For example, Hannan and Freeman (1984) wrote tellingly about “structural inertia” that results from success. Past history of success makes change slow (hence the term, “structural inertia”) because what worked in the past now stands in the way of needed changes. “[S]unk costs, the dynamics of political coalitions and the tendency for [successful] precedents to become normative standards” combined with the need to not threaten ongoing and current institutional support, or “legitimacy.” Heavily institutionalized organizations (like guilds) make it difficult to eliminate structural inertia in order to bring about change — especially for outsiders with no real influence, no real power. It is not without reason that it is called the Ivory Tower!

    H&F argue that “there appears to be a strong tendency for organizations to become ends in themselves and to accumulate personnel and an elaborate structure far beyond the technical demands of work.” Why? Because size and age are measures of importance and legitimacy, especially when it comes to the production of intangibles, such as education. It is therefore in the interest of the organization, and in the the interests of its participants, to gain access to more resources, and to hire more staff at levels below them.

    Why change at all? Colleges and universities are government sponsored monopolies. Government bureaucracies hire the most college graduates, as teachers and functionaries, have for decades. There is state and federal funding of schools and agencies of all kinds; there are research grants and government contracts to be had by the enterprising individual or company; there are numerous legislative licensing and certification requirements that utilize credentials from government certified schools. Why change? The status quo is just fine.

  • entropyrider

    “….America’s low educational attainment isn’t so much the fault of our colleges as it’s the fault of our students….”

    This calls to mind the shrieking girl at Yale who reminds a wayward dean that the college’s true mission is to give kids a home away from home. Given the current spinelessness of so many college administrators today she does have a point!


  • Troy Camplin

    I suggested a few years back why it’s so hard:


  • jorod

    We have to end the government’s role in parenting before we can achieve the social change we need. We need to return to the traditional family with two human parents. Not one that is the government. Also, give the students the right to choose thier school through vouchers. That’s the only way to bring the financial mess under control. No more loans and mountains of debt.

  • jorod

    If the Martin Center wants diversity of ideas, it’s going to have to protect free speech first.